TOMS RIVER, NJ - After riding high for most of the season's first month, the Millburn varsity baseball team faced a potential crisis at the end of April when junior Kyle Mazer, its ace pitcher to that point in the season, crumpled to the ground during a live situations drill in practice.
One of the youngest teams the Millburn varsity has ever fielded in head coach Brian Chapman's seven-year tenure, the Millers would face a stern test, as Mazer had a 4-0 record with a 0.47 earned-run average at the time of his season-ending ACL injury, which required surgery (he's expected to return at full strength for his senior season).
But part of Millburn's perennial success is based on a "next-man up" philosophy, and as senior right-hander Connor Lally stepped into Mazer's role as the team's ace starting pitcher, relief pitcher Mike Kologlu stepped into a starter's role and junior right-hander Alex Byington stepped into the breach Kologlu had left as an all-purpose relief pitcher.
The yeoman's work of all three pitchers has helped deliver Millburn (25-5) back to the NJSIAA Group 4 state championship game for the second time in three seasons. Millburn will take on Hunterdon Central (24-5) Saturday at 2 p.m. at Toms River North High School. Hunterdon Central was last year's Group 4 champion. Millburn won the Group 4 title in 2015.
Lally (7-1, 1.45 ERA) will get the call as Millburn's starting pitcher, bidding to keep his remarkable streak of post-season pitching alive. Lally has pitched a two-hitter and a one-hitter--both complete games--in his two state tournament starts, and he'll be facing Hunterdon Central on seven days' rest. Lally has allowed just 24 hits in 58 innings this season, with 20 walks and 42 strikeouts. Kologlu and Byington combined to stop hot-hitting Ridgewood in Millburn's 8-2 victory in the Group 4 semifinal on Tuesday. Both Kologlu (8-0, 0.65) and Byington (0.91 ERA in 23 innings) are also both available to pitch in relief.
"Connor is not the same pitcher now that he was in April--he is far better now," Chapman said. "I attribute that to his command, his ability to attack and to throw more meaningful pitches and keep people on their heels. He is committed now to being more efficient."
Hunterdon Central, though, has won nine in a row and hasn't lost since Scotch Plains-Fanwood sophomore left-hander Danny Wilkinson shut out the Red Devils on May 12. Two weeks after that, Millburn put up five runs in five innings against Wilkinson to advance past Scotch Plains-Fanwood in the Section 2, Group 4 quarterfinals. Sophomore Joey DeChiaro (7-1) will likely be Hunterdon Central's starting pitcher. DeChiaro has allowed one earned run in two games and 8 1/3 innings in the state tournament.
Senior centerfielder Richie Schiekofer, who will play baseball in the Big 10 at the University of Maryland, has a chance to finish the 2017 season with a batting average above .500. Schiekofer, a left-handed batter who hits third in the order and boasts excellent speed and defensive skills, is batting .506 with 31 RBI, 31 runs scored and 15 extra-base hits. It is not beyond the realm to consider that he could be chosen in the Major League Baseball Amateur Draft next week.
"Richie is one of best hitters in the state," Chapman asserted. "We have tried to put him into a spot where he has to be pitched to. A player like him comes along once in a coaching career. He is a terrific player, the whole package. In this age of distraction, Rich is a humble guy and he never worried about what was next.
"Richie has the rare ability to barrel up the ball and hit with proper spin from line to line. He will hit a ball down the left field line without that slice spin. He hits to both lines. He runs like a gazelle. He is possibly the best defensive outfielder in the state, too."
Junior second baseman Ben Pampush, who bats second, is hitting .423 with 14 extra-base hits for the Millers.
Not only has Millburn's junior catcher Peter Serruto, a Rutgers commit, batted .354 this season, but the defensive stalwart has also thrown out 63 percent of the 19 runners who've attempted to steal against him. Junior shortstop Peter Gula, the leadoff hitter, is batting .316 with 12 stolen bases in 13 attempts.
Designated hitter Jared Nemet (.304) offers dangerous power in the lower part of the lineup, and a pair of freshmen--third baseman Ben Chrzanowski and right fielder Ben Sinins--have started all season for the varsity and lend uncommon pop to the lower third of the batting order.