BERKELEY HEIGHTS – The 2011 baseball season began for Governor Livingston with an incredible seventh inning rally that led the Highlanders to 1-0.
A little over a month later came the football-like score victory to send GL to the Union County Tournament championship game for the first time in four years, via a walk-off home run by senior Mike Cranston over the left field fence at Elizabeth’s Williams Field.
The very next Saturday came the worst day of the season, one that included two losses, the first by 12 runs at Kean University to the defending UCT champs.
GL followed that agony of defeat with the ultimate thrill of victory, capturing its first state championship in Toms River by this time defeating the defending champions in the Group 2 final.
The Highlanders won their final nine games in 2011 to conclude with a program-best at-the-time 26 wins. A 26-6 season included another Central Jersey, Group 2 championship and then the program’s second state championship as GL celebrated at Toms River North after defeating 2010 Group 2 state champ West Essex 8-2.
It was the first time GL won a state title in Toms River and it was also the first time head coach Chris Roof, a 1992 GL graduate, guided the Highlanders to one.
Cranston went the distance on the mound to finish with a career record of 22-4. The 22 wins was also a program record at the time.
The 2011 state championship squad, one of GL’s most impressive baseball teams, will be celebrated Wednesday, Nov. 21
from 7-10 p.m. at Mt Carmel Hall in Berkeley Heights – the Governor Livingston Highlander Alumni Baseball Dinner.
“What I remember the most is just being around a great group of kids,” Roof said. “They instilled what we taught them, to work hard, be disciplined and to never give up. They were a resilient bunch.”
On Opening Day – April 2, 2011 – Governor Livingston trailed visiting New Providence 6-0 going into the bottom of the seventh inning. It was the first game of the annual Highlander Classic at GL.
The Highlanders produced seven runs in the bottom of the seventh to not only start the year with an incredible comeback victory, but also advance to the HC championship game.
Union County Conference-Watchung Division wins followed at Scotch Plains 1-0 and then at Union 9-5 before GL faced Madison in the HC championship game the next Saturday.
GL, although playing the game at home, was the visiting team on the scoreboard. The Highlanders snapped a 4-4 tie with a single run in the top of the ninth to edge the Dodgers 5-4 and capture the title.
GL’s first loss followed two days later, a 7-5 decision at home to Watchung Division foe Elizabeth.
The Highlanders then reeled off four more victories in a row to take an 8-1 record into their first meeting against Cranford. In the first of their two Watchung Division games Cranford came out on top 6-2 at home.
Four more wins in a row followed, including shutout victories over Union Catholic and Plainfield and GL’s first-round UCT triumph over Summit.
The Highlanders were then blanked at Elizabeth 3-0 in Watchung Division play.
After a shutout win at home over Johnson, GL defeated Roselle Catholic in the UCT quarterfinals to get to Elizabeth for the semifinals.
In a battle of the 2009 (Scotch Plains) and 2010 (Cranford) UCT champions in the first semifinal at Elizabeth, Cranford came out on top 15-5. Five home runs were hit, four by the Cougars.
GL outlasted Westfield 17-14 in the nightcap, with five more home runs hit, four of them by the Highlanders. GL scored the game’s final three runs in the bottom of the seventh on a walk-off, three-run homer slugged by Cranston, who earlier in the game connected on a solo shot.
The Highlanders followed with an 8-2 home win over Summit before falling at home to Cranford 6-1 and dropping the Watchung Division series to the Cougars.
GL rebounded with an 8-7 Watchung Division win at Westfield two days before playing Cranford for a third time.
This time it would be in the UCT championship game at Kean University, with junior right handers Joey Graziano for the Highlanders and Kurt Rutmayer for the Cougars starting on the hill.
Cranford put some runs up early, a call didn’t go GL’s way and then things just sort of plummeted from there as the Highlanders were again denied their first UCT crown.
Later that night GL had a conference-crossover game scheduled against Dayton at Snyder Park in Berkeley Heights. That game didn’t go the way of the Highlanders either, with the visiting Bulldogs coming away with a 6-3 victory.
“We just lost the county final and really didn’t have that much left,” Roof said. “We played that night in a fundraiser game for someone that passed away, for a firefighter.”
GL losing twice in one day is not what many would have predicted for that Saturday, May 14.
The Highlanders did not play again until the following Saturday, a 7-1 home win over Essex County foe Columbia. That game would be the beginning of a season-ending nine-game winning streak.
“From there on we showed a lot of resiliency,” Roof said. “Only good teams, only championship teams can go on and win nine in a row after that.”
Central Jersey, Group 2 play commenced two days later, with GL easily dispatching Hillside 16-2.
After wins at out-of-county foes Pascack Hills and Mendham, GL downed visiting Rumson-Fair Haven in the CJ, G2 quarterfinals. Then came a win at home over Raritan in the semifinals.
For the third straight year GL was now home in the CJ, G2 final and didn’t want to lose it for a third consecutive time. Not the case as the Highlanders topped Middlesex 15-5 at home in five innings to win the section for the second time and for the first time since 2006.
GL was down 4-0 immediately in the first before scoring five runs in the second to take a 5-4 lead. Cranston started and won the game.
In the Group 2 semifinals, GL was also very decisive in a 12-3 win over South Jersey, Group 2 champion West Deptford in a game played at Monmouth University.
The Saturday, June 11 final at Toms River North was an 11 a.m. first pitch with GL seeking to prevent West Essex from repeating. The Highlanders were in control pretty much throughout the game, with Cranston mowing down almost every West Essex batter he faced.
West Essex finished as the No. 1 team in the state in 2010. GL finished as the No. 1 team in Union County in 2011 and was among the top ranked teams in the state for 2011.
Star-Ledger baseball writer Bob Behre named Roof the state’s Coach of the Year for 2011. Roof will be inducted into the Union County Baseball Hall of Fame at February’s annual Hot Stove Dinner in Clark.
GL players from the 2011 team that went on to play collegiately included junior catcher Keith Skinner (University of North Florida), junior right hander Joey Graziano (St. John’s), senior first baseman Joey DeSarno (Moravian), senior shortstop John Jennings (Rutgers), junior second baseman Tyler Martis (Siena), Cranston (Division 2 Adelphi where he pitched and played third base), designated hitter Ryan Place (Susquehanna), backup catcher Garrett Hain (Juniata), junior outfielder Aaron Smith (Wake Forest), junior center fielder-pitcher Billy Worswick (Division 1 Lasalle), freshman left fielder Ryan Jennings (Fordham) and junior right hander John Schmedel (Salisbury).
Hain is presently an assistant coach at GL.
Skinner was drafted by the New York Yankees in the 7th round of the 2016 MLB June Amateur Draft and has played professionally in the minor leagues the past three seasons. Graziano signed as a free agent with the Tampa Bay Rays, also in 2016, playing in the Gulf Coast League that season.
Jennings, in his first varsity game, delivered the game-winning hit – a two-out, RBI-double in the top of the fifth – that lifted GL to a 1-0 Watchung Division victory at Scotch Plains on Thursday, April 7. Graziano tossed a complete-game, three-hit shutout in his first start that season.
The 2011 title was GL’s second state championship. The first came in 1999 – also in Group 2 – and took place at East Brunswick Tech.
GL would later capture Group 2 for a third time in 2015, beating Bernards at Toms River South.
2011 – A GROUP 2 STATE CHAMPIONSHIP
SEASON TO REMEMBER FOR GL BASEBALL:
April 2 (H) Gov. Livingston 7, New Providence 6 – HC
April 7 (A) Gov. Livingston 1, Scotch Plains 0
April 8 (A) Gov. Livingston 9, Union 5
April 9 (H) Gov. Livingston 5, Madison 4 (9 inn.) – HC
April 11 (H) Elizabeth 7, Gov. Livingston 5
April 15 (H) Gov. Livingston 6, Westfield 4
April 16 (A) Gov. Livingston 12, Oratory Prep 5
April 18 (A) Gov. Livingston 13, Brearley 0
April 19 (H) Gov. Livingston 10, Linden 5
April 20 (A) Cranford 6, Gov. Livingston 2
April 26 (H) Gov. Livingston 4, Scotch Plains 2
April 29 (H) Gov. Livingston 5, Union Catholic 0
April 30 (H) Gov. Livingston 6, Summit 1 – UCT first
April 30 (H) Gov. Livingston 11, Plainfield 0
May 2 (A) Elizabeth 3, Gov. Livingston 0
May 3 (H) Gov. Livingston 2, Johnson 0
May 5 (H) Gov. Livingston 9, Roselle Catholic 3 – UCT quarters
May 7 (N) Gov. Livingston 17, Westfield 14 – UCT semis at Elizabeth
May 9 (H) Gov. Livingston 8, Summit 2
May 10 (H) Cranford 6, Gov. Livingston 1
May 12 (A) Gov. Livingston 8, Westfield 7
May 14 (N) Cranford 14, Gov. Livingston 2 (5 inn.) – UCT final at Kean
May 14 (H) Dayton 6, Gov. Livingston 3 – at Snyder Park
May 21 (H) Gov. Livingston 7, Columbia 1
May 23 (H) Gov. Livingston 16, Hillside 2 – CJ, G2 first
May 25 (A) Gov. Livingston 7, Pascack Hills 4
May 26 (A) Gov. Livingston 11, Mendham 9 (8 inn.)
May 27 (H) Gov. Livingston 3, Rumson-Fair Haven 2 – CJ, G2 quarters
May 31 (H) Gov. Livingston 7, Raritan 3 – CJ, G2 semifinals
June 3 (H) Gov. Livingston 15, Middlesex 5 (5 inn.) – CJ,G2 final
June 7 (N) Gov. Livingston 12, West Deptford 3 – G2 semifinal at Monmouth U.
June 11 (N) Gov. Livingston 8, West Essex 2 – G2 final at Toms River North
Highlander Classic: 2-0, champions
UCC-Watchung Division: 5-4, second
UCT: 3-1, finalists
CJ, G2: 4-0, champions
G2 semifinals, final: 2-0, champions