Johnson, Versage help Middle walk off vs. Lower

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BRANDON JOHNSON CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE – From the professional ranks down to the high school games, the star players usually get the headlines, and rightly so.

But every so often, a role player gets his or her chance to shine and takes advantage of the situation.

Such is the case with Brandon Johnson of the Middle Township High School baseball team.

A three-year subvarsity player in the program, Johnson finally cracked the starting lineup for the Panthers as a senior this season. On Monday, he was at the forefront of a stirring Panther playoff victory.

Johnson went 3 for 4 and, after singling to lead off the seventh inning, scored the winning run on Jimmy Versage’s soft line drive hit to left field with one out as Middle walked off with a 4-3 victory over Lower Cape May in a first-round South Jersey Group II game.

“I don’t want our season to end,” Johnson said. “All I keep thinking about is, ‘Keep winning games.’”

The fifth-seeded Panthers will travel to No. 4 Overbrook for a second-round game on Thursday.

Lower Cape May entered the game at 6-13 and was seeded 12th. But the Tigers had beaten Middle Township by 7-2 earlier this season and jumped out to a 2-0 lead after one inning, the inning highlighted by a double by Bradley Fournier – the first of his three hits – and Dom Catanoso’s RBI on a ground ball that turned into an error.

That early Lower Cape May lead didn’t deter Middle, however.

“Not at all,” Johnson said. “I was thinking we were definitely going to come back. We had it in our minds that that was the only inning they were going to get. We dug deep and got it done.”

Middle briefly tied the game in the fourth on a two-run single by Jeff Keyes, only to see Lower retake the lead in the top of the fifth on Colin Donahue’s RBI ground out, Keyes making a wonderful play in the hole at short to nip Donahue at first base as Josh Schneider crossed the plate.

Middle (13-7) tied the game again in the bottom of the fifth when Justin Lent scored on a wild pitch.

That set the stage for the seventh. Johnson singled to left to open the inning and was sacrificed to second by Steve Hand before an error on a popup put runners at first and second with one out. Versage then hit a pitch a bit below the barrel but got enough of it to lift it into the outfield to easily score Johnson from second.

“I was just thinking I had to get something to the outfield to try to score him,” Versage said. “I knew I didn’t get all of it, but I also knew it was going to be a hit.”

Keyes got the win in relief of Hand for Middle.

“We kind of figured it would be like that, because we’ve had a hard time with them this year,” Middle coach Chuck Dougherty said. “I think our teams are evenly matched.”

The exciting finish marked the second straight season in which Middle beat its county rival on a walk-off hit in a state playoff game. Last season, Middle posted a 2-1 victory in eight innings.

“Of course, it had to be another walk-off,” Lower coach Mike Kuemmerle said incredulously. “That’s unfortunate for us, obviously. But it was definitely a well-played game by both teams. We knew it was going to be a battle.”

Eric Goss pitched the first six innings for Lower.

“Eric pitched a tremendous game and gave us everything he had,” Kuemmerle said. “He didn’t have his best stuff but he really battled and he definitely gave us a chance to win. That’s all you can ask.”

But while Lower Cape May walked away dejected, Middle was all smiles, especially Dougherty after he was asked about Johnson, who sparked the final-inning rally.

“I’m really happy for him and for what he’s been doing for us,” Dougherty said. “He’s been leading us. He’s been fielding the ball, hitting the ball, doing everything we ask of him. For a first-year (varsity) player as a senior to play like that, he’s been great for us.”

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