WEEHAWKEN – Cranford survived back-to-back innings where Northern Highlands had the bases loaded and did not score.
Down by two runs and then by one during those frames, it appeared that the Cougars escaping further damage might be the momentum they needed to perhaps tie the game or take the lead for the first time.
That might have been all well and fine except for one thing. Cranford couldn’t figure out NH senior right hander Noah Abdalla.
Before and after Cranford’s only run – which was a fourth inning, leadoff, solo home run slugged over the 280-foot right field fence by lefty-batting junior designated hitter Tom Armstrong – the Highlanders did not score after loading the bases with one out in the bottom of the third and with two outs in the bottom of the fourth.
Following Cranford getting two baserunners in the top of the fifth, but failing to score to remain one run down, Northern Highlands finally broke the game open in the bottom of the inning.
With first and third and one out, Andrew Keenan got his bat on an off-speed pitch thrown by Cranford reliever Gordon Graceffo and managed to drive in Matt Dipasupil from third on a ground out to short.
On the next pitch following an errant pickoff attempt at second base, Kieran Flynne drove Evan Knutzen home with a single to left. On the next pitch after that, left-swinging Alex Wiener blasted a two-run homer over the right field fence and there you had it.
The Highlanders broke through with a four big insurance runs in the fifth. Abdalla followed with his only two perfect innings, the sixth and seventh, helping lead North 1, Group 3 champion Northern Highlands to a convincing 6-1 win over North 2, Group 3 champ Cranford in Tuesday’s baseball Group 3 semifinal at Weehawken High School’s field right before the Lincoln Tunnel.
For the first time in program history Northern Highlands will be heading to Toms River to play in a group state championship game, Group 3 this time. The Highlanders won their fifth straight to improve to 21-10.
Cranford, which fell in the Group 3 semifinals for the second time in three years after winning the Group 3 state championship three times in four years from 2010-2013, saw a promising season close at 18-11.
Abdalla, who will continue playing on the Division 1 level at Georgetown, improved to 6-3 after yielding one run on six hits, while striking out six and walking two in an economical 82-pitch outing.
“He had a fastball, slider and changeup-knuckleball and threw all of them well,” Cranford head coach Dennis McCaffery said. “He pitched a really good game. When you’re getting strikes on both sides of the plate that’s how you win high school games.”
Abdalla felt pretty solid right from the start. After giving up hits in each of the first five innings, he retired the final seven batters he faced, including 1-2-3 sixth and seventh innings.
“I knew we were playing a great team, they were here for a reason, and we knew they would be hungry,” Abdalla said. “When we scouted them I saw an aggressive team that looks to swing early in the count.
“I tried the keep the ball down. I felt like I had all my pitches and ended up having a pretty low pitch count. I give credit to the guy (Armstrong) who hit the home run. I tip my hat to him. He got the best of one of my fastballs.”
NH head coach Paul Albarella was never concerned one bit about whether Abdalla would be effective against the Cranford lineup.
“Noah was outstanding,” Albarella said. “He worked ahead, threw strikes and he’s been an ace for us all year.
“He works quick. He was as cool as they come. If this turns out to be the last high school game he pitches, then he went out with a bang.”
Abdalla was helped in the bottom of the second when junior Zach Dreznin – on the first pitch he saw – smacked a fastball over the 365 foot right-center field fence to snap the scoreless deadlock and give NH a 2-0 lead. Dreznin’s round-tripper came exactly after Knutzen produced the first Highlander hit off Cranford starter Chris Librera, an opposite field single to right leading off the inning.
It was Dreznin’s first home run of an abbreviated – due to the 30-day transfer rule – junior campaign.
“I was looking for a fastball right away on the first pitch, got it and took a good swing,” said Dreznin, a junior Bergen Catholic transfer who has given a verbal commitment to continue playing at Notre Dame.
This game was, ultimately, a case of Cranford surviving for a while, but eventually giving up one big inning that sealed the Northern Highlands victory.
“We dodged two bullets (the third and fourth innings), but couldn’t do it the inning they scored four times,” McCaffery said. “They swing the bats well.”
Librera (4-3) pitched the first three innings and was then taken out after hitting leadoff batter Keenan in the fourth. He allowed two runs on three hits, while striking out two and walking three in a 54-pitch effort. To his credit, Librera retired Dreznin the second time he faced him, which was with the bases loaded and two outs in the third. Throwing all off-speed stuff this time, on the fourth pitch of the at-bat Librera managed to get Dreznin to hit the ball to shortstop for an inning-ending 6-5 fielder’s choice out at third.
Graceffo pitched the final three innings, allowing four runs on three hits, while striking out one and walking three. Tossing 45 pitches total, Graceffo retired the side in order on just nine pitches in the bottom of the sixth.
Northern Highlands was limited to six hits and only hit safely in three of their six at-bats – the second, third and fifth innings.
“Chris and Gordon kept battling,” McCaffery said.
Dreznin (5-1) expects to get the mound start against Ocean City in Saturday’s Group 3 final.
“We have two aces, Noah and Zach,” Albarella said.
Cranford came away with one title this season, its fifth North 2, Group 3 crown this decade.
“Our seniors have done a lot of winning the last three years,” McCaffery said.
Cranford catcher Joe Norton threw out one baserunner attempting to steal second and NH backstop Paul Mast threw out two trying to steal the same base.
GROUP 3 BASEBALL SEMIFINAL AT WEEKHAWKEN
Cranford (18-11) 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 – 1 6 1
Northern Highlands (21-10) 0 2 0 0 4 0 x – 6 6 0
Northern Highlanders senior RH Noah Abdalla (6-3)
Cranford junior RH Chris Librera (4-3)
Cranford – Tom Feeney, Brian Oblachinski, Garrett Forrestal, Ryan Bakie (bunt), Joe Norton (infield),
Northern Highlands – Evan Knutzen, Breylin Jones, Matt Dipasupil, Kieran Flynne.
Cranford – None.
Northern Highlands – None.
Cranford – None.
Northern Highlands – None.
Cranford – Tom Armstrong.
Northern Highlands – Zach Dreznin, Alex Wiener.
2-Joe Norton, senior catcher
10-Tom Feeney, senior first baseman
4-Garrett Forrestal, senior left fielder
36-Mike Smith, senior shortstop
55-Tom Armstrong, junior designated hitter
35-Brian Oblachinski, junior second baseman
15-Ryan Bakie, junior freshman
13-Jim Shriner, freshman right fielder
21-Matt Perino, junior third baseman
60-Chris LIbrera, junior pitcher (did not bat)
NORTHERN HIGHLANDS HIGHLANDERS:
4-Tyler Shedler-McAvoy, senior center fielder
27-Breylin Jones, freshman shortstop
5-Matt Dipasupil, senior second baseman
5-Evan Knutzen, senior left fielder
10-Zach Dreznin, junior third baseman
18-Andrew Keenan, senior first baseman
29-Kieran Flynne, senior right fielder
31-Alex Wiener, senior designated hitter
14-Paul Mast, senior catcher
2-Noah Abdalla, senior pitcher (did not bat)