By: Nicole Baratta and Bryan Lanza
Flemington, NJ (August 3, 2014) – For the second year in a row, the Monmouth Monarchs were the champions of the ABCCL, sweeping the best of three series against the Medford Starz 8-0 in Game 1 and 4-2 in Game 2. After a rocky first game, the Starz looked to push the series to a third game. However, the Monarchs were able to shut down the Starz with dominant pitching and timely hitting.
The Monarchs came out of the gate quickly, picking up a run in the top of the first inning. After a leadoff single, Jon Avallone (Demarest, NJ/UMASS) reached on a fielder’s choice by beating out a potential double play. He later scored on a sacrifice fly to left by Joey Falcone (New York, NY/ Columbia University).
After giving up back-to-back singles to start the top of the second, it seemed that Starz starting pitcher Michael Coliagno (Medford, NJ/Carson Newman College) might get out of the inning unscathed by getting the next two batters out. But, with two outs, Joe Iacobellis (Morganville, NJ/Alvernia University) reached on a grounder that hit off the glove of the third baseman and trickled into left field, scoring both runners. Iacobellis scored on the next pitch as Avallone blasted an RBI grounds rule double down the left field line to give the Monarchs a 4-0 lead.
The offense of the Monarchs would not let up, scoring another two runs in the third inning. With one out, Hunter Courson (Garland, Texas/Sam Houston State U) was hit by a pitch and promptly stole second. He came around to score on an error to make the score 5-0. Chris Suseck (Flemington, NJ/Rutgers-New Brunswick) scored his second run of the game when he was knocked in by Luis Hidalgo (Ridgefield, NJ/Brookdale Community College) on a sacrifice fly to center.
Tyler Blind (Glen Rock, NJ/Fairfield NJ) led off the top of the sixth by working a walk. He moved to third after a ball hit by Hidalgo to left field was dropped by the left fielder. After Iacobellis was hit by a pitch to load the bases, both Blind and Hidalgo scored on a walk and a hit batsman to push the score to 8-0.
Hoping to stop the bleeding, Jeff Williams (Gilsum, NH/Lyndon State College) was put in to pitch for the Starz with the bases still loaded and one out in the sixth. Meeting the challenge, Williams got out of the inning without giving up another run, and did not give up a hit in his 3 ⅔ innings of work while walking none and striking out five.
Starting pitcher Ian Riddell (Millburn, NJ/Rutgers-New Brunswick) was stellar for the Monarchs. In eight shutout innings Riddell gave up just two hits, and one walk, while striking out five. Riddell stated after the game that his success against the Starz batters was due to “getting ahead and pounding the zone and throwing strikes. I don’t try to overpower the hitters, I just try to keep the ball in play and let the defense do the work.”
His defense helped him out in the bottom of the third, the only inning where the Starz really threatened to push across a run. After giving up a leadoff single to Joe Frey (Moorsetown, NJ/University of Delaware) – who had both hits for the Starz – Ridell hit a batter to set up runners on first and second with no outs. The next batter hit the ball up the middle that was bobbled initially by the shortstop Avallone, but he managed to flip the ball to the second baseman Hildalgo for the out at second and Hildalgo made a strong throw to first to complete the double play. “Our defense has been making the plays all year” Riddell commented. “They always come up big.”
The Monarchs were able to rely on timely hitting late and another strong pitching performance to close out a resilient Starz group that was determined to force a game three. After the Starz tied the game in the top of the 7th, the Monarchs scored a run in both the bottom of the 7th and 8th, which was more than enough for their shutdown closer Brian Stepniak (Dallas, PA/ University of Hartford) as the Monarchs would go on to win by a 4-2 score and secure the ABCCL title.
Unlike game one, the Starz struck first in game two. They started a two-out rally in the 2nd second inning with sluggers Jon Gonzales (Winslow, NJ/ Gloucester County College) and David Moreno (Voorhees, NJ/ Monmouth University) reaching base on successive singles. Ed King (Hamilton, NJ/ Rutgers University-Camden) delivered the big hit, lining a single to left field to bring in a run and put the Starz up 1-0.
Monarchs’ starting pitcher Vincent Zanfordino (Edison, NJ/ Kean University) settled down after this rocky inning and limited the Starz to only 1 hit and no runs for the next four frames. Overall, Zanfordino pitched 6 innings, struck out one, walked one, and allowed just one run.
Once again, the Monarchs’ defense was solid, providing a few highlight plays that certainly helped their pitchers on mound. In the top of the 5th inning, third baseman Chris Suseck (Flemington, NJ/ Rutgers University- New Brunswick) made a diving stop to his right on a hard hit ground ball and on the receiving end, first baseman Tyler Blind (Glen Rock, NJ/ Fairfield University) was able to shift his feet and hold the bag for the out. Another key defensive play was a smoothly-turned 4-6-3 double play in the top of the 6th inning by Luis Hildalgo (Ridgefield, NJ/ Brookdale Community College) at 2nd base and Jon Avallone (Demarest, NJ/ University of Massachusetts) at shortstop.
On offense, the Monarchs immediately struck back in the bottom of the 3rd to tie the game at 1. Hildalgo was the catalyst for the inning as he reached base on a lead-off walk. He was advanced to second on a perfectly executed sacrifice bunt by Joe Iacobellis (Morganville, NJ/ Alvernia University). Hildalgo then stole third base and was able to run home as the throw was high and sailed into left field.
During the next inning, the Monarchs took the lead as Hunter Courson (Garland, Texas/ Sam Houston State University) led off with a double down the left field line. Suseck followed with a single up the middle to score Courson and give the Monarchs a 2-1 lead.
Eric Elmer (Lumberton, NJ/ DeSales University) of the Starz was able to shut down the Monarchs for the remainder of his outing as he pitched 6 innings, struck out three, walked one, and allowed two runs.
With the game shifting to the bullpens in the 7th inning, the Starz struck first in the top of the 7th inning as Michael Kendall (Columbus, NJ/ Kean University) hit a homerun to deep left field to knot the game at 2.
In the bottom of the 7th, Tyler Blind started the inning off with a hard-hit single to right field. Since the ball was hit so hard, the right fielder had a chance to throw the batter out at first, but he overthrew his first baseman and Blind was able to advance to second. Pat Gardner (Caldwell, NJ/ Fordham University) was hit by a pitch, which set up runners at 1st and 2nd. A wild pitch then allowed both runners to advance one base. The next batter, Hildalgo, grounded out to second, but on the play, the Starz threw to second base after the putout in an attempt to tag Gardner who had made a wide turn around the bag. As soon as the throw went to second, Blind took off for home and beat the throw to give the Monarchs a 3-2 lead.
The Monarchs were able to add an insurance run in the 8th inning as Joey Falcone (New York, NY/ Columbia University) crushed a towering home run to right field.
Guarding a 4-2 lead, Brian Stepniak was efficient in closing out the game as he pitched the 8th and 9th innings, struck out two, and only allowed a single hit. He ended the game by inducing a groundout to second, to secure the championship.
After the game and award of the Jerry Lillis Championship Cup, head coach Eric Duncan commented on the season saying “This League is about development. I would say our guys left here having improved their skills and feeling better about themselves on the baseball field. That’s the goal.” He also pointed out players such as Joe Iacobellis, Jon Avallone, and Connor White (Wall, NJ/ Monmouth University) as players who moved their way up in the lineup due to “working hard and competing each and every game.” Asked how it feels to have Brian Stepniak close out games, he said “It’s extremely re-assuring. By the end of the year, we would ask, how can we get to Stepniak?” He also attributed Stepniak’s success to more than just velocity, saying “he works fast, throws strikes, and competes.”
In all, the Monarchs received contributions from the entire team to win the ABCCL title. From their solid pitching, aided by coach Keith Cantwell, to their strong hitting exemplified by Joey Falcone, Chris Suseck, Hunter Courson and Tyler Blind the Monarchs had all of the pieces needed to claim a second consecutive title … and they executed on the baseball field to make it a reality.