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Middletown North defeats Cranford, 5-4, to win Group III state baseball title

The Middletown High School North baseball team celebrates a walk-off victory over Cranford during the NJSIAA Group III championship game on June 18 in Hamilton. Middletown North defeated Cranford, 5-4, in eight innings to win its first ever state championship.

Editor’s note: On the morning of June 19, a statewide media company reported that Cranford High School is protesting the Group III championship game vs. Middletown North High School. According to the report, Cranford is claiming the Lions’ starting pitcher exceeded the maximum number of pitches he was permitted to throw in the June 18 game. The matter remained unresolved as of Sunday morning.

HAMILTON — Senior Michael Weinbel scored on a throwing error in the bottom of the eighth inning to lift Middletown North High School to a 5-4 victory over Cranford High School of Union County in the 2022 NJSIAA Group III state tournament championship game on June 18 at Veterans Park in Hamilton Township, Mercer County.

The victory gave the Lions (21-10) the program’s first state group baseball championship.

A throwing error by Cranford catcher Lucca Limeira brought home the winning run in the first extra inning after the Lions and Cougars were tied 4-4 at the end of seven innings.

Middletown North’s win streak during the past month culminated with the Lions’ victory over Cranford, a team that came into the state final with 25 victories in 2022.

The Lions finished the season on a 12-game win streak and came all the way from a No. 10 seed entering the Central Jersey Group III state sectional tournament to win a sectional title and ultimately the Group III championship.

Middletown North defeated South Jersey Group III champion Delsea Regional High School, 6-1, in the Group III semifinals to earn its spot in the state championship game.

Cranford won the North Jersey, Section II, Group III state sectional tournament championship.

The Cougars then defeated North Jersey, Section I, Group III champion Ramapo High School, 12-1, in the Group III semifinals to earn its spot in the state championship game.

Following the Lions’ victory, Middletown North Coach Ryan McCabe said, “I couldn’t be prouder of these kids as baseball players. I am very proud of the approach they have taken to baseball and to school all year. This is something they will never forget.”

In the Group III final, the Cougars scored in the top of the first inning to put the Lions in a 1-0 hole entering the bottom of the first inning.

Senior pitcher Colin Dowlen helped himself and his team as he singled to drive in a run to forge a 1-1 tie. Junior Ryan Frontera later scored on a wild pitch to give the Lions a 2-1 lead.

On four days rest, Dowlen pitched 7.1 innings in his final start for the Lions. He allowed four runs on 10 hits with four strikeouts.

Dowlen came into the Group III championship game with a 9-2 record and a 0.84 ERA. Cranford had been averaging 10 runs a game during the state tournament.

While he did not deliver his best pitching performance of the season, that did not matter to Dowlen, who celebrated the state championship with his teammates and said, “There’s no better feeling. I just love our team. The way our team plays and never gives up is fun to watch and fun to be a part of.”

Cranford tied the game 2-2 in the third inning on a sacrifice fly by Ryan Jaros.

In the bottom of the fourth inning, senior designated hitter Andrew Lombardi smashed a two-out solo home run to centerfield to put the Lions ahead 3-2.

“The home run was amazing,” said Lombardi. “I hit it hard. I wasn’t sure it was going to go out. It just kept traveling. It felt good to barrel up some baseballs.”

The Cougars gained the advantage as they scored two runs in the top of the sixth inning, forging a 4-3 lead.

In  the bottom of the sixth, Lombardi came through again for Middletown North.

With runners on first and second and two out, Lombardi smacked a line drive to left field that fell for a single and scored a run as the Lions tied the game 4-4.

The season has been an emotional ride for Lombardi, who tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his right arm in January. He could not catch this season, but he was cleared to hit, which gave him a chance to play his senior campaign.

During the postseason, Lombardi delivered a three-run home run in Middletown North’s victory over Colts Neck High School in the Central Jersey Group III state sectional tournament championship game.

In the Group III state championship game against Cranford he went 2-3 and drove in two runs to help the Lions win the title.

“It was definitely a good rebound for me to get back out there and do what I miss doing,” Lombardi said. “It stinks dealing with an injury. Unfortunately, I couldn’t do everything I could this year, but I helped out in any way I could and I’m glad it ended the way it did.”

The game was tied 4-4 after seven innings and went into extra innings.

After Dowlen recorded the first out in the top of the eighth, senior Matt Adamson came on in relief and recorded the final two outs to give the Lions a chance to win the title in the bottom of the eighth.

When the Lions came to bat, Dowlen, who had remained in the game after he left the mound, and Weinbel each reached on a single to put runners on first and second.

Freshman Zachary Hampton hit a fly ball to deep center that was caught, but allowed Dowlen to tag up and advance to third with one out. Lombardi was then issued an intentional walk to load the bases.

That brought sophomore Jason Quardt to the plate. Quardt hit a one-hop grounder back to the mound that was snared by reliever Sean Woodruff, who threw home for a force out.

With two out at that point, Limeira threw to first to try to complete a double play, but his throw hit the ground and went off the glove of first baseman Tony Silva and into foul territory.

On the base paths, Weinbel was watching the play and when he saw the ball get away from Silva he dashed home with the winning run to give the Lions a 5-4 victory that brought the Group III state title to Middletown.

“It’s awesome,” Weinbel said. “Right when I saw the ball get away, I knew right away that I needed to go home and score. It felt amazing.”

Middletown has now seen each of its high schools win a state group championship in consecutive seasons.

Middletown South High School won the 2021 Group IV state championship, followed in 2022 by Middletown North High School winning the Group III state crown.

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