TOMS RIVER, NJ - Every year, thousands of high school baseball players across the country end their careers without a championship. Those same players enter their senior years hoping to capture that championship and end their careers with a “bang”. And for that championship victory to also be the head coach’s 300th victory would be an ending only served for fairy tales.
For the Governor Livingston Highlanders baseball team that fairy tale became a reality on Saturday when the team defeated the Bernards Mountaineers, 10-4, for the program’s first state championship since 2011. And to make the victory sweeter, Governor Livingston head coach Chris Roof picked up his 300th career victory in the process.
The Highlanders were once again paced by a talented senior class that will no longer have to worry about being a part of the thousands that graduate without a championship. Senior Mike Falk had a big day at the plate in going 2-3, including a third inning home run. The contributions of Falk’s classmates Ryan Zucker (2-4, 1 RBI, 1 run) and Dan Belfer (1-3, 2 RBIs, 1 run) were also instrumental in the victory. Belfer’s contributions were double-fold as the senior also picked up the win after pitching five innings and registering seven strikeouts.
In getting back to contributions at the plate, seniors Ethan Frohman and John Tedesco, junior Brian Cranston, sophomore Nick Cocchia, and freshman Dan Serretti also had hits.
Roof, who was overcome with emotion after the game, couldn’t have been more proud of his team and the humble coach couldn’t help but thank everyone but himself for helping him achieve his milestone.
“This was a storybook ending wasn’t it?” Roof, whose shirt was drenched thanks to a Gatorade bath, said. “I’ll take this championship victory whether it was my first, 100th or 120th win. Three hundred wins is the culmination of all the great coaches I’ve had with me and great players I’ve had come through this program. And for the 300th win to come in a game of this magnitude is special.”
The Highlanders never seemed fazed by the “so-called” pressure of a championship game and even when they bended a little bit, they never broke. The “bend but don’t break” mentality was evident at the top of the first. The Mountaineers were able to load the bases after a single, Hit-By-Pitch, and error. With two outs and the bases loaded, Belfer struck out the Bernards batter for the inning’s final out and squashed Bernards’ hopes of an early lead.
The Highlander batters rewarded Belfer in the bottom of the first inning by loading the bases thanks to a Serretti single and pair of base-on-balls. With the bases loaded and no outs, Bernards pitcher Kyle Oliver was in deep trouble early and got into more trouble when Falk blasted an RBI Double that scored Serretti and Frohman. Governor Livingston had a sudden 2-0 lead and Falk’s double was only scratching the surface of what was to come.
“We had the same mentality today that we’ve had every game which is staying loose and just playing our game,”,Falk said. “My personal mentality at the plate was to get pitches over the middle and barrel them up, which is what I do. Thankfully, I got those pitches today.”
By the time the second inning rolled around, the usually loose and charismatic Belfer was as loose as ever. Belfer made quick work of Bernards’ batters over the next three innings and didn’t allow a single hit. Belfer registered five strikeouts during that same span.
“That first inning was probably due to nerves which I don’t usually feel so I guess it was a fluke,” Belfer said. “Coming into today, I just wanted to throw cheese and nothing else. I knew I could locate pitches and would play to the best of my abilities.”
With Belfer settled down on the mound and his team still holding a 3-0 lead, Falk blasted a home run over the center field wall in the third inning to give his team a 3-0 lead.
Not even at the game’s midpoint yet, Falk had already put his stamp on Saturday’s game and erased the frustrations of the last few weeks. Falk missed the past two days of practice due to a virus and nagging calf injury. For the senior to put all the frustration behind him and give his team the boost he did at the plate on Saturday made his performance even more special.
“Mike is a special player that we’re really gonna miss,” Roof said of Falk. “But ALL the kids really came to play today. They had a great attitude and got some big hits. Getting up a couple runs early was huge and we put a lot of pressure on a Bernards team that can swing the bat pretty good.”
In the bottom of the fourth, Belfer’s teammates once again rewarded their pitcher with a big inning at the plate despite Bernards having a new pitcher, Danny McDonnell, on the mound.
After Zucker and Cocchia hit a pair of singles to get on base, Serretti joined them courtesy of a base-on-balls. Frohman stepped to the plate and hit an RBI single that scored Serretti and extended the Highlanders’ lead to 4-0. With the bases still loaded, McDonnell walked two consecutive Governor Livingston batters which led to two more runs.
Belfer’s sacrifice fly to score Frohman put a stamp on the inning and give his team a 7-0 lead.
Down 7-0, Bernards refused to go down without a fight and proved Roof’s statement true about their offensive potential. The Mountaineers scored two runs on three hits in the fifth inning highlighted by a Luke Bowerbank home run. Belfer once again got himself and his team out of a jam in the fifth inning after forcing a ground out to end the inning. A team like Bernards can heat up real fast so it was crucial that Belfer not allow that home run turn into more runs.
Belfer’s ability to remain calm in the moment is a reason he’s one of the Governor Livingston’s top two pitchers and the reason Roof didn’t hesitate to put him on the mound in a game of this magnitude.
“Belfer’s performance today doesn’t surprise me,” Roof said. “Danny’s a veteran that’s pitched in a lot of big games for us. He’s got big wins against Cranford, Ridge, and Scotch Plains this year, and now you can tack on Bernards to that list.”
Unfortunately, it’s tough for pitchers to be effective for an entire game. After struggling in the early part of the sixth inning, Roof determined it was time to give Belfer a break and went with the fresh Cocchia. By the time the top of the sixth inning was over, the Mountaineers had scored two more runs on an RBI double and sacrifice fly.
Holding a 7-4 lead heading into the bottom of the sixth inning and with the Mountaineers’ sights set on a comeback, the Highlanders decided it was time to put the game out of reach for good. With two outs, Belfer hit an RBI double that scored Frohman to give the Highlanders an 8-4 lead.
Tedesco and Zucker followed Belfer’s RBI double with RBI doubles of their own to push the lead to 10-4. The three-run sixth inning, spearheaded by Belfer, dashed the Mountaineers’ comeback hopes.
“That sixth inning was a blast,” Belfer said. “I sounded like a schoolgirl the way I was yelling during that inning. It was fun to say the least. I just feel elation right now. This is better than I’ve ever felt before.”
Cocchia’s two strikeouts in the game’s final inning helped seal the deal as the Highlanders were once again state champions.
“This is the best feeling in the world,” Falk said. “I’m so happy. It’s a great feeling to know we went out on top.”
Roof summarized Saturday’s game and the special 2015 season in as good a way a coach can.
“I love my team,” Roof said. “This was really, really a special team and more like a family. They played for one another, worked so hard every day and came to work every day with a lunch pail mentality. They deserve this. I told the kids to soak it in because championships don’t come around a lot.”