On April 1 at Sayreville War Memorial High School, Saint Joseph Regional High School blew an 11-run lead and lost its baseball season opener to the Bombers, 13-12.
For the Metuchen school, it was an inauspicious start that appeared to forecast a stormy spring ahead.
“If you told me we’d end up in the (NJSIAA) South Jersey, Non-Public A sectional tournament final, I would have laughed at you,” said Mike Murray, the Falcons’ coach.
Saint Joseph Regional made it all the way to the South Jersey, Non-Public A final. It lost that championship game, 5-3 at St. Augustine Preparatory School on May 31, but just getting that far was an accomplishment for the Metuchen program.
Before 2019, Saint Joseph Regional had not won a state tournament game in eight years. This spring, the team won three, including a semifinal upset over the No. 2 seed, Christian Brothers Academy. The sixth-seeded Falcons went to CBA and beat the Colts, 3-2, on May 29 in Lincroft.
The Falcons finished 20-10 overall and 9-3 in Greater Middlesex Conference White Division play, winning the division title by a game over South Plainfield High School.
“We played really well after that opening day loss and took a big step forward,” Murray said.
Murray’s pitching staff sparked the team’s successful campaign. Senior Jake Hellwig was an absolute thoroughbred of an ace, going 9-2 with a 2.02 earned run average. He also struck out 59 batters in 55.1 innings.
“Jake will be tough to replace,” Murray said.
As good as Hellwig was, he never needed to carry the Falcons. They had four other really good pitchers, too.
Junior Adam Boucher, a Duke University commit, finished 6-3 with a 2.44 ERA and 72 strikeouts in 43 innings. That’s a fantasy baseball line.
Freshman Donovan Zsak, a University of Virginia recruit, also posted a fantasy baseball line, fanning 44 batters in 26.1 frames.
Spot starter and top reliever Braden Ramirez went 5-2 with a 3.11 ERA. And relief ace Colin Leyner recorded a 5-0 mark with an 0.86 ERA and five saves.
Boucher, Zsak, Ramirez and Leyner will all be back in 2020.
Saint Joseph Regional’s staff kept it in nearly every game this spring. Of the team’s nine losses, five came by one run and two came by two runs.
“Every day our pitchers were going to keep us in the game and give us an opportunity to win,” Murray said.
He can count on having a chance in every game next year as well.
The players also have some unfinished business. This spring, they lost in both the state sectional championship and in the Greater Middlesex Conference Tournament semifinals, 2-1 to No. 1 seed Old Bridge High School on May 15.
Their goals for 2020 are to “finish the job in the GMC and in the state,” Murray said.
The coach already has his pitching staff in order for those tournaments. Obviously things will happen between now and then, but Murray has a strong idea of what his rotation will look like going into next season.
“Right now we’ll roll out Boucher-Zsak-Leyner-Ramirez as the first four,” he said.
“And I’m sure other guys will emerge,” Boucher said. “We’re looking to get outs against anybody in the state.”
“We’re past the point of proving we belong,” Boucher added. “Now it’s about proving we should win.”