Howell looking to shake things up in A North

BY TIM MORRIS Staff Writer

Staff Writer

ERIC SUCAR staff Howell's Joe Locascio puts his bat on the ball during the Rebels' loss to Freehold Township on Friday in Freehold Township.ERIC SUCAR staff Howell’s Joe Locascio puts his bat on the ball during the Rebels’ loss to Freehold Township on Friday in Freehold Township. The Shore Conference A North Division in baseball is taking shape as any one’s to win.

Perennial power Christian Brothers Academy lost back-to-back games, and defending public school champion Freehold Township is off to a 2-4 start in the division, leaving the race for first wide open.

What may come as a surprise to most, is the Howell High School Rebels are ready to be prime-time players.

With wins over Christian Brothers Academy and Manalapan, the Rebels have already proved they are not just dangerous, but capable of beating the top teams. It puts a whole new face on the race.

The win over CBA was especially important, not only because of CBA’s place in A North as its perennial powerhouse, but the way it was won.

“CBA was huge,” said Howell manager Bill Gallacher. “We’ve had them on the ropes before and every time they’d come back in the last inning to beat us.”

The Colts were poised to do it again, only this time, Howell’s pitchers slammed the door shut. Frank Ozello tossed three scoreless innings (fourth through sixth) allowing his team to break a 5-5 tie with a three-run fifth. The Colts had the bases loaded in the top of the sixth and a 3-2 count with Mike Galeotafiore, who had hit three home runs in a game against Howell last year, on deck. Unlike previous years, though, the Colts didn’t get the big hit. Instead, Ozello got a called third strike on the next pitch to preserve the 8-5 lead.

Sure enough, Galeotafiore smacked a home run leading off the seventh to cut the deficit to 8-6, but from there, Brian Battaglia closed it out to pick up the save. Ozello got the win.

“This should do us some good,” noted Gallacher. “We got the monkey off our back. We were able to finish it off. It should help when we are in close games to know that we can finish a game off.”

The game played into one of Howell’s strengths – pitching.

“Our pitching depth is what I like,” he said. “We have a lot of arms on the team.”

Joe Labozzetta, Mike Fiorillo and Ozello are currently the starting rotation, with Gallacher not hesitant to use them in long relief (witness Ozello against CBA). Battaglia has emerged as the team’s closer. Craig Kinmon is a proven starter who adds depth there. Tim Lamirande, who missed last season due to an injury, could give the team some innings before the season is over. Howell, though, has been more than just pitching.

“We’re hitting the ball better than I anticipated at this point, and we’ve cut down our errors,” said Gallacher.

Lead-off hitter Battaglia has been all you could ask of the top man in your order. He’s 9-for-16, and with four walks to boot, has been on base more than 50 percent of the time. That has been sweet music to No. 3 hitter Ozello. He’s 8-for-16 and has been delivering the RBI hits.

Lamirande has been a pleasant surprise. He’s had a hit in every game and is a reliable contact hitter who doesn’t strike out.

This Howell team is built less around power than its speed. Battaglia, Sean O’Reilly and Casey Brannigan all have outstanding speed. They can steal bases, go from first to third on a single, and score from second on a single. They’ve set the table, and thus far, the Rebels have come up with the clutch hits. It was Brannigan and Battaglia who delivered the RBI hits in the three-run fifth against the Colts.

Gallacher knows that the Rebels still have a ways to go before proving they will be in the A North race for the long haul. But as teams begin making up games lost to the nor’easter and stretching their pitching staffs, Gallacher knows that he can throw a quality arm at teams every time out

The Rebels have also proved that they can fall behind by five or six runs and not be out of a game.

“They don’t pack it in,” noted Gallacher, “they battle back, to their credit. They’re tough kids.”