MILLBURN, NJ - With one of the premium high school hitters in New Jersey and one of the state's most undersung pitchers both turning in optimum performances, there was no way the Millburn baseball team could lose on Friday.
Richie Schiekofer went 3-for-3 with an RBI and a spectacular catch in center field, and Connor Lally pitched a one-hitter to lead top-seeded Millburn to its third NJSIAA Section 2, Group 4 championship in the last four years with a 3-1 victory over second-seeded Woodbridge.
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Millburn will meet Ridgewood or Randolph in the state Group 4 semifinal Tuesday at 4 p.m. at Rutgers University.
Millburn (24-5) scored a run in the first inning and two more in the third. Woodbridge (25-4) scored an unearned run against Lally in the second inning, but the senior right-hander retired the last 10 batters he faced--with Schiekofer and left fielder Matt Knowles each helping his cause by running down deep fly balls in the final inning.
Lally (7-1) struck out six batters and walked none, although he did hit two batters. Two of his strikeouts came against one of the state's most dangerous power hitters, Harry Rutkowski, who was 0-for-3. And five of Lally's six strikeouts were on called third strikes.
"I was getting ahead with fastballs by pounding the zone early, and then I was able to hit the outside corner later in the count," Lally said. "We have a great defense behind me, so I know if I don't allow any walks, it will be tough to beat us, and my defense made two outstanding plays."
The Millers opened the scoring against Woodbridge right-hander Zac Del Valle (9-2) after Schiekofer singled with two out in the first inning and stole second. Peter Serruto delivered him with an RBI single. But Woodbridge got that run right back in the top of the second. Zach Joe led off with a single to right field, advanced to second on a very close 4-1 groundout and then, after a strikeout, Justin Silva hit a high chopper that shortstop Peter Gula fielded and gunned to first base, slightly into the runner side of the bag. First baseman Mike Kologlu attempted to slap the tag on the oncoming Silva, who jarred the ball loose from Kologlu's glove as Joe came in to score, tying the game, 1-1.
With two out in the third inning, Millburn's Ben Pampush lined a single to left that sent Ben Sinins, on with a walk, to second. Schiekofer followed with a ground single through the hole into right field that scored Sinins. When Rutkowski, the Woodbridge first baseman, cut off the throw back to the infield, he threw it past second base trying to throw out Schiekofer taking the extra base. That errant throw allowed Pampush to score, giving the Millers a 3-1 lead. The RBI was Schiekofer's 42nd of the season.
"We put together great at-bats and battled through it," said Schiekofer, who will play baseball next year at the University of Maryland. "I love when guys are on base so I can drive them in. The count (in his third-inning at-bat) got to 3-0 and I got a fastball down the middle. I was able to get on top of it and hit it through the middle."
The only other hit Millburn had the rest of the game was Schiekofer's triple over the left fielder's head to lead off the seventh. He was one of few runners, though, that Millburn's batters were unable to deliver from scoring position in the state tournament. Woodbridge, with pitchers Rutkowski and Del Valle leading the way, had allowed just one run in three previous state tournament games.
But Lally, who has bounced back with a vengeance after losing to Seton Hall Prep in the Greater Newark Tournament championship game, has been spotless in the state tournament. He pitched a two-hitter to beat Scotch Plains-Fanwood in the quarterfinal round before Friday's one-hit masterpiece stymied Woodbridge. In 14 state tournament innings, Lally has allowed three hits, no earned runs and one walk while striking out nine.
"There is no one I want out on the mound more in a big game than Connor," Schiekofer said.
"Lally does not get the statewide credit he deserves," said Millburn head coach Brian Chapman. "People get so hung up on velocity, but if I want to get a big out, I want Connor on the mound. He will go down as an all-time great here at Millburn High School. He is a big-time arm, and he sets up all his pitches so well. It's his competitiveness. He's brilliant, and it seems like our defense is always a little better when he is on the mound."
Both Lally and Chapman reserved special praise, as well, for pitching coach Dave Drechsel, who not only works with the pitchers, but scouts opponents, puts together pitching game plans and calls the pitches.
"Dave Drechsel has been with me for seven years now," Chapman said. "And I have never worked with anybody better at coming up with a game plan for pitchers."