Baseball team captured school's first Group 4 state championship

Baseball team captured school's first Group 4 state championship

The king of Somerset County is now the ruler of  New Jersey.

The most accomplished Bridgewater-Raritan High School baseball team ever punctuated its storybook 2024 season by reaching New Jersey’s summit.

Bridgewater-Raritan claimed the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association’s Group 4 tournament championship—the first ever achieved by the school.

On a beautiful evening for baseball, Saturday, June 8, Bridgewater-Raritan defeated Eastern Regional High School, 6-4, in the Group 4 title game at Veterans Park in Hamilton Township.

The Group 4 trophy that the Bridgewater-Raritan players and coaches happily hoisted on the field after the game ended will accompany the Somerset County Tournament hardware that Bridgewater-Raritan won on May 24. Bridgewater-Raritan defeated Ridge High School, 10-7, in the Somerset County Tournament final at TD Bank Ballpark in Bridgewater. 

The state group championship is the first since Bridgewater-Raritan East High School and Bridgewater-Raritan West High School were consolidated into one high school —-Bridgewater-Raritan High School—in 1992.
 The previous state group championship won by a Bridgewater–Raritan high school came in 1989 when Bridgewater-Raritan West captured the Group 2 state title. Bridgewater-Raritan East fell in the Group 3 state final in 1971—the first year the NJSIAA held group tournament championships
In the Group 4 championship game—the final baseball game played in New Jersey this season— Bridgewater-Raritan (30-3), ranked No. 4 in the state, exploded to an early five-run lead it never relinquished against Eastern Regional High School (25-7) under the brightest of lights. 

While a mammoth grand slam by Eastern senior shortstop Sam Winsett
(1-2, 4 RBI, R, HR, BB) made it a one-run game with one out in the top of the third inning,
Bridgewater-Raritan’s junior starting pitcher, Owen Crimmins (3.1 IP, 5 H, 4 ER, 3 BB, 3 K, 0 HB) kept the Camden County school off the board the rest of the way en route to a winning decision.

Junior Jack Lanum then recorded back-to-back outs on just seven pitches with the tying run
aboard for Eastern in the top of the fourth inning to set up senior closer Cory Rible (3 IP, 0
H, 0 ER, 0 BB, 7 K, 0 HB), who got an insurance home run from classmate Matt Fattore (2-4, 3
RBI, R, HR) on the first pitch of the bottom of the fifth inning to extend the Panthers’ lead to
two runs.

The reliable Rible, a nearly unhittable weapon out of the bullpen, was perfect over the course of his 39 pitches during the final three innings with seven strikeouts, notably including one on his final pitch as a scholastic player to cap the 6-4 victory that led to an eruption knot the field by the Bridgewater-Raritan players and staff.

“You try to put a foundation in place that, when you have the pieces, those kids can go out there, be comfortable, and compete to the best of their abilities,” shared after the win by victorious Bridgewater-Raritan head coach Max Newill claimed.  “I didn’t throw a pitch. I didn’t
make a play. I didn’t take an at-bat. It’s all the kids, but my assistant coaches and I take great
pride in building a foundation from which they can succeed. The kids for the last few years, and
then tonight, went to the mountaintop and the highest point that you can get. I’d like to think
that’s because we have a strong foundation. We set the foundation, set the parameters, let the
kids play within them, and give them some freedom. As long as they do what they ask, we’re as
happy as we can be, and we had the talent this year to get all the way.”

As a result, 14 Bridgewater-Raritan High School Class of 2024 students closed 
their careers with the program’s biggest victory ever.

The seniors are  Frankie Verano, Michael Taylor, Matthew Baxter, Michael Lentini, Nick Turchi, Matt Fattore, Trevor Kelly, Devin Goldberg, Joe Spirra, Ben Dolan, Sam Matheson, Joey Letko, Cory Rible, and team manager Jayen Patel.

“This was always the goal,” said Verano, who is his squad’s lone four-year varsity letter winner and saw the Bridgewater-Raritan program go a sparkling 85-29 over his four seasons on the team. “We were always going to work for it. That’s what we wanted, and we got it.”

And the most accomplished senior class in Bridgewater-Raritan High School baseball history
stamped their historic run to the top with the crown jewel of trophies on that Saturday evening in Mercer County.

They began their baseball careers with uncertainty coming off of the statewide cancellation of
the 2020 spring sports season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which eventually resulted in
Bridgewater-Raritan High School’s cancellation of the 2020-21 fall sports season to begin their
freshman years. What ended up being an abbreviated 2021 spring baseball season, thankfully,
happened safely and uninterrupted, though both this and the 2022 Panthers’ squads saw their
seasons come to an end against rival Ridge High School in the second round of the state
sectional playoffs.

Although they were eliminated in the Somerset County Tournament semifinals
in 2023 for the second straight year, last season’s Panther squad shared the Skyland
Conference Delaware Division title while setting the record for most wins in program history
with a 23-7 mark before falling to Bayonne High School at home in the sectional final to end
their season.

To say the least, the agony of this heartbreaking defeat was extinguished one year later.

Not only did the Panthers lock up another Skyland Conference Delaware Division title in the
month of April to begin 2024 and go a perfect 10-0 in division play after graduating 13 players
from the Class of 2023. Bridgewater-Raritan rode that momentum toward its first Somerset
County Tournament title  since 1996, fittingly after completing a three-game sweep of Ridge
High School, before pitching four shutouts in the North Jersey, Section 2, Group 4 sectional
playoffs en route to its first sectional title since 2010.

“You don’t win games without talented kids,” Newill went on to say about his
coaching staff consisting of assistant coaches Mike Trapani and Matt Perlman, volunteer
assistant Jake Olson, and varsity assistant Evan Seavey, who led the Panthers’ boys swimming
team with Newill to back-to-back county and conference titles along with two state sectional
final appearances over the last two winters alone. “We do have a system in place from freshman to JV and my coaching staff. [Freshman coach Matt Perlman and JV coach Mike Trapani] are outstanding and can be outstanding varsity coaches at a lot of places. We run the same program from top to bottom. Our freshmen get the same experience as the varsity, so when they move up, Mike Trapani does a great job with the JV, so [our players] are ready to go when they get here. My coaching staff is outstanding, and I wouldn’t be here without them.”

But three trophies and a record-shattering 29 victories already wasn’t enough.

Bridgewater-Raritan collected victory number 30 and its first Group 4 title and the Bridgewater-Raritan community's first high school baseball championship since 1989, when Bridgewater-Raritan High School West defeated Rutherford High School, 7-2, in that season’s Group 2 title game.

“This is really just a perfect ending, but we never doubted it with this team,” Verano, who had
one of the two big walks against Eastern, said. “We knew we were going to
fight and we did.”

They fought hard all season and especially once more on Saturday night, but five errors charged to Eastern compared to zero committed by the Panthers ended up being the difference for a Bridgewater-Raritan defense that regularly made “routine” plays all year.

Bridgewater-Raritan gained the early 1-0 lead in the first inning when junior Matt Lehberger (1-4, R, SB) ripped a double and then stole third before advancing home on an errant throw during his steal.

 Bridgewater-Raritan then struck with four runs in the second inning to open a 5-0 lead.

Facing a full count with his team still leading 1-0, Jayden Rosado delivered a single before Kellan Komline, a sophomore, and an emerging star, gapped a first-pitch double to left center, but the resulting throw to third base sailed out of play to automatically score senior courtesy runner Nick Turchi (one run) to extend Bridgewater-Raritan’s lead to 2-0 with Komline waiting at third base with nobody out.

After a pop out, Spirra then worked an eight-pitch walk to put runners on the corners for Bridgewater-Raritan with one out. Taylor (2-3, R, SB) then rolled an RBI single up the middle to make it a 3-0 game.

With two outs, another infield error against Eastern put Lehberger aboard yet again to extend the inning, and Fattore capitalized on this opportunity with a two-run single to extend the Panthers’ lead to 5-0 before Bridgewater-Raritan concluded its four-run inning that saw all nine of its batters step to the plate.

“After my first hit up the middle that scored Nick Turchi and after we had the bases loaded, Matt
Fattore came up in a big spot and got two more runs in,” Taylor reflected about the big
second inning. “We scored four runs in that inning. That was huge, and I would definitely say
that was the turning point in the game.”

Eastern cut its deficit to 5-4 when Winsett smoked a grand slam that bounced off of the center-field light pole in the third inning.

“Giving up a grand slam in the state finals isn’t always fun and was probably the worst situation
that could have happened, so I was a little bit in shock,” reflected Crimmins. “I had to just control my breath, get back after it, move on to the next, and flip the page.”

But with the Panthers clinging to a one-run lead, the script was now written for Bridgewater-

 Rible, who saved his best performance for last and arguably cemented his status as New Jersey’s best relief pitcher in 2024. A career for Rible that began with a 63-pitch, five-inning no-hitter on April 6, 2023, as a junior in a 16-0 victory for Bridgewater-Raritan over Hillsborough High School, saw him come out of the bullpen 16 previous times in 2024 and helped the Panthers run the table in these games fittingly concluded on New Jersey’s biggest stage.

“There is definitely a lot of adrenaline,” revealed Rible, understandably, of his emotions after his
dominating, nine-out save to clinch the state title. “Huge props to [Owen Crimmins].
He’s been huge for us and a dog all season. Not many people can say that they have gone 11-0 in a single season.”

Rible allowed just six total runs (1.16 ERA) in 36.1 innings of work this season to go with 48 strikeouts and one walk: an intentional pass.

Bridgewater-Raritan earned that key insurance run when Fattore ripped a solo home run in the fifth for his 100th career hit.

After a robust celebration on the field when the game ended, Bridgewater-Raritan brought back its first Group 4 state championship trophy on its school bus, which received a hero’s escort and welcome back onto the campus of Bridgewater-Raritan High School by a sea of fire and police trucks blasting their sirens at about 10:45 on Saturday night.

Most importantly, waiting for the Group 4 state champions back on campus were dozens of cars and fans in the parking lot at John Basilone Memorial Field.

“There is no other moment that can ever beat this,” concluded Taylor of ending his career with
the Group 4 crown. “Winning the state championship for our last game of the year and my senior year is no better feeling. I love it, I loved every single moment of all four years, and it’s just a great way to end it all.”

The kings have spoken.