CRANFORD - When Aiden Plick heard the Last Dance Tournament was announced, he told his father that Cranford was winning the whole thing, and he meant every word of that.
222 teams entered the tournament, and the easy money was that one of New Jersey’s powerhouse private schools such as Don Bosco Prep or Bergen Catholic would win it all. But those are just two of the dragons that Cranford slayed on its way to be crowned the No. 1 team in New Jersey.
“We just knew what our lineup was capable of coming into this year,” said Plick. “Every single guy in our group chat as soon as we got that text that we were playing said 'we’re winning this.' There was never any doubt. It didn’t matter who we had to play. We were going to find ways to scrap out wins and get the job done. We had people all over telling us we didn’t have a shot and that there’s no point in playing. But we knew.”
Entering Friday, Cranford had just one more mountain to climb in South Region Champion Jackson to say they were the best of the best. The Cougars wasted no time proving they deserved to be in the final as they strung together five hits and four runs in the opening inning, followed by another eight runs in the third as Cranford defeated Jackson Memorial, 12-2, in the NJ Last Dance High School World Series final, at Arm & Hammer Park.
“It’s a credit to the kids and a credit to the community,” said Cranford head coach Dennis McCaffery. “These kids worked very hard. They actually like each other and they like being around each other. They made the decision that they were going to be totally dedicated and focused and they did it.”
Following back to back gems on the mound by Will Gallagher and Rob Salvatore, it was Joe Carea who got the nod on Friday. Carea cruised through the first four innings, but hit a snag in the fifth as he issued a walk, two hits, and hit a batter, which allowed Jackson its only two runs. Unphased with still a 10-run lead, Carea was able to move on and strike out the next batter and crown Cranford the State Champions.
“I don’t want to be cocky saying it, but we’re the best team in New Jersey. No one can deny that,” said Carea. “We’re constantly putting work in. We’re constantly striving to get better. That’s what we do.”
As was the case the whole tournament, Cranford’s entire lineup contributed. Marcus Johnson had a hit and drew a bases loaded walk. Ryan Jaros plated three with a double. Plick added a double and an RBI. Jake DiClerico and Jake Chapman each reached base twice. Mike Murphy drove in a run with a sacrifice fly. Luca Limeria went 2-for-3 with an RBI. Joe Meola had a two-run double, and Will Gallagher singled home a run.
For 14 Cougars, it was officially their last dance on the high school baseball diamond, but excitement remains with the future of the program. Though he won’t get to play for this team again, DiClerico, a senior, simply said, “The future is bright for Cranford baseball.”