SPRINGFIELD – Dayton.
Here’s the pitch: DePalma smacks a fastball to right field that seems deep enough to get the runner in from third.
Here comes Jeff Lau as he crosses home plate standing up.
Ball game over.
North Jersey, Section 2, Group 1 championship baseball game over.
The top-seeded Dayton Bulldogs repeat as the section’s champion, defeating third-seeded Secaucus 8-7 in Friday’s thrilling final at Ruby Field.
For the second straight season Dayton is a victory away from taking that first bus ride south to TomsRiver to play for a state championship.
“With a man on third in the bottom of the seventh and one out it’s my job to put the bat on the ball and drive it,” said DePalma, a junior infielder whose sacrifice fly with one out in the bottom of the seventh was the game-winning RBI. “I have to have confidence in myself.
“I got into it, hit it deep enough, and it was good enough to get the run in.”
Dayton will next play the winner of Friday night’s North 1, Group 1 championship game that pits Cedar Grove at Ridgefield on Tuesday at a neutral site in one of the two Group 1 semifinals.
The winner advances to the Group 1 state championship game at one of the three TomsRiver high schools in TomsRiver on June 7.
Dayton has never made it to TomsRiver. Last year the Bulldogs lost to North 1, Group 1 champion PomptonLakes 14-0 in the Group 1 semifinal played at William Paterson.
“We deserve this,” DePalma said. “It’s many of the same players from last year. No matter what the role on this team is everyone works hard and competes every day.”
Dayton improved to 24-4, extended its winning streak to seven and won for the second straight time in its final at-bat. Dayton also defeated fifth-seeded New Providence 4-3 in the bottom of the seventh in this past Tuesday’s semifinals.
Dayton is now 95-33 (.792) under head coach Mike Abbate, now in his fifth season at the helm. The Bulldogs have won four division titles in that span, including the Union County Conference’s Valley Division crown in 2010 and the Mountain Division championship the past three seasons, including this year.
“The biggest thing is that I value the conference championships,” Abbate said. “Three in a row shows consistency. I’m really proud of what we’ve accomplished in the conference and the states.
“We get to play for another day now.”
Secaucus, which saw its season come to an end at 16-10, took a 4-0 lead in the top of the first against Dayton senior right-hander Tommy Walsh.
In last year’s sectional final at home against 13th-seeded Roselle Park, Walsh went the distance – tossing a five-inning, seven-hitter – as fourth-seeded Dayton rolled to a 13-3 win for its first-ever sectional championship.
Friday’s victory did not come that easy.
Trailing 4-1 going into the bottom of the fifth, Dayton scored three runs in that frame to tie the game at 4-4. The Bulldogs then took the lead for the first time in the bottom of the sixth by scoring three more runs to pull ahead 7-4.
Now just three outs away from winning again, Walsh ran into trouble after getting the Secaucus leadoff batter to ground out to second. Back-to-back hard-hit singles and then a walk loaded the bases for the Patriots with one out.
Walsh then got ahead of the next batter, a lefty bat, with the count in the pitcher’s favor at 1-2. However, Walsh’s next pitch, a fastball, did not fool the Secaucus batter. He smashed the ball to deep right-center, splitting the outfielders, as all three Patriot baserunners came home to score.
That tied the game at 7-7, with Secaucus having the go-ahead run on third, still with just one out.
“I was losing site of the plate in the seventh inning,” Walsh said. “I had struck him out before and thought I could again.”
To the surprise of some, Secaucus tried to get the runner in from third on a suicide squeeze that failed miserably, with Dayton senior catcher Joe Iuliano easily applying the tag.
“I was not surprised that they tried that there, you try to score another run any way you can,” Walsh said.
“If they score on the play they look like geniuses,” Abbate said. “That’s baseball. I have a lot of respect for Secaucus. They had to beat a very good RosellePark team on the road to get here.”
After walking the batter that was up on the attempted suicide squeeze, Walsh retired the next Patriot hitter on a fly ball to center to keep the score at 7-7.
“I started rough by giving up four runs in the first inning, but I had faith in myself and my team,” Walsh said.
Abbate said that Walsh was at 86 pitches entering the seventh inning.
“Tommy, being a senior and one of the biggest competitors this program has ever had, was going to stay in there as long as they didn’t take the lead again in the seventh,” Abbate said. “I was only going to take him out if Secaucus went ahead again.
Jeff Lau, a senior, began the bottom of the seventh with an opposite field single to right that he was able to stretch to second base following an error by the Secaucus right fielder.
“Jeff, a senior for us, produced a big hit right there,” Abbate said.
Lau was sacrificed to third and then Alec Marcantonio, a lefty bat, was intentionally walked to set up a possible inning-ending double play.
DePalma made sure that didn’t happen by hitting the ball to the outfield.
“It’s not easy for me, but the kids have been in that situation plenty of times and always play until the very end,” Abbate said.
Walsh, like last year, was the winning pitcher in the sectional championship game, going the distance again – this time seven full innings.
Last year he improved to 8-1 and on Friday saw his record move forward to 10-1 this season.
“Last year we had a younger team and didn’t play in as many big games,” Walsh said. “This is another kid of game that will prepare us for when we play again on Tuesday.
“It’s a great team accomplishment to be able to win this (championship) two years in a row.”
Dayton has won at least 20 games the last three seasons and has seen win production increase or never go down during Abbate’s tenure. His first team in 2010 won 14 games, the 2011 squad won 17, the 2012 and 2013 units won 20 each and this year’s team has won 24 so far and hopes to add two more “Ws” to its 2014 resume.
“This is always our goal to win these championships, but in high school baseball you have to take it one game at a time,” Abbate said. “I’m also proud of the way the kids work hard in the off season and in the weight room.”
Abbate said that junior right-hander Chase Kimmel is the lead candidate to start on the mound for the Bulldogs in Tuesday’s Group 1 semifinal.
Kimmel (7-2) pitched four innings in the New Providence game this past Tuesday.