After not winning a division title – the Cougars actually finished under .500 (4-6) in Union County Conference-Watchung Division play – and falling short of defending their 2015 Union County Tournament crown by being eliminated in the UCT semifinals, yeah, you can say that the Cranford baseball team was more than determined to make the North 2, Group 3 playoffs a priority.
Fourth-seeded Cranford came back from a five-run deficit with a six-run bottom of the fifth at home against eighth-seeded Nutley in its 8-6 come-from-behind May 31 semifinal win and then followed that up with a 2-0 triumph at second-seeded Somerville in the June 3 final.
It didn’t matter that Cranford was facing Somerville’s best pitcher – senior LH Andrew Prescott, who will continue on the Division 1 level at Coastal Carolina. It took the Cougars into the seventh inning before they got to Prescott, but they did, scoring the game’s only two runs in that frame to support the two-hit, complete-game shutout tossed by sophomore RH Gordon Graceffo.
Cranford senior catcher and leadoff batter Joe Norton registered both Cougar hits, leading off the game with a triple and being stranded and then producing an RBI-single that drove home freshman Jim Shriner with an important insurance run.
Cranford snapped the scoreless deadlock in the top of the seventh when – with one out – junior third baseman Matt Perino put down a bunt that brought home junior Ryan Bakie from third, who was running on the pitch. With one out, Prescott walked Bakie and Shriner back-to-back.
Graceffo tossed a 1-2-3 bottom of the seventh and then Cranford celebrated the 10th sectional championship under the guidance of 18-season head coach Dennis McCaffery.
Since McCaffery took over as head coach in 1999, Cranford has now won North 2, Group 3 nine times and Central Jersey, Group 2 once in 2005. The nine titles in N2, G3 have come in 1999, 2000, 2003, 2007, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2016.
Cranford has now reached the N2, G3 final five years in a row and six times in the past seven seasons since 2010.
Cranford fell in the final at home to South Plainfield 4-2 in eight innings a year ago. In the six sectional title games they have played in since 2010, the one against Somerville is the only one the Cougars played on the road as the result of being the lower seed.
In state tournament play so far this decade, Cranford is now 24-2 in North 2, Group 3 games, including 5-1 in championship contests. The Cougars are also 3-1 in Group 3 semifinal games and 3-0 in Group 3 finals.
Cranford’s only loss in the Group 3 semifinals this decade came two years ago when the Cougars were edged by Mount Olive 1-0 in 11 innings at Belleville.
Cranford, which won its fourth straight to improve to 18-10, will next take on N1, G3 champ Northern Highlands in the June 7 Group 3 semifinal at Weehawken. The other June 7 Group 3 semi pits Central Jersey, Group 3 champion Nottingham vs. South Jersey, Group 3 champ Ocean City at Cumberland County College.
The Group 3 state championship game will take place June 11 at one of the three Toms River high schools. Cranford won its 2010 title at Toms River North, its 2012 crown at Toms River South and its 2013 championship at Toms River East.
NOTES: Cranford’s five sectional titles this decade have come against five different teams: Morristown (2010), West Morris (2012), South Plainfield (2013), West Essex (2014) and Somerville (2016).
Cranford also captured North 2, Group 3 in 1997 en route to the program’s second group state championship and first since 1971. McCaffery was an assistant coach under James Shriner during the 1996, 1997 and 1998 seasons.
Cranford won the first Group 4 state championship game in 1971 and has since captured Group 3 state championships in 1997, 2010, 2012 and 2013. The Cougars also reached the Group 3 final in 2000, 2003 and 2007. Cranford lost in the Group 3 semifinals in 1999 and 2014.
2016 NORTH 2, GROUP 3 BASEBALL
SEEDS: 1-Mendham. 2-Somerville. 3-Gov. Livingston. 4-Cranford.
5-Summit. 6-Warren Hills. 7-Snyder. 8-Nutley.
9-Carteret. 10-Colonia. 11-Matawan. 12-South Plainfield.
13-Orange. 14-Barringer. 15-Chatham. 16-Voorhees.
Monday, May 23
Mendham 2, Voorhees 1
Nutley 6, Carteret 2
Cranford 12, Orange 1
Matawan 3, Warren Hills 2
Colonia 10, Snyder 0
Tuesday, May 24
South Plainfield 3, Summit 2
Gov. Livingston 15, Barringer 0
Somerville 2, Chatham 1
Friday, May 27
Nutley 10, Mendham 5
Cranford 8, South Plainfield 1
Gov. Livingston 9, Matawan 0
Somerville 2, Colonia 1
Tuesday, May 31
Somerville 2, Gov. Livingston 1
Cranford 8, Nutley 6
Friday, June 3
Cranford 2, Somerville 0
2016: 4th seed
Final: Cranford 2, Somerville 0 – at Somerville
Final: South Plainfield 4, Cranford 2 (8 inn.) – at Cranford
South Plainfield was the third seed.
Final: Cranford 14, West Essex 4 – at Cranford
West Essex was the third seed.
Final: Cranford 5, South Plainfield 1 – at Cranford
South Plainfield was the second seed.
Final: Cranford 7, West Morris 0 – at Cranford
West Morris was the second seed.
Quarterfinals: Mendham 7, Cranford 3 – at Cranford
Mendham was the 10th seed.
Final: Cranford 9, Morristown 8 (8 inn.) – at Cranford
Morristown was the fifth seed.