From that initial practice the first Friday in March, the goal remains the same – the Cranford Cougars expect to be preparing to play their final game of the season in Ocean County.
Three months later and Cranford is Toms River bound once again.
Cranford (21-7) will play Allentown (25-2) in the Group 3 state championship baseball game Saturday at 11 a.m. at Toms River South’s Ken Frank Field.
Cranford is 59-15 in the state playoffs – including a 3-3 record in group finals – under 19th-year head coach Dennis McCaffery.
The Cougars are 1-1 in Group 3 state championship games played at Toms River South.
Repeat North 2, Group 3 champion Cranford has won nine straight since falling in the Union County Tournament championship game. Cranford defeated North 1, Group 3 champion Pascack Valley 3-2 in eight innings in Tuesday’s Group 3 semifinal played at William Paterson University.
Central Jersey, Group 3 champion Allentown is on a six-game winning streak. The Redbirds held on to oust South Jersey, Group 3 champ Highland 7-4 in Wednesday’s Group 3 semifinal at Rowan College at Gloucester County.
For Cranford, this is the fourth time this decade the Cougars have reached a state championship game and the ninth time in program history. With five state titles already to its credit, Cranford has won the fourth most in state history among public schools.
Only Audubon with eight and Hamilton East and Pennsville with seven have won more. Cranford – 5-3 in eight group finals, including 4-3 in Group 3 – is tied with Emerson, Glen Ridge and Toms River South for fourth.
Allentown has only played in one state championship game and won it in 2008. The Redbirds of Monmouth County defeated Mahwah 11-6 in that season’s Group 2 state championship game at Toms River East.
Cranford has also captured North 2, Group 3 six of the first eight seasons this decade and has appeared in that championship game seven of the past eight years.
Earlier this decade Cranford won the Group 3 state championship game three times in four years, winning 2010 at Toms River North, 2012 at Toms River South and again in 2013 at Toms River East en route to that season’s final No. 1 state ranking.
Cranford also wins void of a roster filled with future Division 1 players.
Why all the continued success?
“Cranford baseball is a legacy,” said senior shortstop and leadoff batter Brian Oblachinski, who was also a starter on Cranford’s 2015 North 2, Group 3 state championship football team. “We’re expected to win and to go far.”
Here’s how McCaffery explained it moments after Tuesday’s eighth Group 3 semifinal victory in program history: “kids now (in town) who are 8 aspire to do this when they are 18.
“It’s a community effort. Needless to say a lot of hard work goes into this each and every year.”
Another reason for Cranford’s success is that it’s spread out.
In Tuesday’s game against Pascack Valley, starting pitcher Kevin Donovan – a sophomore right hander McCaffery is happy to have two more seasons with – stymied a tough, Bergen County, 22-win squad on just two runs on four hits over the first six innings. Donovan didn’t have great control – he walked five and hit one batter – but he pitched his way out of jams and did his job by giving Cranford a chance to win.
Then senior right hander Vince Genova held the Indians to no runs on no hits the final two innings.
Cranford was solid in the field, committing only one error in eight innings.
During the course of the game senior leader Ryan Bakie made an outstanding running catch to his left for the first out of the bottom of the fifth and before that – in the top of the third – Jim Shriner, Mike Meola and Tom Armstrong produced opposite field hits to give Cranford a 2-0 lead. The production was all done with two outs and nobody on.
Then in the ultimate clutch, Oblachinski came through with the game-winning hit with two outs in the top of the eighth, an RBI-single up the middle that plated Matt Perino from second base.
For the game’s final out, Genova retired a pretty good hitter in Justin Martin on a ground ball to Oblachinski at short with the tying run on second.
Sophomore catcher Mike McGee punt down a perfect sacrifice bunt to move Perino with one out in the eighth. McGee also did well to throw out a runner attempting to steal second to end the sixth.
The number of players and the intangibles go on and on for the Cougars.
That is why they will now be playing in Toms River for a fourth time in eight seasons.
For Allentown, this is almost new territory. Head coach Brian Nice, who also guided Allentown to its lone state title in 2008, likes his team’s resiliency.
Allentown came back from a 3-0 deficit Wednesday to produce victory No. 25 and advance for the final time this season.
The top of the fifth was the turning point for the Redbirds vs. Highland as they sent nine batters to the plate and scored four runs to take the lead for good, snapping a 3-3 deadlock.
Leading Allentown in hits are Matt Colante with 34, Ryan Huth with 33, Aydon Chavis with 30 and Austin Ferrier with 20. Leading in RBI are Huth with 21, Guiseppe Arcuri with 18 and Ferrier with 15.
Top pitchers include Jordan Winston (9-0), Huth (6-0), Colton Johnson (4-0), and Jimmy Frein (4-1).
Winston entered Wednesday’s game against Highland in the second inning – after Highland scored its first three runs in the bottom of the first – and did not allow a run the rest of the way. He made two separate appearances while pitching a total of 5 and 2/3 innings. His first stint was from the second until the sixth. He was then called upon to re-enter in the seventh to get the final three outs.
Allentown also captured the Colonia Valley Conference’s Valley Division title in addition to winning the Mercer County Tournament championship. The Redbirds have won 15 of 16.
NOTES: McCaffery is now involved in a state championship game for the fourth consecutive decade ending in 7.
In 1987 as a senior he helped lead Roselle Park to the Group 1 state championship at Princeton, as the Panthers defeated Kingsway one year after falling to repeat champion Florence Township in the 1986 Group 1 final, also at Princeton.
In 1997 McCaffery was in his second of three years as an assistant to head coach James Shriner when Cranford defeated Sayreville 2-0 in that year’s Group 3 state championship game at East Brunswick Tech.
In 2007 Cranford played Seneca in the Group 3 state championship game at Toms River South, two seasons after falling to Seneca in the 2005 Group 2 semifinal played at New Egypt. Seneca, despite Cranford solo home runs from Jason Ingram leading off the game and junior Andrew Ciencin in the seventh, came out on top again by a 5-2 score behind Virginia-bound senior lefty Dan Grovatt’s three-hitter.
CRANFORD IN GROUP FINALS (5-3, won 3 in a row)
1971: Cranford beat Ewing in the first Group 4 state championship game.
1997: Cranford 2, Sayreville 0 – at East Brunswick Tech
2000: Hamilton West 5, Cranford 0 – at East Brunswick Tech
2003: Toms River South 9, Cranford 4 – at Toms River North
2007: Seneca 5, Cranford 2 – at Toms River South
2010: Cranford 15, Ocean City 3 (5 inn.) – at Toms River North
2012: Cranford 4, Freehold Borough 1 – at Toms River South
2013: Cranford 4, Burlington Township 2 – at Toms River East
ALLENTOWN IN GROUP FINALS (1-0):
2008: Allentown 11, Mahwah 6 – at Toms River East