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MARLTON -- Howell senior Nick Barracato saw first-hand Friday during his team's NJSIAA sectional-final win over East Brunswick how quickly a team could need a relief pitcher to get ready and enter the game.

Even with that lesson fresh in his mind, Barracato was not expecting to here his name called as quickly as it was Monday in the NJSIAA Group IV semifinal at Cherokee.

Rebels senior ace Dan Furlong look a line drive off the side of his face on the third pitch of the game and Barracato sprung into action.

With his teammate on his mind and a spot in Saturday's Group IV championship on the line, Barracato threw seven sparkling innings and combined with classmate Jason Pace on nine shutout frames as the Rebels overcame the loss of a starting pitcher for the second straight game, this time beating Cherokees, 2-1, in nine innings.

"These guys were not worried," Howell coach Eric Johnson said. "They believed in each other, they stepped up, they knew they could win the ballgame today and that's exactly what they did."

Howell lost senior left-hander Nick Gomes to a broken wrist in the fourth inning of the Central Jersey Group IV final on Friday and were immediately faced with a terrifying situation Monday. Evan Brown hit a line drive back through the box that caught Furlong on the right side of his face, where the jaw meets the neck, as described by Johnson.

"He was up and alert, but he was a little out of it," Johnson said of Furlong.

The game stopped as on-site athletic training staff tended to Furlong, who remained alert. He was taken off on a cart and brought to a hospital for further examination.

"I was actually scared," Barracato said. "Then I realized 'I'm about to go in.' I knew I had to pitch for Danny, because Danny would do the same thing."

According to Johnson, Furlong sustained a broken jaw and is undergoing surgery on Tuesday.

Barracato quickly got ready and was greeted with a sacrifice bunt that challenged him to field the ball and throw to first, followed by an RBI double by shortstop Dom Patrizi.

"To be honest, I was thinking if I was coming in, it would be around the sixth or seventh inning to close," Barracato said. "If we needed somebody earlier, I thought it would be Pace, because that's just the way we have done it all year. When they called my number, I was shocked, but I got ready to go and I knew I was in the zone. I felt good."

Once Barracato escaped the first, he settled in and continued to post zeroes while stranding runners in scoring position in the second, third, fifth and sixth innings. He wiggled out of a second-and-third, one-out jam in the third and a first-and-third, one-out jam in the fifth to keep Cherokee at one run.

"There were definitely some innings where I was in trouble and had to work out of it," Barracato said. "There were plenty of times there was a runner on second, there was a first-and-third, but as I have been playing baseball, that's just normally the situation when I come into the game. Having runners on base is just what I'm used to. I go to the next batter."

Howell's pitching staff was effective up and down the line during the team's 10-0 start to the season, but battled some inconsistency while the team went 8-6 over its next 14 games. Now, the Rebels are back on a six-game winning streak and the senior-heavy group of pitchers has been on its game.

"We have so many amazing pitchers on this team," Barracato said. "We all have confidence in each other that we're going to go out there and get a job done. We had that undefeated run and every day, whoever was on the mound, we had the confidence that we were going to win, no matter what. That went away for a little while, but now that we're in the state tournament, every single game matters, every single pitch matters and none of us are going out there unprepared."

"After we beat Jackson (Memorial) in the semifinal game and we had a few days off, we knew we had to get those other pitchers ready," said Johnson, who had only used Furlong and Gomes through the first three games and 21 innings of the tournament. "The next practice, we just had them throwing to live batters, which is always a boring practice, but they had to get that work in. You never know what's going to happen in a baseball game and the last two games have been a good example."

Howell's relief effort was the story of the game, but the way in which the winning run scored sucked up some of the oxygen as well.

Sophomore third baseman Joe Zito started the top of the ninth inning with a double to left field and pinch-runner Jack Gartenstein took third base on a wild pitch to move within 90 feet of scoring the go-ahead run.

A pitch from Cherokee's Shane Sax to sophomore Braden Walsh hit the dirt and rattled around the backstop before settling between the upper netting and the backstop fence below.

Gartenstein held at third and Cherokee catcher Jason Schooley retrieved it without an issue, but Howell coach Eric Johnson pointed out to the umpiring crew that the ball being lodged in the netting should be ruled a dead ball and allow Zito to score. The umpires agreed, awarded Zito home plate and Howell took its first lead of the game.

"It doesn't matter if it's in the ground rules or not, the high school rule supersedes the ground rules," Johnson said. "The first-base umpire came over and said 'This is the easiest call I have ever made in my life.' The ball was lodged behind something. That's the textbook rule on that."

For the second straight game, Pace finished off a Howell win and came out for his second inning of work after the go-ahead run had scored. After a running catch in deep centerfield by senior Devon Smith on a well-struck ball by Brandon Prince, Pace struck out the last two batters to close out the win.

Pace pitched the final three innings of Howell's 8-2 win over East Brunswick and in two appearances, he has allowed one run on two hits with one walk and nine strikeouts over five innings, including two perfect innings on Monday. Pace struck out the side in his final inning on Friday and punched out the last two batters on Monday.

"Twenty years ago, before there was any pitch count rule, we might have just hung with Barracato throwing the way he was," Johnson said. "But we knew we had Pace and he just threw the ball really well against East Brunswick and he was lights-out again today."

Howell got back even with Cherokee in the top of the fourth inning, with Barracato jumpstarting the Rebels at the plate as well. The senior, who replaced Furlong in the cleanup spot, walked and his courtesy runner, Dillon McKenna, scored the first Howell run on an RBI single by sophomore first baseman Braden Walsh to tie the game at 1-1.

Walsh finished 2-for-3 with his 30th RBI of his sophomore season.

Howell moves on to play Hunterdon Central Saturday at 1 p.m. at Veterans Park in Hamilton for the overall Group IV championship. The Rebels were last in the Group IV championship game in 1994, when Howell lost to Elizabeth on the season's final day.

In order to change their fortunes 28 years later, Howell may very well have to figure out how to beat the Red Devils without either of its top two pitchers -- Furlong and Gomes -- heading into the postseason. With just one game left in the season and a championship on the line, Johnson thinks it is a problem his team is capable of handling.

"It's very fitting for this season," Johnson said of Howell's circumstances going into Saturday. "I'm guessing nobody is going to give us much of a chance. We were a little underrated going into the season, we were a little underrated coming into the tournament and we're probably going to be a little underrated going into this game. We like playing from that spot."

123456789RHE
Howell (24-6)000100001231
Cherokee (22-8)100000000170

Pitching

HowellIPHRERBBSOPC
Dan Furlong0111003
Nick Barracato760023102
Jason Pace (W, 4-0)20000321
CherokeeIPHRERBBSOPC
Jeremy Cheeseman52113796
Shane Sax (L)11112254

Top Hitters

HowellGame Stats
Braden Walsh2-3, BB, RBI, SB
Joe Zito1-4, 2B, R, SB
CherokeeGame Stats
Dom Patrizi1-3, 2B, RBI
Jason Schooley2-4
Evan Brown1-4, R