HAMILTON – On May 11, the Lions lost to Red Bank Regional, dropping their season record below .500 to 9-10. They were eliminated from the Shore Conference Tournament, having needed a win on cutoff day against the Bucs to qualify.
They were at the crossroads of their season with some heavy-duty soul searching needed to right the ship and point them in the right direction.
Twelve straight wins later, including six in the state playoffs, the Lions hoisted the NJSIAA Group III championship trophy on Saturday at Bob DeMeo Field at Veterans Park in Hamilton after defeating sixth-ranked Cranford 5-4 in eight innings to complete one of the most improbable runs through the state playoffs in years.
It was Middletown North's first state championship in program history and second final appearance since they last appeared in the final in 1983. Last week they captured the program's first sectional championship since 1989 as the No. 10 seed.
Since they lost to Howell, the 2022 Group IV champions, back on April 30, their third straight loss and fifth in six games, in the first round of the Monmouth County Tournament, the Lions are 16-2 and have averaged over 10 runs a game.
Middletown North completes improbable run to state championship beat Delsea 6-1 in the Group III semifinal last Monday to advance to Saturday's state final.
The turnaround has been remarkable.
"We've been down a lot and this team has gotten hit in the face a lot this year but we know they keep coming," said Middletown North head coach Ryan McCabe of his players. "These kids, obviously as baseball players and as people too, are battlers. All year long, just the kind of approach they've had is just so impressive. It's a 'proud dad' kind of a moment."
Middletown North's ace Colin Dowlen, a Seton Hall University commit, pitched on short rest and battled his way through one of the hardest hitting lineups in the state to keep the Lions in the game with one of the gutsiest performances of his career.
"Their two-three batters were probably the toughest kids I've faced," said Dowlen of Cranford's Ryan Jaros and Shane Van Dam. "I was trying to put the ball in play and not trying to do too much and let my defense work. I was spotting my fastball high and getting my curveball low and make them chase."
"I definitely didn't have my good curveball today, but I fought through it," added Dowlen. "Our defense picked me up."
Dowlen went 7 1/3 innings, allowing four runs on ten hits while striking out four and walking four on 112 pitches. There was a pitch count controversy in the bottom of the seventh with two outs that delayed the game, but eventually, Dowlen was allowed to come back out in the top of the eighth to face one more batter before he reached his disputed pitch limit.
"I just knew it would all work out and if I could go back out there, I'd go back out there," said Dowlen, who had no idea what his actual pitch count was. "That's what happened and I got the first out and Matt (Adamson) came in and closed it out."
Adamson hit the first batter he faced in the top of the eighth with the score tied 4-4. He settled down and retired the next two batters on fly balls to end the inning heading into the bottom half of the inning all knotted up.
Dowlen led off the bottom of the eighth with an infield hit, beating the throw to first. Senior third baseman Michael Weinbel followed with a line single to left. Freshman first baseman Zach Hampton then drilled a ball with home run all over it, but Cranford centerfielder Jake Carter chased it down right in front of the 375 mark for the first out with Dowlen tagging and going to third. Lombardi was then intentionally walked, loading the bases for sophomore Jason Quardt, who played flawlessly in left field all afternoon.
Cranford relief pitcher Sean Woodruff induced a tapper back to the mound from Quardt and went home for the force out at the plate. But catcher Lucca Limeira's throw to first in an attempt at a double play was in the dirt for an error allowing Weinbel to score all the way from second with the winning run.
Cranford took a 4-3 lead scoring two runs in the top of the sixth on a line-drive RBI single to center by starting pitcher Will Gallagher and a wild pitch. The Lions came right back to tie the game in the bottom half of the frame.
With two outs, Weinbel was hit by a pitch before Hampton reached first on a throwing error by Jaros at third base, putting a runner in scoring position at second base.
Senior Andrew Lombardi then drilled an RBI single down the third-base line scoring Weinbel to knot the game at four.
"One through nine all the guys can hit," said Lombardi. "Doesn't matter who's on or who's up we all know we're going to score runs. It was a great feeling being the one to get it done there."
Lombardi also broke a 2-2 tie in the bottom of the fourth with an absolute monster shot that easily cleared the centerfield fence at the 375-foot mark. The homer was his third of the season.
"I flew out to centerfield my first at bat so I knew I had something going that way," said Lombardi of his blast. "I just put a good swing on it and it went. I barreled up on it, put a hard swing on it and got a good result."
McCabe wasn't surprised to see Lombardi have a big day at the plate.
"Andrew's a heck of a player," said McCabe. "He battled injuries all season but kept working hard and came through big for us today. He's hitting sixth for us so that tells you what this lineup can do one through nine."
Cranford jumped out to a 1-0 first-inning lead on a Van Dam blast over the left-centerfield fence – his fifth of the season.
The Lions (21-10) answered right back with two runs of their own in the bottom half of the frame to take a 2-1 lead.
Adamson led off with a solid line drive to right, and junior shortstop Ryan Frontera was hit by a pitch placing runners on first and second with no outs. Dowlen then helped his own cause with a shot over the first base bag scoring Adamson for an RBI single to tie the game. A wild pitch by Gallagher added another run, but he settled down and shut the door on the Lions, getting a strikeout, groundout, and fly ball to get out of the inning.
Van Dam's RBI double to deep center in the top of the third tied the game at 2-2 for the Cougars (25-5).
After that loss to Red Bank, we turned it around," said Dowlen. "It was definitely a wake-up call for us. We just got our bats going one through nine and never looked back."
Dowlen (9-2) – a fifth-year player taking classes at Brookdale - didn't get the win Saturday but went 3-0 in Middletown North's playoff run with a sparkling 1.25 ERA. He threw 28.1 innings, including three complete games, allowing just five earned runs and 20 hits in those four games while striking out 31 batters and walking nine.
"Colin's, Colin," said McCabe when asked about his starting pitcher's outing. "So you know what you're getting when he takes the mound. He's as tough as you're going to find and as good as you're going to find and with that combination I'm just glad to have him."
Even at its lowest point, Lombardi never doubted his team could still make a run.
"Oh definitely," Lombardi quickly said when asked if he ever imagined his team being here when they were 9-10. "From day one that was our goal – a state championship. I had no doubt in my mind we could do it. We had our ups we had our downs but we just stayed together as a team. We worked hard in practice and worked hard during games and had a good outcome. The Red Bank game woke us up definitely and showed us what we have to do and what we need to do every time we step on the field and that's what we did."