South Brunswick edges out Old Bridge to advance to pool play championship game

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South Brunswick High School shortstop Alex Ciccone tags out Old Bridge runner Eddie Nugent trying to steal second during the first inning of their Last Dance World Series pool play game on July 15. South Brunswick defeated Old Bridge 2-1 to advance to 16-North Brunswick Regional championship game.STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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South Brunswick High School pitcher Kyle Gruver fires in a pitch from the mound during the team's Last Dance World Series pool play game against Old Bridge on July 15. Gruver racked up seven strikeouts in 6 2/3 innings of work on the hill and scored the go-ahead run in the fourth inning to help South Brunswick defeat Old Bridge 2-1.STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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South Brunswick High School shortstop Alex Ciccone tags out Old Bridge runner Eddie Nugent trying to steal second during the first inning of their Last Dance World Series pool play game on July 15. South Brunswick defeated Old Bridge 2-1 to advance to 16-North Brunswick Regional championship game.STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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South Brunswick High School pitcher Kyle Gruver fires in a pitch from the mound during the team's Last Dance World Series pool play game against Old Bridge on July 15. Gruver racked up seven strikeouts in 6 2/3 innings of work on the hill and scored the go-ahead run in the fourth inning to help South Brunswick defeat Old Bridge 2-1.STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF

NORTH BRUNSWICK – The South Brunswick and Old Bridge High School baseball teams faced off on the diamond at Community Park in North Brunswick on July 15 with the stakes again at a championship level.

The winner would advance to play in the 16-North Brunswick Regional championship game the next night and have a chance to advance to the single elimination round of 16 in the Last Dance World Series.

Just like in their Greater Middlesex Conference championship game showdown last spring, both squads competed all out each inning and played to a one-run contest.

Old Bridge took the 2-1 victory last year to win the conference title, but this time around in the Last Dance World Series, South Brunswick came out on top with its own 2-1 victory over the Knights to advance to the pool championship game.

“We weren’t promised three days of baseball in July three months ago,” said South Brunswick Coach C.J. Hendricks.” We didn’t think this was going to happen. I’m happy that we have this opportunity and that our guys are taking advantage of it.”

The deciding run came in the bottom of the fourth inning when senior Kyle Gruver dashed to home plate off a bunt by Kyle Fisher.

Gruver slapped his hand on the plate ahead of the tag and jumped up in joy as he helped South Brunswick take its first lead of the contest.

The senior’s competitive fire was seen on the mound all night in his gritty performance on the mound to keep his Vikings in the contest, striking out seven Old Bridge batters during his 6 2/3 innings of work on the hill.

“We’re lucky to have to this tournament and we have to make the most of it,” Gruver said. “I just wanted to help our team win. It feels great to enjoy this experience with my teammates.”

It was in the top of the fourth inning when Old Bridge got on the board first. Nick Calicari reached base on an error and then scampered home on a dropped ball in right field to put Old Bridge up 1-0.

Gruver was able to shake off the unearned run and picked up his teammates, recording two outs to get out of the inning with only the one-run damage.

South Brunswick responded right away in the bottom half of the inning with junior Frankie Sanchez leading off the frame with a single.

Sanchez was two-for-two on the day and reached base in all three of his at-bats.

A hit by a pitch sent Gruver to first in the following at bat, putting Sanchez in scoring position for Matt Storch.

The senior took advantage of the opportunity, smacking a base hit left center for an RBI single to tie the game up at 1-1.

South Brunswick took the lead in the next at-bat with Gruver showing off his speed to beat out the tag at home plate for the go-ahead run.

“That’s just the craziness of baseball,” Hendricks said. “Every team in the tournament is doing the best they can to prepare with the limited amount of time they have. Our resiliency stems from our guys focusing on play at a time. Not get caught up in what already happened. I was really proud of how our team got behind each other in times of need.”

Old Bridge had two chances in the last two innings to push the tying run across.

The Knights had first and second with one out in the sixth inning, but Gruver bared down to get a pop out and a ground out to end the inning to keep the Vikings in the lead.

Gruver trotted back out for the seventh inning to close the game out and was greeted with a leadoff single by Jason Gilman.

Gilman advanced to second with the sac-bunt in the following at-bat to give the Knights the tying run in scoring position.

Just as he did in the previous inning, Gruver bared down and got a strikeout in the next at-bat for the second out.

A walk in the next at-bat, however, ended Gruver’s day on the hill as Old Bridge’s hopes stayed alive with runners now on first and second.

Hendricks decided it was best to take Gruver out and bring in Sanchez to face Old Bridge’s leadoff hitter Eddie Nugent.

The move paid off as Sanchez was able to get ahead of Nugent early in the count and got the senior swing over an offspeed pitch for a strikeout to end the game and send the Vikings to the pool play championship game.

“After my first pitch when I got (Nugent) to swing and miss, I felt like I had the upper hand the entire at-bat and was ready to attack,” Sanchez said. “It feels great. The team needed a win and we all came out together to get it done.”

South Brunswick’s run in the tournament ended when they played Middlesex in the pool conference championship game on July 16.

A three-run fourth inning led to Middlesex defeating South Brunswick 3-0.

North Brunswick wins last two games

The North Brunswick Township High School squad went 2-1 in the tournament. After losing to Old Bridge in their pool play opener, the Raiders bounced back with two impressive victories.

North Brunswick rolled to a 10-0 victory over Saint Thomas Aquinas of July 15 and then  edged out Spotswood, 5-2, in their Last Chance World Series finale.