MILLBURN, NJ - The Millburn varsity baseball team entered the 2015 season less than three months ago an unproven entity populated mostly by promising players untested on the varsity level.
Thirty games later, they're battle tested and decidedly "proven." And now the Millers are sectional champions, too.
Just 20 months after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his right elbow prior to entering his sophomore year in school, junior right-hander Kevin Czapelski scattered seven hits in a complete-game effort and fifth-seeded Millburn scored all its runs in the second inning to defeat sixth-seeded Ridge, 3-1, and win the NJSIAA Section 2, Group 4 championship Friday afternoon.
Millburn will move on to play Randolph, the Section 1 champ, in the overall state Group 4 semifinal Tuesday afternoon. The game is tentatively slated to be played in Belleville.
Junior righty Matt Bates turned in a stellar effort on the mound for Ridge (18-9-1), allowing just four hits, three of them in the decisive second inning. The Ridge hitters got some good swings and hit several hard line drives against Czapelski after that, and the knowledge that the Red Devils had rallied from a 5-1 deficit to defeat Scotch Plains-Fanwood three days earlier wasn't lost on Millburn coach Brian Chapman.
"Every team has quality guys in their lineup in Group 4, and Ridge certainly does," Chapman said. "But we've gotten unbelievable pitching throughout the state tournament, our defense played well and Kevin's been terrific."
Mike Garawitz' RBI triple highlighted the three-run second for the Millers (24-6), who will move on to the Group 4 semifinals on Tuesday, site and opponent to be determined. After Czapelski escaped a first-and-second jam with one out in the top of the second inning after Ian Solomon and Mike Rosmarin (who was 3-for-3) each singled, the Millers' offense came to life in the bottom of the second.
Max Birner beat out a grounder to shortstop with one out for a single. Garawitz followed with a booming drive deep into the fenceless spaces of right field for a run-scoring triple. He scored on Nick Minter's sacrifice fly to center, and after Ryan Adelman followed with a walk, Jordan Brisgel sliced a liner into the right field corner for an RBI double before advancing to third when the ball was bobbled in right. Brisgel is Millburn's No. 9 hitter in the lineup, but there's no caste system when it comes to where the Millers bat.
"The bottom (of the order) did it for us again," Chapman said. "That's was good baseball teams do. But Bates is an excellent right-handed junior, and our offense couldn't get anything going after that."
Ridge scored its only run in the top of the fourth. Bob Moskow launched a triple to deep right field leading off the inning and came in to score on Solomon's groundout to shortstop. Rosmarin followed with a one-out double in the gap to right-center, but he was left stranded when Czapelski got a groundout to second and a fly to right to quell the threat.
Czapelski struck out five batters, but just one after the first three innings. Although the junior gave up some hits, he was consistently ahead in the count and did not issue a walk in his 85-pitch effort.
"Kevin had Tommy John surgery in September 2013," Chapman said. "He played first base last spring and didn't start pitching again until last fall. Today, he realized a dream."
A couple of nifty catches in left field by Richie Schiekofer highlighted a strong defensive effort by the Millers, who have allowed just three runs in four state tournament games.
The victory was an emotional one, as well, for Chapman, who lost his father earlier this month and has dedicated the rest the season to his memory.