‘Brotherhood’ mentality leads Middletown South to first sectional title since 2011

Middletown High School South first baseman Joe Stanzione holds up the NJSIAA Central Jersey, Group IV championship plaque after the Eagles won their first sectional title since 2011 with a 2-0 victory over Marlboro on June 11 in Middletown.

The message that first-year coach Chris LeMore has constantly told his Middletown South High School baseball team since the beginning of the 2021 season is that “the strongest part of our chain will be from the bottom to the top.”

All of the players bought into the culture LeMore was trying to build and the Eagles rode that philosophy to a state sectional tournament championship.

On June 11 in Middletown, the Eagles soared to a 2-0 victory over Marlboro High School in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV championship game. Senior Matt Pontari pitched a complete game to lead his team to the win.

The Eagles’ victory over the Mustangs secured Middletown South’s first state sectional tournament title since 2011.

“The kids have done a great job from Day One,” LeMore said. “They have a strong brotherhood that continuously comes out every day and they do everything I ask them to do.

“There is no moment greater than being the head coach of Middletown South and being a state champion. I credit everything to these kids. They constantly come out and work hard. They are always battling for each other. It’s a win for the entire program,” the coach said.

Leading into the state sectional tournament championship game, Pontari said he knew he would have to be “great” on the mound in order for Middletown South to win a title. The Eagles would be facing Marlboro ace Mark Capell.

LeMore said he knew Pontari was the “perfect guy” for the spot and Pontari proved that by not just being great, but special.

Pontari kept Marlboro’s hitters off-balance by mixing his fastball and off-speed pitches. He allowed no runs, six hits and struck out nine batters.

When the game was over and his teammates were celebrating, Pontari called it “the best moment” of his life by far.

“It’s my first time winning a state tournament like this, so it feels amazing,” he said. “I couldn’t be good today, I had to be great. I did a good job mixing up my fastball and my off-speed pitches to keep them off-balance and that’s what led us to the win.”

The Eagles gave Pontari the lead in the bottom of the second inning. With Ben Schild in scoring position and one out, senior Tom DeMarco singled to score Schild for a 1-0 lead.

“My team put me in a great position with a runner on second,” DeMarco said. “I got a good pitch and drove it to right and got the job done.”

In the third inning, a double steal attempt resulted in Marlboro catcher Andrew Bellone making a throwing error to third base which allowed Will Doyle to come around and score for a 2-0 lead. That turned out to be the final run of the game for either team.

Playing “small ball” is a style that LeMore knows his team is good at.

“That’s us in a nutshell,” he said. “We want to play small ball. We want to put the ball on the carpet and run the bases well. They epitomized it and did a great job.”

In the top of the sixth, Marlboro had runners on first and second with two out. Frank Talarico, who was 2-2 on the day, was at the plate, but the moment and the opponent he was facing did not get to Pontari.

Pontari kept his composure and got Talarico to ground into a fielder’s choice to escape trouble.

“That was the biggest inning of the game and it was going to determine who won,” Pontari said. “I had to get out of the inning. We did that and we shut it down on defense again to close it out.”

In the top of the seventh, Julian Buchman walked with one out and stole second, but Pontari struck out Antonio Vitale and then got Josh Mack to lift a fly ball to DeMarco in centerfield.

DeMarco, who later said he was hoping the ball would come to him so he could record the final out, saw that happen. As he heard the fans starting to cheer, the senior secured the catch and the celebration was on.

“It’s phenomenal,” DeMarco said. “It’s great to be around these kids all the time.”

Middletown South (20-8) was scheduled to play Clearview Regional High School in the Group IV state tournament semifinals on June 14.