Whippany Park stays hot; wins section title

Kyle Lisa turning the double play that gave Whippany Park the last two outs it needed to close out the North 2, Group 2 state sectional final with a 10-5 win at Rutherford on Friday.

RUTHERFORD - How does a team that hovered just above .500 for most of the season enter the state sectional tournament as the No. 9 seed facing the prospect of having to win four straight games on the road to win a title end up celebrating the championship on yet another home team's field? Ask three different members of the Whippany Park baseball team and the answers are the same almost word for word.

Here is Wildcat head coach Kyle O'Neill: "We've been hot."

Here is Whippany Park pitcher/shortstop Kyle Lisa: "We just got hot at the right time."

And senior centerfielder Stephen Tucker's response? You guessed it: "We have been really hot in the states."

It unanimous then and Whippany Park, a hot team playing its best baseball of the season, won its fourth consecutive state tournament road game on Friday, 10-5, over Rutherford to claim the North 2, Group 2 title and advance to the Group 2 semifinals where it will play Pascack Hills on Tuesday in Belleville.

Up against Rutherford's Jacob Gomez, the freshman left-hander who has been brilliant for the Bulldogs all season, Whippany Park took one time through the order to get a good look and then, in the top of the third inning, the Wildcats got hot. Tucker led off the inning with a single, the first of four hits in the frame, and he also scored the first of five runs that gave Whippany Park the lead for good at 5-2.

Rutherford senior James Dolaghan after scoring the first inning run that got his team on the board first.

"One through nine in the batting order we were resilient, we worked the count and the big thing is that we put the ball in play," said Tucker, standing on the all-dirt infield that makes Rutherford's home field so unique. "This field is pretty rough so when you put the ball in play things are going to happen."

Whippany Park actually handled the topography better than the home team. The Wildcats played error free behind their two pitchers while Rutherford made three charged errors behind Gomez (3 1/3 IP, 6 R, 3 ER, 6 H, 2 K, 3 BB) and had one other defensive opportunity slip by. That third inning rally was helped along by an unturned double play that could have limited WP to just one run. Instead, Lisa cracked a two-run double that drove in the third and fourth runs and Mike Roma also doubled to drive in the fifth run as the Wildcats sent nine hitters to the plate.

"All season long we have competed with every team we have played. We have never really gotten blown out by any team and the group of guys that I coach every day are wonderful. They work together, they keep each other up and even if we are down it does not matter. I know we can come back," said O'Neill, who prepared his team for the final by getting creative. "The last three games were on turf and to get ready for this game we practiced on a JV field. It was like this, but actually a little bit softer."

Rutherford had taken an early lead by scoring single runs in the first two innings with John Kelly (1-for-1, 2 RBI) singling in James Dolaghan (1-for-4, R) with two outs in the first and Regan Landrigan's ground ball to the right side chasing home Brendan Brinksma in the second. The Bulldogs added another in the third on Kelly's sacrifice fly, but by that time they were trailing 5-3 and Whippany Park just kept applying the pressure.

Stephen Tucker had two hits and scored three times for Whippany Park, which will play Pascack Hills in the Group 2 semifnals on Tuesday in Belleville.

Tucker reached on an error leading off the top of the fourth and, after two groundball outs that should have ended the inning, he scored on Brian Clarke's two-out single to right to make it 6-3. After a brief rain delay in the bottom of the fourth, Rutherford returned in the bottom of the field and cut its deficit to one. Gomez (1-for-3, 2 RBI), who is not only Rutherford's freshman ace, but also its No. 5 hitter, painted the right field line with a bases loaded, two-run single that scored Evan Smith and Dom Mignone.

Now down 6-5 with two outs and runners on the corners, the Bulldogs tried to steal the tying run with Gomez walking off of first base and, with attention elsewhere, Kelly made a break from the third. But Whippany Park was unfazed as it worked a 1-2-5-1 run down and recorded the final out at home plate.

The Wildcats then added two runs in the top of the sixth and two more in the top of the seventh to stretch the lead back to five and Rutherford could not dent Kyle Dangler, who threw 2 2/3 innings of hitless relief to pick up the save behind Lisa (4 2/3 IP, 5 R, 5 ER, 5 H, 3 K, 3 BB), who picked up the win.

Roma (2-for-3, 2 RBI, R, 2B) all had multi-hit games for Whippany Park. Dangler had a hit and scored a run, Nick Geroldi knocked in two and scored twice, and Alex Maietta scored twice for the Wildcats, who are now just two wins away from an outright Group 2 state title.

"I want to go win it. The players really deserve it," said O'Neill. "We will be out practicing tomorrow and we will keep it rolling."