Manalapan High School was a streaky baseball team in 2019.
Usually that’s a bad thing because it reveals inconsistency. But these Braves were great for two thirds of the season, so the one cold streak was an anomaly.
Manalapan started 15-0, lost seven of its next nine and then won seven consecutive games, including a 3-2 home victory over Old Bridge High School on May 31 in the NJSIAA Central Jersey, Group 4 sectional tournament championship game.
The Braves were hard to keep down– and knock out.
But on June 3 at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, in the NJSIAA Group 4 Tournament semifinals, Manalapan fell to Eastern, 1-0. With the loss, the Braves fell short of winning their first state group championship since 2012.
Coach Brian Boyce’s team slammed five hits but could not bring a run home. Senior right-hander Aaron Ayers pitched a strong game in defeat, allowing two hits and one run in six innings.
Manalapan also lost the Shore Conference Tournament championship game, 5-0 to Red Bank Catholic High School at FirstEnergy Park in Lakewood on June 5. Even with the recent postseason losses, Manalapan’s season was still successful.
The Braves got tremendous pitching all year. During their 15-0 start, the Braves won seven games by three runs or less. During their seven game winning streak through the state sectional tournament, the Braves earned five victories by two runs or fewer.
Ayers and senior left-hander Ben Levine formed a dynamic ace duo. Ayers pitched 49 innings, fanned 51 batters and finished 6-2 with a 1.14 earned run average. Levine threw 57.2 frames, struck out 64 batters and ended at 6-2 with a 2.55 ERA. The third starter, sophomore left-hander Joe Mazza, went 3-2 with a 1.95 ERA in 28.2 innings.
Four other Manalapan pitchers, senior right-hander Rico Spinelli, junior left-hander Chris Nicol, senior right-hander Jake Pellecchia and senior right-hander Jake Melman, completed double digit innings and posted ERAs of 2.00 or under.
Boyce had enough good arms to fill two rotations.
“We relied on pitching and defense and our offense doing enough,” Levine said.
“We know that if our staff keeps us in it, even if we don’t have a lead, we know we have a chance to come back like we’ve done like five different times this year,” he added.
Junior infielder Nicholas DiPietrantonio led the offense with a .338 batting average, two home runs, 14 runs scored and 24 runs batted in. Senior outfielder Michael Kuver added 21 RBI and 17 runs.
Most of Manalapan’s key players were seniors this spring, so this season was their last chance to play together. Boyce thought that was a big reason why they rose back up after their midseason losing streak.
Levine, especially, did a great job galvanizing the Braves after that difficult stretch.
“Levine got in people’s faces and held them accountable,” Boyce said. “When kids do that, younger kids say, ‘Oh, maybe we need to play better.'”
“We also all just said, ‘We’re already qualified for the state, so let’s just play better baseball,'” Boyce added. “The kids took a breath and said, ‘If it happens, it happens. Let’s just go play.'”
That was exactly what the Braves did, and it led to one of their best campaigns in recent memory. Now Boyce, who has led the program for 13 years, will have to retool the varsity team for 2020.
Most importantly, he will have to find a new leader with Levine gone. The senior will pitch and play first base for Montclair State University next spring.
His legacy, and this senior class’s legacy, is secure at Manalapan.
“This was a scrappy bunch,” Boyce said. “They kept fighting regardless of the score.”