Gracia, Ranney
Photo Credit: Mike Ready

Gracia Leads Ranney To First Ever Shore Conference Tournament Final

RED BANK – After coming up short in the Shore Conference Tournament his sophomore and junior years, A.J. Gracia did a little bit of everything in Thursday’s semifinal to lead Ranney – the No.1 ranked team in the state – to its first ever Shore Conference Tournament championship game with a 2-1 win over fourth-seeded Rumson-Fair Haven at Count Basie Field in Red Bank.

Gracia, who committed to Duke University before even playing a high school game, broke a 1-1 tie in the bottom of the fifth by crushing a two ball, no strike fastball over the right-centerfield fence – his eighth of the season – for the game-winning run.

“He (Rumson starting pitcher Jackson Hinchliffe) got behind me 2-and-0 early so obviously I was hunting fastball,”Gracia said. “Just trying to stay gap-to-gap and got a good result. Even with a count where its 2-and-0 and I’m trying to do a little bit of damage I’m trying to keep it simple. Because at the end of the day even if I just single there it’s still getting us going as a team and I’m confident the guys behind me will get me in.

“No, no,” Gracia added when asked if he was looking to hit it out. “I’m just thinking get on anyway, walk, HBP, I don’t care, anyway to get on base. When I hit it, it did feel pretty good. Today the wind was kind of blowing in so I didn’t know if it was really going to get out. But luckily it ended up clearing the fence.”

The homer was Gracia’s eighth of the year and 25th of his career. A year ago, he was a first team All-State selection when he hit .492 with 12 home runs and 41 RBIs with a staggering 1.185 slugging percentage.

In 2021 after coming back from elbow surgery to repair a partial tear in his ulna collateral ligament in 2020, he averaged .528 at the plate, with five homers and 28 RBIs as a sophomore.

The 6-foot-3 lefty also manufactured the game’s first run for the top-seeded Panthers on a gutsy, heads-up play in the first inning. After leading off the game with solid double down the first-base line, Gracia advanced to third on Ryan Costello’s ground out to first.

Hinchliffe then struck out senior third baseman Diego Tavarez but the pitch was in the dirt and got away from Bulldogs catcher Owen Kenny. As the ball escaped Kenny, Gracia broke for the plate and his head-first slide just beat Kenny’s tag.

“It was kind of a fast ball count I’m pretty sure and I was just thinking he (Hinchliffe) didn’t have great control,”Gracia said of the play. “I was just trying to see something down and once it really hit the dirt I was already taking off.”

The senior centerfielder wasn’t perfect though. After coming in relief of starter Nick Coniglio, who threw 92 pitches and struck out 11 in 4 1/3 innings pitched, he allowed the tying run to score after a shaky start to his outing.

Taking the mound with one out and a runner on first with Ranney up by one run, 1-0, Gracia got Rumson’s Parker Shenman to fly out to center for the second out. Senior shortstop Reece Moroney then lined a 3-2 pitch through the 5-6 hole for a single putting runners on the corners before junior left fielder Jack Riva’s hard ground single down the first base line scored pinch runner Gavin Kiley, for the tying run. Gracia then got Kenney on a 4-6 ground out for the third out.

“Yea, they got me in the MCT semifinals too,”Gracia said referencing his outing in Ranney’s 4-3 win over Rumson in the Monmouth County Tournament semifinals. “They got me, but again, kind of the same story the past two times just trying to make something happen with the bat. Just trying to hit the ball hard, get something going for my team. Not even really trying to hit the ball out, just trying to get on base.”

Gracia led off the bottom of the fifth after coming in relief and relinquishing the lead.

“Oh, for sure,” Gracia said when asked if he was happy about his homer after giving up the tying run. “It’s a good sort of redemption for me, but obviously I got stop losing the lead.”

Coniglio struggled with his control all day and after walking the number nine hitter in Rumson’s batting order in the bottom of the fifth and having already thrown 92 pitches, head coach Pat Geroni gave him the hook. The Northeastern commit struck out the side in the second inning and finished with 11 strikeouts, but he just had a hard time finding the plate and ran up his pitch count in doing so. He was responsible for Rumson’s one run while allowing just one hit and walking two in 4 1/3 innings.

Hinchliffe – a University of Richmond commit – went four innings allowing one run on three hits while walking one and striking out two. Cal Champeau took loss in relief and Owen O’Toole pitched a perfect seventh with two strikeouts.

Ranney (25-1) lost in the second round of the Shore Conference Tournament in Gracia’s sophomore season and a year ago the Panthers lost in the round of 16.

“We’re just trying to prove to everyone that we can win the Shore Conference,” Gracia said, who picked up the win in relief. “Everyone of us will say that we haven’t really performed in the SCT until this year. It would be a pretty deal if we wind up winning the SCT, went undefeated in the Shore (Ranney’s lone loss this season was 7-6 decision to Delbarton – ranked fourth in the state – and kind of prove to everyone that we can hang with everyone down here.”

Second-seeded Red Bank Catholic (20-4) defeated No.6 seed Christian Brothers Academy 3-1 in the other SCT semifinal game so the championship game will be a rematch of the Monmouth County Tournament final which was won by Ranney 6-5.



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