Sports

Gov. Livingston Baseball Wins Union County Championship: Gonnelli's Gem in UCT Final Lifts Highlanders over Westfield

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Credits: John Haddad
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Credits: Anne Hardina
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Credits: Anne Hardina
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Credits: John Haddad
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Credits: John Haddad
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Credits: John Haddad
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Credits: John Haddad
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Credits: John Haddad
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ELIZABETH, NJ - The Gov. Livingston baseball team won their 2nd UCT title in the past three years as they scored four late runs to surge past the defending champion Westfield Blue Devils for a 6-2 victory in the championship game of the UCT at Kean University. Highlander ace DJ Gonnelli, (5-0) pitched a masterful 72 pitch complete game, yielding only one earned run on five singles as he continued his domination of yet another Union County lineup this season. Gov. Livingston's senior centerfielder Jack Pedini came up with the game's biggest hit, as he connected for a two out sixth inning run scoring single to break a 2-2 tie putting the Highlanders ahead for good.

Gov. Livingston (20-2-1) with their championship win over No. 1 seeded Westfield won for the 18th consecutive time and will now set their sights on beating Cranford for the UCC- Watchung Division title on Thursday.

Coming into Monday's championship game, the two teams had split their regular season games, with each winning on their home field. The pitching matchup was an interesting one with both starters having virtually no big game pitching experience. Gov. Livingston coach Chris Roof handed the ball to his evolving lefty ace Gonnelli (5-0), who had pitched only five innings of varsity ball coming into this year. Gonnelli had not faced Westfield in either of previous two matchups this season. Long time Westfield coach Bob Brewster countered with junior Michael Carlone (5-2) who was on the mound as the winning pitcher in relief the last time Gov. Livingston lost a game back on April 10. Carlone, like Gonnelli, has come on strong this season as a solid go to guy on his team's pitching staff.

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The top of the Gov. Livingston lineup (D. Serretti, Compton, and Reid) has been deadly for opposing pitchers this season, combining for 31 home runs and over 100 RBI.  During their winning streak, the explosive Highlander offense has jumped on opposing pitchers early and that’s exactly what they did against Carlone scoring two first inning runs. However, the Highlander runs didn’t come about as a result of their booming bats, but more from a touch of the nerves as Carlone had early trouble finding the plate. Danny Serretti (1-4) opened the game with a sharp single to right and worked his way around the bases as Carlone walked Stephen Reid and hit Gonnelli with a pitch. Serretti then scored the game's first run on a wild pitch. Carlone quickly got ahead of Tyler McCulloch (3-4,2RBI) 0-2 before McCulloch ripped a double into right. Westfield caught a break when pinch runner Dylan Verschleiser was thrown out at the plate after Reid had scored the Highlanders second run of the inning. Carlone then struck out the next batter to end the inning.

Westfield came roaring back in the bottom half of the first as Gonnelli, who like Carlone, had a bit of the jitters as he struggled with his location. In Gonnelli's case, he was getting a bit too much of the plate as three of the first four hitters touched him up for singles. Gonnelli  helped himself out when he picked off leadoff man Matt McIntyre (1-3) off first, but also fell victim to an infield error before Chris Wagner (2-3,RBI) knocked in a run with a base hit. Jake Vall-Llobera (1-2, RBI) then tied the game as he hit a deep sacrifice fly to knot the game at 2-2. Gonnelli, like Carlone, closed out the first inning with a strike out.

Heading into the second inning, both Roof and Brewster had to be thinking about who they were going to turn to next if their respective pitchers had a repeat of their first inning mound woes. That thought would prove to be fleeting as both Gonnelli and Carlone quickly settled in, now unfazed by the huge crowd that had swelled around spacious Jim Hynes Stadium. Over the next five innings the two pitchers were locked in a classic pitching duel with both being the beneficiaries of several outstanding defensive plays.

Carlone was now in total command of his pitches and was using his off speed pitch to keep the big Highlanders bats off balance.

"Beginning in the second and third innings, Mike was throwing his change-up, getting it over and we were making great defensive plays behind him," said Brewster, in his 36th season as the Blue Devils' head coach. "He was pitching in the bullpen early this season, but (a couple of weeks ago) we started to stretch him out with a start against New Providence where he went four innings. -- We know he is good, and he's got great composure," Brewster said of Carlone. "He's gonna give us something now in the state tournament."

Gov. Livingston threatened in the fifth when Ryan Davey (2-3 2R) laid down a perfect bunt for a base hit to open the inning. After Davey stole second base, Carlone now had to deal with the "Big 3" at the top of the Highlander lineup. Carlone got Serretti swinging on a 3-2 count and Compton on a foul pop up, bringing up the ever dangerous Reid. Reid who has 11 homers on the season, just missed one against Carlone when the two teams played on April 10th. In that game Reid greeted Carlone, who entered the game in relief, with a 400 foot drive that hit the top of the fence for a long double at the equally spacious Edison Intermediate School field. Reid got a good rip against Carlone as he scorched a low liner to center field, but Blue Devil Stephen Barden made a diving catch to end the inning.

Gonnelli, now taking care of business, retired 9 batters in a row before Vall-Llobera hit an opposite field single in the fourth.  Drew Compton at third and Will Jennings in right both came up with several defensive plays which kept the Blue Devils off the bases. Prior to Vall-Llobera base hit, Jennings hauled in a deep drive to right field by Wagner to take away an extra base hit.  Compton made at least three outstanding plays during the game, including a spectacular diving stop of a hard grounder to his left and a perfect throw over to first for an out.

In the top of the sixth, with the game still knotted at two, Tyler McCulloch hit a hard smash down the third base line. Westfield's third baseman, Matt Manning knocked the ball down but his throw was wide of first base allowing McCulloch to reach second base. Carlone got the next batter to fly out bringing up No. 7 hitter Pedini (1-3, RBI). Pedini quickly found himself with a 0-2 count as he was having trouble picking up Carlone's breaking ball. It looked like Carlone had him fanned as Pedini barely fought off the next two pitches with foul balls. With a 0-2 count, Pedini said he was trying to put the ball in play and make something happen. With the entire Westfield crowd on their feet in anticipation of a punch-out, Pedini instead brought the Highlanders fans out of their seats as he hit a hard ground ball past short stop Andrew Caminiti for a run scoring single.

"I am happy to bring the second all time Union County Tournament Championship to GL and put a banner on the wall," said Pedini. 

With Westfield holding GL to five hits in six innings, the Highlanders had to take a more aggressive approach at bat. "We are averaging 10 plus runs per game, my last at bat I had to change my approach and just try not to do too much -- it's a bigger field. I knew I was getting a fast ball so I just tried to put a good bat on it and I found some green," said Jennings. 

"We started to be more aggressive [at bat]," said Gonnelli. "When we get guys being aggressive and hopping on pitches -- controlled aggression is a big part of our game -- I think that's what clicked for us."

Gov. Livingston still clinging to a 3-2 lead scored three times in the top of the seventh as Carlone had finally run out of gas. The Highlanders loaded the bases on a Davey base hit and two walks. After Carlone got Gonnelli on a line out the flood gates opened as McCulloch singled in a run and Jennings opposite field double plated two more. It looked like Brewster once again left a pitcher out there too long (108 pitches) as the Highlanders now held a 6-2 lead. The depth of the Highlander lineup was on full display as it was the middle to the bottom of the order that did the most damage to Westfield and Carlone.

There was no stopping Gonnelli in the bottom half of the seventh inning, as he easily closed out his fifth win of the year.  Gonnelli has become the ace that Gov. Livingston desperately needed as they headed into the season. Gov. Livingston had lost their entire starting pitching staff to graduation but Gonnelli, along with Liam Hulburt, John Grill and Ryan Monroy have all stepped up to complement  the Highlanders' explosive offense. There has been no better pitcher than Gonnelli ( 42 IP, 8 ER) in Union County this year and it was fitting that he walked off the mound as the game's winning pitcher.

Roof couldn't be prouder of the kids. "They deserve it -- I am so proud to be their coach," he said. He credits his pitching coach Matt Rago, "Our pitching coach is phenomenal -- we are so fortunate to have someone like that."  Gonnelli agrees, "The pitching staff that we had last year -- it shows that we had guys that really work hard over the off season. It's not just me, it's Liam [Hulburt] and Ryan [Monroy]. They really turned it up this season and I couldn't be more proud of those guys."

Gonnelli's focus is reinforced by his team that backs him up. "I was focused on letting my defense make the plays. I couldn't be more confident in those guys -- Danny [Serretti], Drew [Compton], Will [Jennings] and Tyler [McCulloch] and Jack [Pedini]. Having confidence in those guys and Ryan [Davies] being a first year first baseman who fills in for me when I pitch.  I couldn't be more proud of the team for how they played behind me." 

Gov. Livingston will now attempt to do something no other team in school history has ever done, win both the Counties and the states in the same season. The Highlanders will now carry their No. 4 state ranking into the NJSIAA state tournament competing in the Central Jersey, Group II section as the No. 1 seed. State tournament play begins on Monday, May 21 with the Highlanders having home field advantage throughout the sectionals.

The Highlanders will ready themselves for state tournament play with a busy week: Tuesday afternoon at Johnson, Wednesday at Cranford, home against Parsippany on Friday and back to Kean on Saturday to take on Pequannock.

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