CRANFORD, NJ — Seeking a sixth state title and its first since 2013, the Cranford High School baseball team was denied on the field by Middletown High School North in the Group 3 state championship game at Veterans Park in Hamilton on Saturday, June 18. Middletown North won the game, 5-4, in eight innings.
Cranford’s appeal to the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association that, by its count, Middletown North starting pitcher Colin Dowlen went past the 110-pitch limit was also denied, on Monday, June 20.
In a story published on NJ.com on Monday, June 20, it was reported that NJSIAA Executive Director Colleen Maguire wrote to Cranford Athletic Director Darren Torsone late that afternoon, saying she had “reviewed Cranford’s appeal and supporting documentation, Middletown North’s response, a report from the tournament director and state rules interpreter, and spoke directly with the game’s official pitch counter.”
“Based on my investigation,” Maguire said, “I have concluded that the result on the field must stand. I do not make this decision lightly. The baseball pitch-count rules are designed to protect the health and safety of student-athletes. Those rules include procedures to make sure that pitch counts are accurate, and that both teams have input throughout the game to ensure that accuracy.”
Maguire ultimately decided that the conclusion on the field of play stood because, despite acknowledging the official pitch counter’s error and that the Middletown North pitcher had exceeded the limit, Middletown North coach Ryan McCabe checked in with the official pitch counter every half-inning and Cranford coach Dennis McCaffery did not.
Cranford relied instead on a scoreboard display — something Maguire’s letter says coaches were warned in a memo on Thursday, June 16, not to do.
Maguire quoted the content of that memo, saying, “The pitch count on the scoreboard is unofficial, as the operator is in the press box, not seated next to the pitch counter.”
Teams keep their own pitch counts, but, for the four public school state championship games played on DeMeo Baseball Field on Saturday, June 18, an NJSIAA official also kept a pitch count. The scoreboard also showed the pitch count of both pitchers.
Vincent Smith of Middletown was the NJSIAA official who was supposed to keep a correct pitch count. He did not have anything to do with the pitch count numbers on the scoreboard.
So Middletown North wins its first-ever state title and finishes 21-10, winning its final 12.
Cranford is denied its first state championship in nine years, has a nine-game winning streak come to an end, and closes 25-5.
After Middletown North tied the game at 4-4 in the bottom of the sixth as the result of an unearned run on a Cranford throwing error, the Cougars had runners on first and second with one out in the top of the seventh but could not score. Cranford senior catcher Lucca Limeira flew out to left and Shea Grady struck out swinging. During the inning, Cranford challenged Dowlen’s pitch count.
The challenge continued before Middletown North came up to bat in the bottom of the seventh. Nothing changed.
With one base runner reaching on a walk, Cranford starting pitcher Will Gallagher managed to hold the Lions scoreless in the bottom of the seventh to send the game to extra innings.
Dowlen retired the first batter he faced in the eighth and was then done given the 110-pitch count rule, although Cranford had him finishing with 121. Exactly how many pitches Dowlen threw was clearly up for debate, as it was disclosed that there was a 10-pitch disparity going back to the first inning. Smith, the NJSIAA official, apparently had Dowlen down for only nine pitches thrown in the first inning instead of the 19 he actually threw.
Cranford head coach Dennis McCaffery went back and watched the game on film on Saturday, June 18, and came to the conclusion that Dowlen should have been taken out in the seventh, which was when he really reached the 110 limit.
The NJSIAA rules state that if a team uses a pitcher past the 110 limit, then that team must forfeit the game.
The NJSIAA adopted this pitch rule several years ago because certain coaches just kept letting pitchers pitch until they risked injuring themselves through exhaustion and overpitching.
As far as the game goes, Cranford was four outs away from capturing its fifth Group 3 state title and first since 2013.
Errors proved costly, however, and Middletown North, coming off its first sectional state championship in 33 years, took advantage.
The Lions pushed across the tying run in the sixth and the winning run in the eighth — both unearned and with two outs — to defeat the Cougars.
As a result, Middletown North captured its first state championship in only its second appearance in a group final. The Lions lost in the 1983 Group 4 state championship game to Elizabeth High School.
Cranford repeated as the Union County Conference’s outright Watchung Division champion at 10-2, captured the Union County Tournament crown for the first time since 2015 and then won North 2, Group 3 for the first time since 2017.
Both starting pitchers drove in runs.
Both teams had players hit solo home runs.
Both teams scored runs on wild pitches.
Matt Adamson, in relief, was the game’s winning pitcher, while Gallagher took the loss for Cranford.
Cranford scored first when senior right fielder Shane VanDam slugged a solo home run over the left field fence with two outs in the top of the first.
Middletown North came right back with two runs in the bottom of the first. Dowlen hit a smash just past Cranford first baseman Tony Silva for an opposite-field single to right to tie the game at 1-1. Middletown North then took the lead at 2-1 when a runner scored from third on a wild pitch.
Cranford tied the game in the top of the second on a sacrifice-fly RBI to left field hit by Ryan Jaros. Leadoff batter Jake Carter scored. Carter led off the inning with the game’s first walk and then stole second and moved to third on a throwing error.
Cranford had the leadoff batter on in the first three innings. The Cougars had first and second and nobody out in the second and didn’t score and had a runner on second with one out in the third and did not score again in the inning after tying the game.
Gallagher gave up two runs before getting his first out but then settled down. He retired the side in order for the first time in the third.
Dowlen then retired the side in order for the first time in the fourth.
Middletown North took the lead for the second time in the bottom of the fourth with two outs and nobody on. Gallagher retired seven in a row before senior designated hitter Andrew Lombardi blasted a solo home run over the center field fence to make it 3-2 Lions.
Cranford had runners on first and second with one out and Jaros and VanDam up in the fifth but did not score. Jaros flew out to right and VanDam flew out to center.
Gallagher set down the side in order for the second time in the fifth, throwing only 60 pitches through five innings.
Limeira led off the top of the sixth with a walk, the second issued by Dowlen. The Cougars could not move Limeira, however, as Grady’s attempted sacrifice bunt was hit too hard back to Dowlen, who started a 1-6-3 double play.
Dowlen then walked Silva to reach 88 pitches. Designated hitter Jack Conley then beat a throw to first by the Middletown North third baseman on a bang-bang call that could have gone either way.
The safe call by the first base umpire proved huge, as Gallagher followed with an RBI single to left center that tied the game at 3-3. Cranford took its second lead and first since it led 1-0 in the first inning on a wild pitch that scored Conley from third to put the Cougars back in front 4-3.
Again, Middletown North immediately came back to tie the game. With two outs and nobody on, Gallagher hit a batter for the second time, and then the next batter reached base on a throwing error by Jaros.
Lombardi followed with his second hit, an RBI single past Jaros at third base and down the left field line, to tie the score at 4-4. Gallagher then retired the next batter on a pop-up to second.
Before Gallagher hit the batter, he had retired 12 of the previous 13 batters he faced.
Dowlen pitched 7 1/3 innings, allowing four runs on 10 hits. The Seton Hall–bound pitcher struck out four and walked four.
Adamson came in from center field, and the left hander closed the inning scoreless, getting the final two outs after hitting a batter.
Dowlen led off the eighth with an infield hit off Gallagher’s glove, and then Michael Weinbel produced a hit off the glove of Jaros to put runners on first and second with nobody out. That was it for Gallagher, who went seven innings plus two batters, giving up five runs on seven hits, while striking out three, walking one and hitting two batters.
Right-hander Sean Woodruff took the mound and got Zachary Hampton to fly out to deep center, with Dowlen tagging up and going to third. Lombardi was then intentionally walked to load the bases.
On a 2-2 pitch, Jason Quardt hit a ball right back to Woodruff, who threw home for the first out of what Cranford was attempting to be an inning-ending double play. Unfortunately for the Cougars, it didn’t work out, as Dowlen came home to score on a game-ending error.
Notes: Carter had three hits for Cranford, VanDam two, and Conley, Silva and Grady had one each.
VanDam with his home run, Jaros with his sacrifice fly and Gallagher with his single drove in runs for the Cougars. Cranford’s other run came on a wild pitch.
In Cranford’s previous Group 3 final, the Cougars lost to Allentown High School 5-1 in eight innings at Toms River High School South in 2017. That was the last year the state championship games were played at the three high school fields in Toms River.
This was the first time Cranford played in a state championship game at Veterans Park in Hamilton. The NJSIAA moved the state championship games to Hamilton in 2018.
2022 Cranford Cougars
• April 1: Cranford 15, Summit 5, home.
• April 4: Cranford 8, Jonathan Dayton 4, away.
• April 5: Cranford 7, Scotch Plains–Fanwood 2, home.
• April 8: Cranford 4, Westfield 3, home.
• April 11: Cranford 6, Arthur L. Johnson 2, home.
• April 12: New Providence 9, Cranford 3, away.
• April 13: Middletown South 2, Cranford 1, away.
• April 18: Cranford 11, Union Catholic 1, away.
• April 19: Cranford 10, Union 0, home.
• April 22: Cranford 19, South Brunswick 7, Autism Awareness Games at North Brunswick, neutral.
• April 24: James J. Ferris 4, Cranford 2, at Weehawken, neutral.
• April 26: Cranford 9, Governor Livingston 4, away.
• April 28: Cranford 17, Scotch Plains–Fanwood 5, away.
• April 29: Cranford 17, Westfield 5, away.
• May 3: Cranford 6, Arthur L. Johnson 5, away.
• May 5: Cranford 13, New Providence 3, home.
• May 9: Cranford 19, Union 6, away.
• May 10: Cranford 5, Bayonne 2, home.
• May 14: No. 1 Cranford 10, No. 17 Rahway 0, UCT first round, home.
• May 17: Governor Livingston 10, Cranford 7, home.
• May 18: No. 1 Cranford 4, No. 9 Summit 2, UCT quarterfinals, home.
• May 21: No. 1 Cranford 10, No. 4 Westfield 1, UCT semifinals at Kean, neutral.
• May 23: No. 1 Cranford 12, No. 11 Jonathan Dayton 2, UCT final at Kean, neutral.
• May 26: Cranford 13, Notre Dame 4, home.
• June 1: No. 3 Cranford 11, No. 14 Rahway 0, N2G3 first round, home.
• June 4: No. 3 Cranford 5, No. 6 Mendham 1, N2G3 quarterfinals, home.
• June : No. 3 Cranford 12, No. 2 James J. Ferris 1, N2G3 semifinals, away.
• June 10: No. 3 Cranford 10, No. 1 Millburn 8, N2G3 final, away.
• June 13: Cranford 12, Ramapo 1, Group 3 semifinals, home.
• June 18: Middletown North 5, Cranford 4 (8 innings), Group 3 final at Veterans Park, Hamilton, neutral.
UCC-Watchung Division: 10-2, repeat outright champs.
Runs for: 282.
Runs against: 104.