MAYS LANDING - Kenny Merlock and host Oakcrest High School almost pulled off one of the bigger upsets of the season so far in the Al Hedelt Tournament championship game Sunday.
Merlock hit a two-run double to give the Falcons a lead in the fifth inning, but Pennsville battled back for a 3-2 win to repeat as the Hedelt champion.
A pair of errors late in the game doomed the Falcons.
"It's a tough loss," Merlock said. "We could have won our own tournament for the first time."
Pennsville improved to 12-0 and is ranked second in The Press Elite 11.
It was an impressive showing for Oakcrest, but Merlock and company didn't seem interested in moral victories.
"It doesn't matter," Merlock said. "I just want to win."
On Friday, Oakcrest fell to 3-6 with a tough loss to Mainland Regional.
But the Falcons bounced back with a win against St. Joseph in the Hedelt quarterfinals Saturday and reached the final with a 4-2 win against a tough Buena Regional team in the semifinals Sunday.
Cameron Lease was the winning pitcher and had two hits with a double against Buena. Merlock closed out the game for his fourth save.
"Those are my two horses," Oakcrest coach Sean Olson said. "The senior leadership showed against Buena - I think that's what propelled us to this final."
In the final, sophomore Ryan Johnson nearly pitched the Falcons to the upset in his first start of the season.
Johnson struck out six with only one walk in a complete game with only one earned run.
Pennsville reached the final with a 13-1 win against Absegami in the semifinals.
Three runs is Pennsville's lowest offensive output of the season and only the second time all season the team has been held below 10.
"You can't ask for anything more out of Ryan Johnson," Olson said. "He's just a sophomore in his first start of the year. So for him to go seven against a very good-hitting Pennsville team is impressive.
"I'm super proud of my guys. It's a shame it comes down to a couple mistakes here or there, but that's what good teams do: They take advantage of that stuff."
Johnson and Pennsville starter Colin Rieger were each tossing shutouts until Merlock stepped to the plate with the bases loaded in the top of the fifth inning.
Merlock crushed a ball through the gap in left-center field.
The first two runs scored easily, but Pennsville was able to cut down the third runner at the plate to end the inning.
Pennsville bounced back with two runs in the bottom of the fifth to tie the game and won in the bottom of the seventh when Drew Burdsall's line drive to left field was misplayed and dropped as the winning run scored.
"We were struggling at first, and we got our team back together," Merlock said. "But I definitely would have liked to win this one."
The eight-team Hedelt tournament is named after the former Pleasantville coach and Oakcrest athletic director.
"One of the reasons we wanted to come down here and get in this tournament was not for the hour and 20-minute bus ride," Pennsville coach Matt O'Brien said. "We came down here because we know it is good competition. These are the games that prepare you for the state tournament."
Contact John O’Kane:
Pennsville 3, Oakcrest 2
Oakcrest 000 020 0-2 6 2
Pennsville 000 020 1-3 6 1
2B-Merlock O; Flickenger P.
WP-Reiger (1-0) 4k; LP-Johnson (0-1) 6k.
Records-Oakcrest 5-7; Pennsville 12-0.
Oakcrest 4, Buena Regional 2
Oakcrest 011 100 1-4 8 3
Buena Regional 000 002 0-2 7 0
2B-Lease, Troy Manno, Kammer O; Lopez BR.
Records-Oakcrest 5-6; Buena 9-4.
Pennsville 13, Absegami 1
Absegami 100 00-1 1 0
Pennsville 103 54-13 13 0
2B-Ardente A; Shimp, Sorrels P. HR-Lankenau P.
Records-Absegami 8-5; Pennsville 11-0.