LAKEWOOD – A dejected, shellshocked Blue and Grey baseball team filed off the FirstEnergy Park field.
The Blue and Grey, representing the Howell Township High School Rebels, were the victims of a rally by the Dragons Baseball Club of Kingsway Regional in the South Region Round of 16 of the first Last Dance World Series presented by RWJ Barnabas Health.
Ahead 3-0 and five outs from a berth in the quarterfinals, the Blue and Grey allowed four runs over the final two innings in a 4-3 loss.
Junior righty Vin Impresa of the Blue and Grey sparkled. He hurled six-plus innings, allowing two earned runs, striking out nine, walking one and surrendering three hits. Impressa threw 88 pitches. He set down 14 straight batters from the final out of the first inning until the second batter of the sixth.
“Vin did a great job of commanding his fastball,” Blue and Grey coach Grant Hackett said. “His offspeed pitch was great. He located his pitches well. He went out there and balled. He will give you his best each time out.”
“I worked real well with my catcher, Chris Acampora,” Impresa said. “I was able to locate my fastball and my slider broke really nice. I was able to keep the hitters off balance and I threw a couple of real good changeups. A lot of the credit goes to Chris. We worked great together.”
Hackett said Impresa dominated during his hot streak despite the sun that breathed 93-degree fire.
“You want short innings and he gave them to us,” Hackett said. “His fastball was great. When they caught up to it, he relied on his curveball and changeup. Everything he did was just perfect.”
“I definitely felt physically tired after pitching,” Impresa said. “I had been training for long distance throwing with my other team. You have to stay hydrated. I do a lot of running to get my body tired and then I throw to build up my arm strength.”
Hackett is impressed with Impresa’s mental approach to pitching.
“He is fired up,” Hackett said. “He throws with passion. He wants to win every battle and against Kingsway he did that.”
“I have always felt the most comfortable on the mound,” said Impresa, who also plays third base. “I am relaxed and able to zone in. I know that pitching is what I should be doing and I love it.”
The Dragons scored four runs over the final two innings to win the game. They pushed three runs across the plate in the top of the seventh.
The winners shaved their deficit to 3-2 in the seventh on a run-scoring triple to right center field by Kevin Pandorf. Pinch hitter Connor Griscom hit an RBI single to tie the score at three and the Dragons won it when Jake Lenardo unleashed a wild pitch.
The Blue and Grey took a 1-0 lead in the first on a groundout by Acampora, a senior. The Blue and Grey pushed its lead to 2-0 in the first on an RBI single by senior shortstop Nicholas Guerrino.
Impresa helped build a run in the fifth, leading off with a single. Sophomore courtesy runner Nick Barracatto scored when he stole third base and scored when the ball skipped into left field.
Blue and Grey senior second baseman Brandon Troop stroked two hits in three at-bats, including one double.
Earlier in the Series, the Blue and Grey won Howell’s first title since 1994 with a 3-1 conquest of Neptune for the Red Bank-Belmar Regional championship at the Count Basie Field in Red Bank.
Guerrino singled home the tie-breaking run in the bottom of the sixth. Impresa drew a bases-loaded walk in the sixth for a 3-1 lead. Junior starting pitcher Chris Ellison, who allowed one run in three innings, hit an RB single for a 1-0 lead in the first.
“We did not expect to be in this situation,” Hackett said. “We were seeded second in the regional. The boys worked hard. They set a goal. They wanted to make it to the next round. We proved a lot of people wrong. We wanted to prove a lot of people wrong. There were 20 guys on the team and 20 guys had each other’s back. They went out there and played their best. One website called us bracket busters.
“Pitching was definitely the first key. It was huge in the tournament. Our seniors were also key. They were all great leaders.”
Hackett said the team was a pleasure to coach.
“They were great fun,” he said. “They cracked jokes. They made each other laugh. They were a bunch of ball-busters and that’s what I loved about them. There was not any pressure on them. Coaching this team was a very good experience. I am proud of these guys. We were not supposed to win it and we did.”
The Series, which consisted of 22 teams, replaced the spring high school season, cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic. Hackett became the team’s coach after receiving an email from his Howell coach, Eric Johnson, the Rebels’ current mentor.
“A parent of one of our players set up the team,” said Hackett, whose assistant coaches were 2017 Howell graduates Ean Craig and J.P. Trainor, “and it took me less than five minutes to answer coach Johnson’s email. He said he was not able to coach this team and I felt it would be a great opportunity for me. I am thankful that the players let me coach this team. They could have said no, but they allowed me to do so.
“Coach Johnson gave me an opportunity to be a head coach for the first time and I hope I did him proud. Howell baseball will always be a part of me and I am really happy we got to bring home a championship. The players deserved it.”
Impresa said he enjoyed competing in the Series in which the Blue and Grey was 3-1.
“It was amazing,” he said. “I loved the format. It brought us together to want to compete. We saw large crowds that I had never seen for a high school baseball game. Prior to the Series, we had to talk about how we wanted to approach it – to either win or just let our seniors play their final games. We played to win and played hard for each other. we were all pretty pleased with the effort we put in and the result that we got.”
Impresa said losing the season to the pandemic was difficult.
“It was all very overwhelming,” he said. “I never felt it would get to that point. Things kept piling on and it was crazy. This tournament came along and it gave me hope to play with my best friends – guys I have played with since we were either six or seven years old.”
Craig and Trainor were valuable assistants. They have played either with or against each other since the age of nine. Trainor and Craig play baseball at Stockton University and The College of New Jersey, respectively.
“Both made my job a lot easier,” Hackett said. “I am thankful for their help. Ean is my best friend. I consider him like a brother. Ean has helped me on and off the field so many different times and I am very lucky I get to call him my best friend. J.P. and I always remained in touch after high school because he is a really great guy. He is a very good friend of mine and it’s always nice to have a friend like him.
“The fact they helped me out meant the world to me. We did not get paid to do this. I am grateful for the fact they volunteered their time to help me out.”
The team practiced Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from the end of June. Hackett said the team’s motto, which he came up with on its first day of practice, was, “Play loose. Have fun and talk crap.”
“This was one of the best experiences of my life, especially with these guys as they were a great bunch of kids,” Hackett said. “I wanted the boys to let loose and have fun playing baseball. For some of the guys, this was their last game.”
Hackett said recruiters from Misericordia, Stockton, Rider and Alevrnia attended the team’s final game.
The Blue and Grey’s captains were senior outfielder Tommy Talbot, Acampora and senior first baseman Jack Bearse.
“The last thing that I really want to emphasize is how great the seniors were,” Hackett said. “Talbot and Acampora are the best leaders I have been around. Bearse is a guy who just wants to compete and win ball games. Troop is one of the hardest workers I have ever seen. Guerrino is another guy who works his butt off and will do anything for his teammates. I am so proud of him.”
FirstEnergy Park is the home of the Lakewood BlueClaws, the Philadelphia Phillies’ low Class A team which competes in the South Atlantic League.
“These kids will play at a Little League field and have the same energy,” Hackett said. “They were more excited about the magnitude of the game rather than playing at FirstEnergy Park. The mood of the team after the game was bittersweet. The boys were upset they lost, but they were thankful for the opportunity they had. At the end of the day, we were still champions and nobody can take that away from us.”
The remainder of the Blue and Grey consisted of senior catcher Matt Schwark, senior outfielder A.J. Furlong, senior pitcher Max Friedman, junior outfielder Tony Gatti, junior first baseman Alex Jenkins, junior outfielder Ryan Behnken, junior pitcher Jake Holzapfel, junior second baseman-third baseman Kristian Saucedo, sophomore outfielder-pitcher Nick Gomes, sophomore third baseman-pitcher Danny Furlong and sophomore shortstop Thomas Strauch.
“Schwark is a coach’s dream,” Hackett said. “You ask him to do something and he will do it without complaining. A.J. is one of the funniest guys I have ever been around. He is another coach’s player who will do anything for his team. Friedman is the nicest player I have ever met. He is another one who works his butt off and just wants to be there for his teammates. Lenardo is one of my favorite players. He finds a way to make his teammates laugh no matter what and will do just about anything for everyone.
“I love all of these guys and know they will do great things.”
Hackett, 21, is a 2017 Howell graduate. He played right field for Alvernia University during the pandemic-shortened season, batting .250 (2-for-8) in six games off the bench, scoring two runs and driving in two. He’s a finance major.