By Bob Behre
Senior righty Alex Degen pitched a gem and Luke Longo’s 3-for-3, three-RBI performance spearheaded a 10-hit Hunterdon Central attack as the Red Devils defeated Westfield, 7-0, to win the NJSIAA Group 4 championship for the second time in three years.
The victory settled a couple scores for the Red Devils, who had suffered a 7-1 beat down by Westfield on April 16 at Diamond Nation. The loss to Millburn in the 2017 Group 4 final also served as a major impetus for the many holdovers from that squad.
“We have a picture posted in our locker room of Millburn’s dog pile when they beat us last year,” said senior right fielder Colin Mason, who was a critical ingredient on each of the Red Devils three straight Group 4 final qualifiers.
Perhaps a symptom of the Red Devils success was its willingness to embrace the worst experiences of the past 12 months and, in turn, use those bad memories as incentive. Hunterdon Central certainly came out onto the field at Veteran’s Park on Monday night with a calm determination that bordered on anger.
“I think so,” said Mason. “We wanted this that bad.” In fact, the Red Devils settled all business on the field as they defeated Westfield and Immaculata, the only two teams to defeat them this season.
Degen (7-0) survived a weird third inning that could have turned the tide in Westfield’s favor if he let it, but the 6-6, 205-pounder calmly pitched a three-hit shutout, striking out seven, walking one and hitting Westfield’s Matt Manning twice with pitches. The shutout lowered his ERA to a paltry 0.87.
Westfield (19-10), trailing 1-0, threatened in the bottom of the third after Matt McIntyre singled with two outs. Degen seemed through another mostly routine inning when Andrew Caminiti hit a slow bouncer to third base and Matt Taylor fired to Pete Cosentino at first for the third out. But, as the Red Devils began charging off the field, the first base umpire called Caminiti safe, indicating Cosentino’s foot had come off the bag on his stretch.
Worse, both runners advanced a base with all of Hunterdon Central’s infielders out of position.
“That could have been a game-changer if you don’t handle it right," said Degen. "Coach (Kevin) Cuozzi did a great job coming out and keeping us calm.” Cuozzi came out to address the call at first base and the delay certainly gave the Red Devils a few moments to regroup.
Degen then threw two quick strikes to dangerous lefty-hitting No. 3 hitter Chris Wagner before getting him to bounce out to second and end the threat.
That righting of the ship seemed to energize a Red Devils team that thrived on emotion all spring. Longo led off the fourth and, after falling behind 0-2 to Westfield starter Cory Hiltz (8-1), worked the count to 2-2 before singling inside the third base bag.
Pete Ciuffreda, the team’s emotional rudder, then drew a one-out walk. It was Ciuffreda who said after Hunterdon Central’s state semifinal victory over Jackson, “We have a different player being interviewed every game.” Taylor then stepped to the plate and guaranteed reporters’ attention in the post-game.
The lefty-hitting Taylor fouled off a pair of 2-2 pitches before driving a laser deep into the right-center field gap to score both runners and extend the Hunterdon Central lead to 3-0.
“He struck me out on a fastball up and away my first time up,” said Taylor. “I was thinking curveball at 2-2 but got a fastball up and in and turned on it.”
Dan Icaza’s bunt single on Hiltz’s first pitch moved Taylor to third. David Cucci then put together the kind of at bat that made Hiltz’s night a short one. After falling behind in the count, Cucci fouled off pitch-after-pitch. Along the way Hiltz uncorked a wild pitch to allow Taylor to score the third run of the inning and move Icaza to third.
Finally, on the 10th offering from Hiltz, Cucci lofted a fly to medium right field and the speedy Icaza just beat the throw home to give the Red Devils a 5-0 lead.
Degen, who stranded eight Westfield runners in all and got out of a two-on, one-out jam in the fourth, had little trouble from there.
“I never really felt pressured much,” said Degen. “Someone said if we can get a run in the first it would be huge. The four-run inning certainly loosened up our side, too.”
Hunterdon Central did get on the board in the first when Cassella singled, stole second and charged home on Longo’s single inside the left field line.
Longo, a 6-2, 225-pound junior catcher, capped his memorable state final performances with a two-run single in the top of the seventh off reliever Michael Carlone that extended the Hunterdon Central lead to 7-0. Cassella had singled and Mason reached on an infield error.
“Cuozzi told us we needed to work the count and get Hiltz’s pitch count up,” said Longo. “He’s tough to deal with. We lost to him earlier in the season and that gave us some extra drive.”
The senior lefty Hiltz (8-1) permitted five runs, four of which were earned, on eight hits over 4.1 innings, struck out four and walked two. Hunterdon Central patiently waited on Hiltz, who entered with a 1.50 ERA, for 27 pitches in the first inning and 40 in the four-run third.
Longo, appropriately, was Hiltz’s last batter in the fifth after he issued a nine-pitch walk to boost his pitch count to 106. Longo saw a total of 26 pitches in his four at bats.
It is Hunterdon Central’s fifth Group 4 championship. Its other four state titles came in 1987, ’08, ’09 and ’16. Its loss in the 2017 final leaves it with a 5-1 record in state finals. Westfield, which also lost in the 2011 Group 4 final to Manalapan, still seeks its first Group championship.
Speaking of championships, the Group 4 title was the Red Devils fourth championship of the season. It shared its Skyland Conference Division title with Immaculata and won the Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex Tournament championship and the Central Jersey, Group 4 title.
NOTES: Hunterdon Central’s 2009 team finished 29-1 and ranked No. 1 in the Star-Ledger Top 20 after winning it’s second straight Group 4 title. The 2018 squad is 28-2 and entered the final week of the season ranked No. 2 in the NJ.com Top 20. Pascack Hills (30-2) entered ranked No. 1 and defeated Raritan, 3-2 in eighth innings in the Group 2 championship game. NJ.com would name Pascack Hills its No. 1 team a few days later. … Degen’s fastball topped out at 89 but it was his curveball, as usual, that provided the most consternation for his opponent.
… Hunterdon Central won its first eight games of the season before the Westfield loss, won eight in a row again before falling to Immaculata on May 3. It then concluded the season on a 12-0 run. The Red Devils’ nearly untouchable 1-2 punch of lefty Joey DeChiaro (9-1, 0.85 ERA) and the righty Degen surrendered just three runs in six state tournament games. Though struggling mightily at the plate during the first half of the season, the Red Devils scored 34 runs in the state tournament. That’s nearly six runs a game.
… Eight Red Devils won their second Group 4 championship, having played on the 2016 team that knocked off Morristown in an intense final. They are; Mason, DeChiaro, Degen, Cosentino, Icaza, Garrison LeGros, Dan Rini and Chris Tyerech.