CRANFORD, NJ — Cranford High School captured the Union County Tournament championship last year en route to a 25-5 season that also saw the Cougars claim the North 2, Group 3 sectional state crown.
What was special about winning the program’s 10th county championship was that it was the first time since 2015 that Cranford was able to do so.
Since winning their first UCT title in 1999, the most years the Cougars went without winning a county crown was four during the span of 1999 to 2015, when Cranford won its first nine.
Cranford proved to be one of the most dominant champions last year as the top seed, beating four opponents by a combined score of 36-5. First came a first-round win at home against Rahway High School 10-0, followed by a 4-2 triumph against visiting Summit High School in the quarterfinals. Cranford then downed Westfield High School 10-1 in the semifinals at Kean University. It was Westfield who knocked Cranford out of the 2021 UCT with a 2-1 semifinal win at Elizabeth, sparked by a dominating pitching performance from senior right-hander Chris Ho.
In last year’s championship game against strong Group 1 program Jonathan Dayton High School, the 11th seed which beat Arthur L. Johnson High School, defending champion Governor Livingston High School and then New Providence High School in the semifinals, Cranford left no doubt with a resounding 12-2 triumph at Kean.
On Monday, May 1, Cranford garnered the top seed again for the 69th annual UCT that will have first-round action at the higher seeds on Saturday, May 6.
Cranford was 13-0 overall going into its scheduled Union County Conference-Watchung Division home game against Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School on Monday, May 1. Cranford, the defending Watchung Division champion, entered with a first-place 6-0 Watchung Division record, including a 14-2 triumph at Scotch Plains-Fanwood on Tuesday, April 11.
Cranford has won UCT titles in 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2007, 2010, 2011, 2013, 2015, and 2022. The only year Cranford has lost the UCT championship game since 1999 was in 2017, when the Cougars were defeated by Westfield in the final.
Cranford was also scheduled to play at Union High School on Wednesday, April 3, in the second annual Tip Your Cap Classic, and on Thursday, May 4, at 4 p.m., to host Arthur L. Johnson at Memorial Field. The Union and Arthur L. Johnson games are both Watchung Division contests.
Summit, which last won the UCT in 1998 when the Hilltoppers defeated Cranford in the final, was a candidate to get the No. 2 seed. Summit was 10-3 overall and led the UCC’s Mountain Division standings at 6-1 going into its scheduled home game on Monday, May 1, against West Morris Mendham High School.
Governor Livingston was 9-3 as of Monday, May 1, and on a seven-game winning streak, allowing only 18 runs. The Highlanders were tied for second place in the Watchung Division with Westfield at 4-2. The Blue Devils were 7-5 as of Monday, May 1.
Seeds two, three and four were most likely going to Summit, Governor Livingston and Westfield in whichever order the county coaches chose.
Eight first-round games at the higher seeds are scheduled for Saturday, May 6. The quarterfinals, also at the higher seeds, are set for Wednesday, May 10.
The semi-finals are scheduled for Saturday, May 13, at Arthur L. Johnson High School in Clark and the final for Monday, May 15, at Kean University in Union.
Cranford improved to 14-0 on Monday, May 1, with another 10-run win, this time 13-3 at home against Scotch Plains-Fanwood. The first-place Cougars improved to 7-0 in the UCC’s Watchung Division.
This is Cranford’s best start since the 2013 team went 17-0 before losing at Westfield 2-1 in Watchung Division play two days after beating Westfield 8-0 in the UCT final.
That Cranford squad 10 years ago, sparked by senior left-hander Ryan Williamson, who later played at North Carolina State, and senior catcher Chris Folinusz, who went on to star at Rutgers University, went 25-1 and finished No. 1 in New Jersey. The Cougars won the UCC’s Watchung Division, the UCT and repeated as North 2, Group 3 champs and overall Group 3 state champions.
Cranford won the Group 3 state championship in 2013 for the third time in four seasons, including in 2010 and 2012.
Junior right-hander Michael Zalinkanskas went five and one-third innings for Cranford, allowing three runs on five hits. He struck out six, walked three and hit one batter in earning the mound victory. His earned-run average is now 3.94.
Six different Cranford players had one hit and four scored two runs. Benjamin Monohan was 1-for-2 with two runs and three RBIs.
Summit improved to 11-3 overall on Monday, May 1, with a come-from-behind 10-9 home win against Mendham. After Mendham scored four times in the top of the seventh to take a 9-8 lead, Summit answered with two runs in the bottom of the seventh for the walk-off triumph.
Governor Livingston beat New Providence 5-1 at home on Monday, May 1, for its eighth straight win to improve to 10-3 overall and 5-2 in the Watchung Division.
As a result, the Highlanders earned the No. 2 seed for the UCT.
The top two seeds are the last two champions. Cranford, the No. 1 seed, won it last year and Governor Livingston, the No. 2 seed, won it in 2021.
2023 Baseball Union County Tournament
1-Cranford, 2-Governor Livingston, 3-Summit, 4-Westfield, 5-Arthur L. Johnson, 6-Elizabeth, 7-Scotch Plains-Fanwood, 8-Union, 9-David Brearley, 10-Jonathan Dayton, 11-New Providence, 12-Oratory Preparatory, 13-Union Catholic, 14-Linden, 15-Roselle Catholic, 16-Rahway, 17-Plainfield.