NORTH BRUNSWICK – The last time the Autism Awareness Challenge was held at North Brunswick Community Park, current Vanderbilt fireballer and potential No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 Major League Baseball Draft Jack Leiter was the main attraction.
Two years later, with the event returning after last year’s canceled high-school baseball season, the headliners were a trio of Shore Conference aces – one from each of the next three graduating classes.
On Saturday in North Brunswick, in a span of about three hours, Red Bank Catholic senior Shane Panzini, Jackson Memorial junior left-hander Zach Crotchfelt and Middletown South sophomore Ben Schild each made a strong pitch as, perhaps, the next three Shore Conference Pitchers of the Year.
Panzini and Crotchfelt each pitched one-hitters, Panzini and Schild each took no-hitters into the fifth innings (and in Panzini’s case, beyond) and all three struck out at least 12 batters to lead their respective teams to impressive wins on Saturday.
Panzini’s Gem Two Years in the Making
Back in October, there was still some uncertainty about what the baseball season would even look like in New Jersey but that did not stop Panzini from submitting an informal request to his head coach, Buddy Hausmann.
“He told me he wanted this game back in October,” Hausmann said. “I’m like, ‘Can we get to our first practice before we start planning your starts?’ It worked out, thankfully.”
“I wanted to pitch in this game two years ago, so I wanted this one regardless of the opponent,” Panzini said.
PHOTO GALLERY: Red Bank Catholic at Toms River North by Ray Richardson
Instead of Panzini-vs.-Leiter two years ago, it was then-senior, Los Angeles Angels draft pick and current St. John’s sophomore Vin Bianchi who opposed Leiter in an unexpectedly-high-scoring 10-7 Delbarton win in which the Caseys scored three runs off New Jersey’s best pitcher in 2019.
Delbarton would not have nearly the same success against Panzini as the 2019 RBC squad had against Leiter.
Panzini struck out five of the first six men he faced and lost a no-hitter with two out in the bottom of the sixth inning on an 0-2 jam-shot off the bat of Green Wave shortstop Connor Dreyer. The ball landed to the right of second base and Dreyer was on his way to beating it out even before RBC junior second baseman Nico Gonzalez could not handled it cleanly off the bounce.
“I was upset for about two seconds,” Panzini said. “I wanted the no-hitter, but we still had to win the game and it’s pretty easy to get refocused when you know there is still a job to do.
“It would be cool (to throw a no-hitter) but winning games is fun too and it’s all we want to do, really.”
After losing his no-hit bid on a weakly-hit infield single, Panzini responded by striking out the last four Delbarton batters to finish off a 6-0 RBC win and a one-hit shutout that included a career-best 15 strikeouts. Panzini’s previous strikeout high came five days earlier, when he struck out 14 in a two-hit shutout at Toms River North in RBC’s season-opener.
Panzini also walked a pair of batters – both on 3-2 misses in the bottom of the third inning. The Virginia commit went to 3-2 on three hitters after that and struck out all three.
After coming out firing fastballs on a cold afternoon in Toms River, Panzini featured his slider more in front of another throng of Major League scouts. His fastball reached 95 miles-per-hour in the first inning, sat between 89 and 92 during the middle innings, and hit 93 on his final pitch of the game – a called strike three.
“I think that’s the best I have thrown all year,” Panzini said. “The slider was working real well. I threw a few changeups, even got in a couple of curveballs.”
In two start to open his anticipated senior season, Panzini has struck out 29, walked four and allowed three hits in 14 scoreless innings. All three hits he has allowed are singles and two of those did not make it out of the infield.
“I thought he was great today and the Toms River North game was just as good,” Hausmann said. “And he is getting better. He has been working on some different things, just getting more comfortable and getting used to competing again.”
Panzini also led Red Bank Catholic’s offense by going 2-for-3 with an RBI double in the top of the first inning. Senior centerfielder Anthony Borriello went 1-for-2 with a walk, an RBI single, a sacrifice fly and a run scored to spark the offense from the top of the order and junior Matt Scrivanic also chipped in an RBI single and a sac fly in a 1-for-3 game at the plate.
“This was a big week,” said Hausmann, whose team went 3-1 with a wild, 12-10 loss to Middletown South mixed in with wins over Toms River North, Manasquan and now Delbarton. “Playing four games against good teams and playing so many new guys. We had some different games. We blew a seven-run lead against Midd. South, almost blew an eight-run lead against Manasquan, so it’s been a challenge. We’re having good at-bats but it’s three sophomores (Frank Scrivanic, Alex Stanyek and Shane Andrus) and a freshman (Sean Griggs) in there, so it’s still going to take time for them to get fully comfortable. So to come out 3-1, I think we like where we’re at.”
PHOTO GALLERY: Red Bank Catholic at Toms River North by Ray Richardson
Jackson’s Offensive Thunder Backs Crotchfelt’s Electric Mound Performance
Through two innings, Zach Crotchfelt had run his pitch count into the low-40’s and it was likely to cost him a chance to go back to the mound for the seventh inning to finish the complete game in his first start of the season.
Thanks to his offense, he didn’t need three more outs to earn a complete-game, one-hit shutout.
Crotchfelt doubled his career strikeout total with 13 strikeouts over six innings and Jackson Memorial scored eight runs in its last two at-bats to finish off an 11-0 win over Randolph in a rematch of the 2010 NJSIAA Group IV championship game, won by Randolph.
“I just felt really good today,” Crotchfelt said. “I really wanted to call my own game with (catcher Zach) Rogacki. I felt really good in the bullpen. Guys were watching and giving me positive feedback, so I felt really confident going in.”
“We were looking to ride him the whole way,” said Jackson Memorial coach Pat George, who indicated Crotchfelt would have been done at 97 pitches had the game moved to the seventh inning. “His pitch count was getting up there, but he was really attacking hitters, so that’s all we can ask from him. He has been preparing for this all week and he is always mentally prepared to hit and pitch, which is huge.”
Crotchfelt pitched 12 innings as a freshman on an experienced Jackson Memorial squad in 2019 and on Saturday, he showed what he has become in two years time.
“We had the Last Dance (World Series) in the summer and that was great, but it’s not the same as a regular high-school baseball season,” Crotchfelt said. “To get out here with the guys, on the mound for a game against a good team was a great feeling and it’s something I have really missed. The last time I pitched for Jackson, I was a freshman with a bunch of older guys and all of a sudden, I’m one of the older guys so it’s kind of strange in that regard, but it feels great to be back.”
In his first high-school start in two years, the Auburn commit was pumping fastballs into the mid-90’s and firing off a sharp curveball that he threw for strikes.
“(The curveball) has been a work-in-progress all offseason, but it’s been really important for me,” Crotchfelt said. “My fastball is going to do what it’s going to do, my changeup was pretty good in the offseason, but I want to have three plus pitches. I wasn’t satisfied with just two, so we went really hard to work on that curveball and I’m happy with the way it’s unfolding so far. Just got to keep it going.”
Randolph mounted its only real threat in the second inning, when Crotchfelt issued one of his two walks and gave up an excessively-high chopper by Paul Recchia that went for an easy infield single. By the time the ball slammed off the plate and landed in the glove of shortstop Ty Beck on that one, single, long bounce, Recchia had made it comfortably to first base.
After that infield single, Crotchfelt issued two walks to No. 8 hitter Ryan Cox and that was it the rest of the way. No other Rams player reached and Crotchfelt struck out the side in first, fifth and sixth innings to pad his career-best strikeout total.
“It’s such a good feeling when you can strand those runners,” Crotchfelt said. “Obviously, I put them there, but when you can shut down that chance to score without giving up a run, that’s a hype feeling for me. I think that got me into a mental rhythm that I just tried to ride the rest of the way.”
Beck was lights-out in the field in making three smooth plays at shortstop, but by the end of the game, his bat was the story. Only a part-time starter as sophomore and having played sparingly at the varsity level as a freshman, Beck had not homered in his Jackson Memorial career before Saturday night.
That drought ended in the bottom of the fifth inning, when the senior crushed a hanging breaking ball over the left-field fence for a grand slam to blow open the game, 7-0.
“We were up 3-0, Zach was rolling, but I was struggling going into that third at-bat,” Beck said. “I was not feeling myself, but I had a talk with (hitting) coach (Brandon) Vega, looked at some film and made some adjustments before that at-bat and walking up, bases loaded, I knew I had to deliver in that spot.”
The end of Beck’s home run drought ended with a downpour. In the very next inning, he came to the plate with a chance to end the game via the 10-run rule with a single. Instead, Beck connected on a 2-2 fastball and sent it well clear of the left-field fence for his second homer in as many at-bats.
“I wasn’t really looking big in that spot,” Beck said. “Zach Rogacki at second has great speed, so I just need to get this to drop somewhere in the outfield and we can and this game and it dropped.”
Beck’s six-RBI day highlights a power display by Jackson Memorial, which belted four home runs as a team and even threw in a “Little League” homer. Sophomore Dan Beldowicz started the sixth-inning rally with a line drive to right that was played into a triple. When the throw toward third go away, Beldowicz took home on the error, completing his trip around the bases in one play and completing his two-hit day with a triple and two runs scored.
On the very next batter, junior leftfielder and No. 9 hitter Andrew Patire hit a more conventional home run, drilling a shot over the fence in left to make it 9-0.
Back in the bottom of the second inning, sophomore third baseman Charlie Meglio set the trend for his two teammates by blasting his first varsity home run – a two-run shot that gave Jackson Memorial a 3-0 lead.
In total, nine of Jackson’s 11 runs scored on home runs – 10 if you count Beldowicz’s trip around the bases in the seventh.
“I think the bottom of the lineup is what really got us started and Ty eventually finished it,” George said. “Danny Beldowicz had a little single (in the fifth), Patire dropping down the bunt for a hit and from there, it’s Rogacki getting on out of the leadoff spot and Ty with the big swing.”
Beck played his best career game at the plate in front of former head coach Frank Malta, who stepped down during the winter to become the athletic supervisor at East Brunswick High School. The former Jaguars skipper made the short trip to North Brunswick to see many of the players he coached to the Last Dance World Series Final in July, as well as a coaching staff that remains mostly intact relative to how Malta left it.
“It has been smooth sailing for us,” Beck said. “We have our almost our coaching staff here. He (Malta) is a big part of it. Coach Malta has been here for a hot minute, but we have just accepting what we have, working every day and trying to be the best team we can be.”
While Malta may not have needed his arm twisted to come catch his former team in action, it was Beck who urged his old coach to stop by and he made sure he gave him a show.
“I pulled some strings,” Beck said. “I texted him yesterday and said, ‘You better be here.'”
Middletown South’s Man-Schild Dominates in Debut
Chris LeMore’s Middletown South coaching tenure was already off to a red-hot start after three impressive wins during the last week, but on Saturday, Middletown South unleashed a weapon that should give the Eagles some serious staying power among the Shore’s top teams.
In his first career outing as a high-school pitcher, sophomore Ben Schild pitched a two-hit shutout with 12 strikeouts and one walk against a quality Ramapo team to spark a 4-0 win for 4-0 Middletown South.
Schild took a no-hitter into the fifth inning, showing off pinpoint control with his quality fastball and the ability to work in two breaking balls – a curveball and a slider – that he threw for strikes.
“Honestly, I was kind of nervous, but very excited” Schild said. “I knew what I could do. I trusted my catcher, Greg (Trezza), and I trusted the guys behind me. I just wanted to go out there and do what I can do.”
Middletown South backed up the sophomore starter with some dazzling defense despite committing a pair of errors. After Schild surrendered his first hit, senior catcher Greg Trezza immediately picked off the runner at first based when he hesitated to advance on a potential wild pitch and tried to scramble back to first base.
The next inning, after a leadoff walk, Trezza pounced on a bunt halfway between the mound and home plate and threw out the runner at first to prevent first and second with none out.
After an error opened up the bottom of the seventh, Middletown South’s defense made up for it with a dazzling 6-4-3 double play for the first two outs of the inning.
Middletown South’s offense gave Schild all the help he would need in the first three innings. Senior Matt Pontari went 2-for-3 with two doubles, one of which led off a three-run second inning for Middletown South. Senior Patrick Eagone (1-for-3) ripped a two-run double to make it 3-0 and Schild later drew a bases-loaded walk in the third to force home senior Joe Stanzione (2-for-3), who led the inning off with a double.
“I was just trying to put up zeroes,” Schild said. “I knew my team was going to score. We’ve been hot with the bats. Just throw strikes and my boys are going to make plays.”
The Eagles have now knocked off Manchester, Red Bank Catholic, Bloomfield and Ramapo to open their season and will start its next week with two games against Shore Conference Class A North rival Freehold Township.
“From day one, we knew we were going to have really strong pitching and it’s been even better than expected,” Schild said. “We knew were were going to have the bats and the fielding. We just needed to show it.”