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Howell defeats Hunterdon Central, 9-8, to win Group IV state baseball crown

The Howell High School baseball team celebrates winning the NJSIAA Group IV championship with a 9-8 victory over Hunterdon Central on June 18 in Hamilton. It's the first state championship in program history.

Heading into the 2022 NJSIAA Group IV state tournament championship game on June 18 at Veterans Park in Hamilton Township, Howell High School baseball coach Eric Johnson told his players they were going to show everyone why baseball is the “ultimate team sport.”

The Rebels were facing Hunterdon Central High School of Flemington, a team which had won 25 games. Howell was without its top two pitchers (Daniel Furlong and Nicholas Gomes), who were injured during the Group IV state semifinals and during the Central Jersey Group IV state sectional tournament championship game.

The Rebels were facing Hunterdon Central’s Kyle McCoy, who had not surrendered an earned run coming into the Group IV championship game. Howell would need a team effort to defeat the North Jersey, Section II, Group IV state sectional champions.

The Rebels put nine runs on the board and saw four pitchers – Nick Barracato, Jason Pace, Aidan Bauer and Ryan Bilello – do enough for Howell to fashion a 9-8 victory over the Red Devils to win the Group IV state championship. It is the first group championship in Howell’s history.

“They didn’t get intimidated by (the moment). They went out there and showed they are good baseball players,” Johnson said. “These guys love baseball. They are just a very fun and unselfish group that understood what needed to be done to win games.”

Having been a part of the Howell community since 1988, Johnson knows how much the victory means for the school and the township. The coach played on Howell’s 1994 team that reached the Group IV state championship game and lost to Elizabeth High School.

Now in his 12th season at the helm of his alma mater, Johnson has led the Rebels to a state championship and given a community he loves a state title.

“I love this town. I love this school. I love this team,” Johnson said. “This is an incredible win for this program and this community.”

The Rebels jumped on McCoy early by scoring four runs in the top of the first inning. The Rebels scored six runs (five earned) and knocked the Red Devils’ lefthander out of the game in the fourth inning.

Senior shortstop Thomas Strauch was responsible for three of the six runs. Strauch hit a two-run home run to begin the scoring in the top of the first. It was his 11th home run of the season, leading the team in that category.

“To be able to jump out and hit a home run to get my team going in the dugout felt great,” said Strauch. “I’ve never been on a team before with this much team chemistry.”

Nick Gallo brought home two more runs with a double in the first inning as Howell opened the game with a 4-0 lead.

Hunterdon Central eventually put two runs on the board to cut its deficit to 4-2 as the Rebels came to bat in the top of the fourth inning.

In the top of the fourth, Strauch hit a double that brought one run home and a second run scored on the play on a Hunterdon Central error as Howell took a 6-2 lead.

Strauch finished the game with three RBIs and ended his senior campaign with 42 RBIs.

The Rebels’ 6-2 lead did not last long as the Red Devils scored five runs in the bottom of the fourth inning to take a 7-6 lead.

Howell got the comeback train rolling in the top of the fifth inning as sophomore Braden Walsh drew a walk to start the inning.

The Rebels had runners on first and second after Gallo drew a walk with one out. Bilello came to bat and delivered the first of his two hits to load the bases.

The table was set for junior Russell Halvorsen and he delivered. Halvorsen swung low and scooped a curveball into left field for a two-run single that gave Howell an 8-7 lead.

“That hit to take the lead and getting everyone excited was crazy,” Halvorsen said.

Bilello, who started the game in left field, scored on a throwing error later in the inning as Howell pushed the lead to 9-7.

Bilello’s left arm became the story down the stretch. The senior relieved Bauer in the bottom of the fifth inning. Hunterdon Central had the bases loaded and cleanup hitter Chase Fischer at the plate. Bilello got Fischer to ground out to first base to end the inning as the Rebels maintained their 9-7 lead.

“We had to find a way to win and that’s what we did,” said Bilello. “That’s what baseball is all about.”

Bilello faced adversity in the bottom of the seventh inning as he worked to get the final three outs. With one out, Hunterdon Central senior Christian Petino cut the Howell lead to 9-8 when he smashed a home run.

Next, Mike Contiliano reached on a throwing error by Strauch and stood at second base as the tying run.

Bilello was up to the challenge as he got Logan Mason to fly out to left field and then Fischer to fly out to centerfield to end the game.

Bilello, who was pressed into action on the mound, at the plate and in the field during the state championship game, said he embraced the mentality of “always being ready.”

His attitude helped him to shine on the big stage and helped the Rebels bring home a state title.

“It was big to do it in this type of atmosphere with the fans going nuts,” Bielleo said. “I knew I had a job to do. It was pretty cool.”

Howell finished the 2022 the season with a 25-6 record. The team’s 25 victories is the most wins in a season in program history.

Howell High School baseball coach Eric Johnson holds the NJSIAA Group IV championship trophy after defeating Hunterdon Central, 9-8, in the state championship game on June 18 in Hamilton. Howell went 25-6 this season.
The Howell High School baseball team mobs shortstop Thomas Strauch at home plate after hitting a two-run home run during the NJSIAA Group IV championship game on June 18 in Hamilton. Strauch had a team-high three RBI during the state championship game.
Howell High School center fielder Devon Smith hugs teammate Russell Halvorsen after the team's 9-8 victory over Hunterdon Central in the NJSIAA Group IV championship game on June 18 in Hamilton.
Howell High School closer Ryan Bilello fires a strike to home plate during the NJSIAA Group IV championship game on June 18 in Hamilton. Bilello struck out three Hunterdon Central batters to earn the save and help Howell win its first ever state championship.
Howell High School outfielder Russell Halvorsen smacks a base hit to left field during the NJSIAA Group IV championship game on June 18 in Hamilton. Halvorsen hit a go-ahead two-run single in the fifth inning to help Howell defeat Hunterdon Central, 9-8, and win its first ever state championship.
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