By Warren Rappleyea
The Ocean Township High School baseball team’s hopes of making a strong showing in the NJSIAA Central Jersey, Group III tournament seemed dim as they trailed 13th-seeded Neptune High School, 2-0, heading into seventh inning May 23. Then shortstop Brian Kochenash made the play of the season.
The Spartans’ shortstop laid out to somehow snag a line drive leading off the top of the seventh, turning what appeared to be a sure hit into an out. The play helped spur an Ocean Township comeback that resulted in a 3-2 win.
“That was one of the best plays I’ve ever seen,” Ocean Township coach Cip Apicelli said. “It changed the whole feel of the game. The mood in the dugout changed. We were down, 2-0, and we had no life. We hadn’t done anything offensively for six innings. If they get a guy on there and score, it totally changes the way we play the bottom half of the inning.”
The rejuvenated Spartans immediately went to work in their half of the seventh. Kochenash’s fielder’s choice brought home a run, and a throwing error on the same play enabled Ocean Township to tie the score. Brian Olesen’s RBI single brought home the winning run.
The win moved the fourth-seeded Spartans into the quarterfinals May 26 against Allentown High School, the 12th seed. Ocean Township prevailed in 11 innings, 5-4. Olesen had another big day, going 2-for-3 and driving home four runs. Alec Keezer picked up the win with six solid innings of work, while Kochenash went 2-for-3 and, in the process, broke the team record for hits with 50.
Ocean Township easily got past eighth-seeded Brick Township High School in the semifinals May 31, moving on to the final with a 6-0 win. Apicelli’s team got two runs in both the second and third innings and never looked back. Kochenash contributed a pair of triples and drove in a run. Center fielder Jake Talarico had three hits, and Kenny Pickett, Jake D’Auria and Tyler Rossback each had an RBI.
The Spartans fell behind early in the final against Nottingham High School, the sixth-seed, June 3 and were never able to get back in the game, although Ocean Township gave its best shot.
“We just didn’t take care of the ball on defense,” Apicelli said. “That was the difference in the game. [Nottingham is] too good of a team to give four runs. Still, we were down, 5-0, and then 8-3, and we got the tying run to the plate.”
Third baseman Tyler Rossback went 2-for-3 with three RBIs, and Pickett contributed a pair of hits and scored two times.
Several of the Spartans’ top players are graduating. Kochenash led the team with a .510 batting average and 28 RBIs. He also scored 26 times to tie for the top spot on the team. Olesen ended up at .324 with two home runs and 27 RBIs, and Talarico hit .344 with 15 RBIs. Catcher Marc Chernan had 20 RBIs to go with a .276 average, and Rossback finished at .270 with 19 RBIs. Talarico was also Ocean Township’s top pitcher with a 7-0 mark and a 1.50 ERA over 56 innings.
However, plenty of talent remains. Keezer, a junior, went 5-2 on the hill with two saves, while compiling a 2.40 ERA. He had 44 strikeouts in just over 43 innings of work. Junior lefty Phil Demarco was 4-2 with a 2.59 ERA in 54 innings.
Pickett, who scored 26 runs and hit .337, will be back in center, and Keezer, a .268 hitter, returns at second base. Right fielder Jake D’Auria will likely play a bigger role next year after batting .262 with a homer and 25 RBIs as a sophomore.
“This was a special year,” said Apicelli, whose team went 22-9 overall. “It’s a group that just didn’t give in. No matter what happened, they were confident that they could win.”