Ignore the distance that separates Gloucester Catholic and Don Bosco, which are basically located on polar opposite ends of New Jersey.
The two programs, one a perennial power in South Jersey, the other a measuring stick for the North, are among the best the Garden State has to offer on an annual basis. Yet, they’ve been interlinked, even before a single pitch was thrown this spring.
There were incredibly high expectations placed on each squad in the pre-season that stretched far beyond any statelines. Both were lauded in various pre-season national rankings. And, we’re not talking fringe consideration. No, we’re talking as high as top 10 in the country by some outlets.
The rosters on each side are absolutely loaded with Division 1 recruits, guys who are heading to colleges that are spending this weekend competing in the NCAA Super Regionals.
And, then there was May 6, when they finally got to weigh the other up close at Provident Bank Ballpark in Pomona, New York. Their regular-season encounter, which Don Bosco won, 5-3, in 10 innings, was not just an epic but a prelude. As people exited the picturesque stadium, the tone of most conversations hinged around the idea that there was a pretty good chance they would meet again, but with a lot more on the at stake.
But, that’s the thing. Baseball is unpredictable. Nothing can be taken for granted, no matter how talent-laden a club is.
Players like designated hitter Joe Purritano, who penned the closing chapter the first time around with a walkoff three-run homer, Tommy Burns, the senior right-hander with an incredibly bright future, and third baseman Grant Van Orden have perspective as rich as their skills on the diamond. They are keenly aware of what it ultimately takes to get yourself in position to play for a state championship.
Perhaps, it was exactly that appreciation for the grind along the path which made it just a smidgen easier for the three seniors to walk off the field at Toms River North after things came full circle with Gloucester Catholic extracting some revenge by pinning Don Bosco, No. 1 in the MSG Varsity New Jersey Top 15, with a 4-1 loss on Saturday in the NJSIAA Non-Public A state final.
All three were refreshing in defeat, quick to praise a Gloucester Catholic, which backed its Non-Public B championship from a year ago with yet another title. The Rams (28-4) did their homework diligently this time around, a credit to coach Dennis Barth, who scrapped any barbeque plans on Memorial Day in exchange for treks to Demarest to catch the Ironmen live one more time as they defeated Paramus, 9-0, in the Bergen County Tournament.
Thus, it was no accident that each time Purritano, whose true power from the left side is to the opposite field, stepped to the plate and stroked a line drive into the left-center gap, where he laced a triple in the first meeting, left fielder Giovanni Gussen barely moved, perfectly positioned to make the catch.
“Anytime I got to see them helped us position our fielders,” Barth said. “Purritano hit three drives to the left fielder right where we had him. But, the first time, we didn’t know that and he hit a gapper. We played them blind the first time.”
“They know what they’re doing. They are a well-coached team, which is what we pride ourselves on,” Purritano said, a senior who is heading to Dartmouth. “They were at our games, they know I go opposite field well. I was talking to their first-base coach and he said they weren’t going to let me beat them this time. It was a great experience. They are a great team and they deserve it.”
Another guy who got a much different result was Joe Murphy. The 6-4 freshman right-hander, who lasted 4 2/3 innings on May 6, went the distance in the championship, commanding the strike zone with his blend of fastballs, curves and an occasional changeup.
Murphy bore no resemblance at all to a freshman in limiting Don Bosco to just three hits while ringing up eight strikeouts and not issuing a walk.
“We weren’t getting to him and his confidence kept building and building,” Purritano said. “For a freshman, that was huge for him. He was mixing it up well and he hit his spots. At the end of the day, when you’re doing that, you’re tough to face. We gave it our all and it just didn’t come through the way we wanted it to.”
“I felt like I had nothing to lose pitching out on the mound against probably one of the best teams in New Jersey,” said Murphy, revealing a youthful naïvete to the magnitude of the contest. “Maybe, it’s because I’m a freshman and have three more years left. This time, I had my changeup working and my two-seam was working a little better than the last game.”
“The kid pitched a fantastic game,” praise Don Bosco coach Mike Rooney of Murphy. “You throw seven innings against our lineup and you not only limit us to one run but three hits, you gotta take your hat off to that kid. He’s a young man with a lot of real good things ahead of him, I’m sure. He kept the ball off the barrel of the bat.”
Murphy had no choice but to be fine with his offering considering who he was dealing against. Don Bosco ace Tommy Burns (9-2), who was selected by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 34th round of the Major League Baseball First-Year Draft on Wednesday, came in riding a personal nine-game winning and was on the verge of getting out of the first inning unharmed.
After yielding a leadoff single to Pat Kane, who went 3-for-3, Burns picked him off first, the first of two runners he would erase with his lightning-quick move, and came back with a strikeout. He had Brett Tenuto down 1-2 before the senior third baseman squared up and launched a solo homer to dead center for a 1-0 lead.
The blast marked the first of three big two-out hits by the Rams.
Kane singled to open the third and, following two strikeouts by Burns, John Brue legged out an RBI infield for a 2-0 cushion. Kane was at it again in the fifth when he tripled and scored a bloop single. Elliot McCummings added the final run in the sixth with an RBI double.
Burns exited thereafter, having allowed nine hits and a walk while striking out seven over 5 1/3 innings. But, not before he made it a point of embracing every teammate on the infield before a slow walk to the dugout amid a standing ovation from the Don Bosco fanbase.
“We struggled early this year but we pulled it together,” Burns said, referencing the Ironmen’s 2-3 start. “Every single one of these guys had the same goal. One mission. We got here. It’s a journey. It would have been nice to win it, but they came ready and deserved it. They have a great program.”
With that, Van Orden, who was appointed to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and reports on July 2, lightly-heartedly turned up the brim of his cap to reveal the mantra etched underneath it.
“As a lineup, they are the best hitting team by far we saw this year,” said Van Orden, bestowing high praise considering the competition the Ironmen have seen, including Calvert Hall of Maryland and the New York trio of Fox Lane, Tottenville and Guilderland as well as state foes St. Joseph Regional, Ridgewood, Delbarton and DePaul.
Don Bosco (26-4) struck for a run in the top of the fifth to pare its deficit in half. Senior George Iskenderian, who is signed with South Carolina, lined a double to deep center and stole third, which would be the only time the Ironmen advanced a runner that far the entire game. Ted Cebulski drove him in with an infield single, the last hit of the day for Bosco.
Murphy retired the last seven he faced to stamp Gloucester Catholic’s triumph.
Yet, the sting of the loss, though fresh, shouldn’t overshadow Don Bosco’s march to the state championship. Along the route, the Ironmen fashioned an impressive run of 24 straight wins, picking up the Bergen County Tournament and North Jersey, Non-Public A titles along the way.
Gregg Lerner covers baseball for MSG Varsity. Follow him on Twitter: @gregglerner