NORTH CALDWELL, NJ — An extra-inning battle between two top-tier baseball programs ended with the Pascack Valley Indians ousting the West Essex Knights from the North 1, Group 3 state playoffs, 3-2, Tuesday to send the Indians to their second consecutive final.  

“It’s emotional for it to end that way,” said West Essex head coach Eric Johnson. “I feel like we played a game that we could have won and we played well enough to win, but [Pascack Valley] is a good team and every game is tough.”

The Indians forced the issue in extra innings by scoring the decisive run in the top of the ninth. After leading off the inning with a double, Ricky Lutz went to third base on a one-out single. An RBI fielder’s choice just a fraction away from being a rally-ending double play scored Lutz for the game-winning run.

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“They’re a good team, and when you have the experience of being [in the section championships] already it’s tough,” said Johnson.

The Knights fought valiantly in their last licks against the Indians. Frank Lagreca led off the inning with a double, but instead of faltering under the pressure, the Indians produced a strikeout, fly out and ground out to end the game.

West Essex had a solid start to the game, capturing a 2-0 lead over the Indians in the fourth inning. After Ian McLaughlin doubled to lead off the inning, Tyler Sorrentino used small-ball tactics to bring in McLaughlin’s courtesy runner, Justin Waack, on a safety squeeze. The RBI was Sorrentino’s first of the postseason to go along with three runs scored.

The Knights’ next batter showed the base-running prowess that made them the top seed in the tournament. Matthew Cesare, who beat out a bunt earlier in the inning, stole third to cause an errant throw, and he continued on home for the 2-0 Knights lead. One of six seniors on the team, Cesare was able to leave a lasting impression in his final game, reaching base three times and scoring one of the Knights’ two runs.

“Our seniors were all over the field,” said Johnson. “They all wanted to be up at the plate, they all wanted to win it and they were ready to win it.”

The experienced Pascack Valley squad was able to grind out the final two innings of the game to force extra innings. An RBI single from John Zdankowski in the sixth and a double from Jake Lutz in the seventh set the stage for the late-game Indian upset.

“Timely hits,” Johnson said in explanation. “I don’t think they did too much small ball, but they had timely hits and got base runners on and were a threat every inning.”

Although Pascack Valley will advance to the final in their stead, the Knights can be proud of a phenomenal season that yielded an astounding 20-2 record. A team that prided itself on doing the little things came to within two outs of a state championship game as well as one win away from a county title game.

“Nothing will take away the season they put together for sure,” said Johnson.

With many seniors graduating in June, Johnson said the Knights will need to “rebuild in a sense,” but that he certainly does not expect a mediocre 2019 season despite putting a new team on the field.