Rebels defeat East Brunswick to win Central Jersey Group IV championship


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HOWELL — It was 28 years ago when Howell High School baseball coach Eric Johnson was a player for the Rebels and helped the program win its first state sectional tournament championship.

Fast forward to June 10, 2022, as Johnson, now at the helm of the team, led the Rebels to their second state sectional tournament championship in front of the community at Howell High School.

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The Rebels rolled to an 8-2 victory over East Brunswick High School of Middlesex County to win the 2022 NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV state sectional tournament championship; the program’s first state sectional crown since a generation ago in 1994.

“It’s amazing,” Johnson said after the victory. “There have been two state sectional championships in school history and I can say I was a part of both of them. This is very special.”

In the championship game, the visiting Bears took a 1-0 lead in the top of the first inning.

In the bottom of the first inning, junior Russell Halvorsen led off with a solo home run to tie the score at 1-1. His home run came on the second pitch he saw.

“I was just looking for a fastball and I was able to square one up,” Halvorsen said.

Halvorsen, who is batting .419, scored three runs and stole a base against East Brunswick.

In the bottom of the second inning, the Rebels jumped into the driver’s seat with an unconventional two-out rally.

A strikeout wild pitch and a walk with the bases loaded brought home two runs as Howell took a 3-1 lead. Senior designated hitter Daniel Furlong reached on an error to plate another run as the Rebels built a 4-1 lead.

In the bottom of the third inning, the Rebels went back to a power approach. With a runner on first and no out, sophomore Joe Zito smashed a two-run bomb over the left field wall to extend the lead to 6-1.

“There is nothing better than doing that and experiencing it on a big stage,” Zito said. “It gave us more momentum and fueled us for the rest of the game.”

The two-run shot by Zito was his first home run of the season. He said it was the “best moment” of his high school career so far.

The Rebels scored single runs in the bottom of the fifth inning and in the bottom of the sixth inning. One of the runs scored on a two-out single by senior catcher Jeremiah Wojenski.

The eight runs were enough for pitchers Nicholas Gomes and Jason Pace.

Gomes started the game and pitched four innings, allowing one unearned run. He struck out four hitters and was credited with the victory.

Gomes was hurt sliding into second base in the bottom of the fourth inning and the Rebels turned to Pace in the top of the fifth inning.

Even though Pace had not pitched during the state sectional tournament, Johnson was confident when he put the senior righthander on the mound in the championship game.

Pace pitched three innings and allowed one run and one hit. He struck out seven hitters, including three straight hitters in the top of the seventh inning to close out the 8-2 victory.

“It’s the best feeling in the world,” Pace said. “I knew I had a job to do and I just went out there and threw strikes.”

Furlong delivered two hits in the win. Senior shortstop Thomas Strauch drove in a run with a walk, giving him a team-high 37 RBIs.

Howell (23-6) will play South Jersey Group IV champion Cherokee High School of Marlton on June 13 in a Group IV state tournament semifinal. The winner will advance to the Group IV state championship game.

After watching his players celebrate a state sectional tournament championship in front of the community, Johnson huddled them up and told them that what they just accomplished has bonded them forever and is something they will all be able to celebrate and remember together for years to come.

“We (the 1994 team) still talk about winning (the championship) 28 years ago and these guys will be talking about this (championship) 28 years from now. It’s just so exciting. I am so happy they are going to have this for the rest of their lives,” Johnson said.

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