CRANFORD, NJ — To say that Cranford High School baseball has taken its offense to another level in the state playoffs would be a proper understatement.
The Cougars scored in double digits for the third straight time on Monday, June 13, and for the fifth time in six state tournament contests to reach the Group 3 state championship game for the first time in five years.
On Monday, June 13, at its own Memorial Field in Cranford, the North 2, Group 3 champion Cougars trimmed North 1, Group 3 champ Ramapo High School, 12-1, to advance to the Group 3 state championship game against Central Jersey, Group 3 champion Middletown High School North.
The Group 3 final is scheduled to be played on Saturday, June 18, at 10 a.m. at Veterans Park in Hamilton.
Cranford came back in the sixth and seventh innings to win at top-seeded Millburn High School, 10-8, in the thrilling North 2, Group 3 sectional state championship game on Friday, June 10. It was the first time Cranford captured the section since 2017.
This is the eighth time since 2000 that head coach Dennis McCaffery, at the helm of the Cougars since 1999, is leading the Cranford baseball team into the Group 3 state championship game. McCaffery’s record in the previous seven is 3-4, with losses in 2000, 2003, 2007 and 2017 and wins in 2010, 2012 and 2013.
Cranford has won five state championships, the first in Group 4 and the other four in Group 3, since state championship games were decided on the diamond beginning in 1971. In 1971, led by head coach Norm Koury, Cranford defeated Ewing High School; in 1997, led by head coach James Shriner, Cranford defeated Sayreville War Memorial High School; in 2010, led by head coach Dennis McCaffery, Cranford defeated Ocean City High School; in 2012, led by McCaffery, Cranford defeated Freehold High School; and in 2013, led by McCaffery, Cranford defeated Burlington Township High School.
Cranford lost in the Group 3 final in 2000 to Hamilton West High School, in 2003 to Toms River High School South, in 2007 to Seneca High School and in 2017 to Allentown High School in extra innings.
Middleton North senior right-hander Colin Dowlen went the distance to beat South Jersey, Group 3 sectional state champion Delsea Regional High School, 6-1, in the other Group 3 semifinal on Monday, June 13. Dowlen led Middletown North to its 11th straight victory and its first appearance in a state final since 1983, when it was defeated by Elizabeth High School in that year’s Group 4 final.
Dowlen will also get the start against Cranford. He has been clocked in the 88- to 91-miles-per-hour range.
Cranford senior right-hander Will Gallagher (7-1) will get the start for the Cougars. Gallagher said he had to start batters off with his off-speed stuff, after Millburn slugged two home runs in the first inning to take a 4-0 lead.
It was a Gallagher single up the middle to center field with two outs, two strikes and the bases loaded in the top of the sixth that tied the Millburn game up at 5-5. Cranford won it with five runs in the top of the seventh, holding Millburn to three in the bottom.
Cranford still trailed 5-1 with two outs in the top of the sixth and were just four outs away from falling at Millburn for a second straight season in the North 2, Group 3 final. Cranford scored all four of its runs in the sixth with two outs and four of its five runs in the top of the seventh with two down.
After Millburn scored its final three runs to pull to 10-8, the Millers had the winning run up at the plate with two outs and two runners on in the bottom of the seventh. Relief pitcher Shane VanDam retired the game’s final batter on a fly ball to left.
In Monday’s win over Ramapo, Sean Woodruff, a junior, went the five-inning distance for Cranford. He allowed only one run on five hits, while striking out eight and not walking a batter.
Cranford increased its season-high winning streak to nine games. The Cougars had an eight-game winning streak earlier.
On Saturday, June 18, Cranford will attempt to produce a second season of winning their Union County Conference division and winning the Union County Tournament North 2, Group 3; its Group 3 semifinal; and now the Group 3 final.
Cranford first accomplished that feat in 2013, during a 25-1 season in which its only loss was a division split with Westfield. The Cougars repeated as Group 3 state champions in 2013 and, in 2000, captured their first state crown since 1997.
Photos by JR Parachini