My apologies for the delay, but here are the season's first set of Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex rankings.
Expect plenty of movement from Nos. 5-10 as the sixth annual tri-county tournament gets underway with four preliminary-round games on Wednesday: Belvidere at High Point, Kittatinny at Phillipsburg, South Hunterdon at Sussex Tech and Sparta at Warren Hills.
Sparta at Warren Hills seems to be the most intriguing matchup. The Spartans have been having trouble swinging the bats in the early going, while the Blue Streaks have allowed 33 runs in their last four games coming into the week.
Hunterdon Central (three-time champion) and North Hunterdon figure to be the teams to beat, but keep an eye on Pope John, which caught a huge break with those Hunterdon powers both in the upper bracket.
Pope John (5-4) features two solid pitchers atop the rotation in lefty Ethan Collins and righty Jack Nelson. Like Sparta, it's been an offensive struggle thus far, so the bats will need to produce if PJ is to win its second HWS title and first since 2011.
"Pitching is definitely the strength of our team," Nelson said after last Wednesday's win over Sparta.
Now, onto the rankings:
1. Hunterdon Central (6-3-1) -- Red Devils right back in their familiar spot at the top. but coach Mike Raymond's club has hit some bumps in the road early on. Clearly the top team in the Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex area, Central cemented their No. 1 ranking with a 13-3 win over No. 2 North Hunterdon last Wednesday. Senior shortstop Mike Perone (.406) went 2-for-3 with an RBI, while senior outfielder Henry Hawkins finished 3-for-4 with a pair of doubles. Leadoff hitter Brett McManus is starting to heat up with five hits and three RBIs over his last four games. Matt Padre and Matt Toke share the team lead in RBIs with 12.
Up next: Phillipsburg at Diamond Nation on Tuesday; Hillsborough at home on Wednesday; Franklin at home on Thursday; Hopatcong at home on Saturday in Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex first round.
2. North Hunterdon (9-1) -- Lions have been absolutely solid sans a 13-3 loss to No. 1 Hunterdon Central, outscoring the opposition by a combined 75-20 in its nine victories. Junior ace John Wilson (4-0) and senior lefty Shayne Fontana (Kean University) are a nice 1-2 punch on the mound, while senior third baseman Tom Schumacher (Lehigh) has been on a tear at the plate, driving in a pair of runs in a 3-0 win over Montgomery in a Skyland Conference Raritan Division clash on April 13. With Central still in the Delaware Division, coach Mike Kane's Lions are the favorite in the Raritan.
Up next: Steinert at Diamond Nation on Tuesday; at Ridge on Wednesday; at Immaculata on Friday; Belvidere-High Point winner at home on Saturday in Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex first round.
3. Pope John (5-4) -- The Sussex County Lions finished 3-1 last week with a 2-0 win over crosstown rival Sparta on Wednesday to snap a three-game skid in that series. Coach Vin Bello's teams are 6-3 vs. the Spartans since the NJAC began play in 2009-10. Right-hander Jack Nelson (1-2) went the route for his first win, striking out six, while Ethan Collins and George Somers drove in runs. Catcher Zach Leach entered last week batting ..500, while Collins, the staff ace, improved to 3-0 with 14 K's overall in the team's 5-0 win over Randolph on Friday.
Up next: at Morris Hills on Thursday; Sparta-Warren Hills winner at home on Saturday in Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex first round.
4. Hackettstown (7-1) -- Tigers drew the No. 1 seed in the Hunterdon-Warren bracket for the tri-county tournament and coach Gary Poyer's club will be a tough out. Their only loss coming into the week was 6-4 in eight innings to No. 6 Lenape Valley last Wednesday in an NJAC Freedom Division clash. Senior catcher Jonathan Pezzato is swinging a hot bat with two doubles, one home run and six RBIs in his last three games. Junior pitcher John Franco is 3-0 with 14 K's in those wins.
Up next: at Sussex Tech on Thursday; South Hunterdon-Sussex Tech winner at home on Saturday in Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex first round.
5. Delaware Valley (5-4) -- Terriers capped a 3-2 week with a 7-5 win over No. 8 Newton on Saturday at Memory Park on the heels of a 12-2 pasting of No. 9 Voorhees on Friday. Coach Marty White's squad was dealt a blow before the season began with the loss of ace right-hander Logan Brown (possible Tommy John surgery), while also losing center fielder and No. 3 hitter Frank McHugh, who is out until May with a broken foot. Righty C.J. Schaible has assumed the role of staff ace and is 3-1 with a 3.50 ERA with 30 K's in 20 innings. Freshman Christian Hlinka is on a tear, batting .333 with 12 RBIs.
Up next: at Bernards on Wednesday; Warren Hills at home on Thursday; Vernon at home on Saturday in Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex first round.
6. Lenape Valley (4-3) -- Patriots are coming off a 2-2 week, capped by an impressive 8-1 win over No. 7 Sparta on Saturday. Junior outfielder Tom Armstrong stayed hot by belting a three-run homer, while winning pitcher Mark Lisi struck out nine and allowed just five hits in going the distance for his first victory. When ace Jim Fluke is on the mound, coach Bob Klinck's team has a shot against most teams in the area. It appears that Fluke (1-1) will start mainly in NJAC Freedom Division matchups, striking out 11 in the eight-inning win over No. 4 Hackettstown. Fluke also swings a formidable bat with a pair of hits in that one.
Up next: Newton at home on Tuesday; at Jefferson on Thursday; Voorhees at home on Saturday in Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex first round.
7. Sparta (3-4) -- Spartans dropped a pair of in-county matchups last week -- 2-0 at Pope John on Wednesday and 8-1 at Lenape Valley on Saturday. Right-hander Dillon Mendel went 5 1/3 solid innings with four strikeouts in a hard-luck loss to the Lions, while senior outfielder Tim Gondek logged a double and two RBIs in a 12-2 win over Parsippany Hills on Friday. First baseman Nick Makowitz was 2-for-4 with two RBIs in that one and he drove in a run against Lenape.
Up next: at Jefferson on Tuesday; at Warren Hills on Wednesday in Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex first round; Vernon at home on Thursday.
8. Newton (4-4) -- Braves have been a tough bunch to figure out the last few years at this point in the season. Lefty ace Nick Grant has yet to get going on the mound, but righty Cole Van Luvender (3-0), who showed flashes as a sophomore in 2014, has been solid for coach John Selitto's club. Van Luvender fanned seven in a 14-6 win over Hopatcong on Friday. Senior shortstop Jon Bernotas is absolutely raking -- .645 average (20-for-31), with five doubles, one homer and 10 RBIs. Grant is doing the job with the bat, hitting .360 with eight RBIs. Newcomers Michael Luzzi, a sophomore, (.350, nine RBIs) and freshman Chase Cramer (.281, four RBIs) are making an impact.
Up next: at Lenape Valley on Tuesday; at Wallkill Valley on Wednesday; North Warren at home on Thursday; North Warren at home on Saturday in Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex first round.
9. Vernon (5-3) -- Vikings have won three of their last four, including a bizarre 7-0 win over High Point, a game that coach Scott Berge's club actually lost 7-6. The Wildcats had to forfeit due to having one of their pitcher go over the 10-inning maximum for the week. Junior ace Christian Capuano (2-0) gives this team a chance most times out, while catcher Connor Fitzsimmons kept swinging a red-hot bat by going 3-for-6 with two RBIs in Saturday's 12-10 win at Blair Academy, following a 2-for-3 day with a homer and two RBIs in a 5-4 win over Warwick Valley (N.Y.).
Up next: at Sparta on Thursday; High Point at home on Friday; at Delaware Valley on Saturday in Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex first round.
10. Wallkill Valley (4-4) -- Rangers won three in a row before a 13-0 loss to No. 4 Hackettstown on Thursday. Coach Kevin Lukich's team rebounded with a 10-0 win over Kittatinny that preceded a 3-2 loss to High Point on Saturday. This spot was a tough call, but Wallkill did beat No. 6 Lenape Valley
earlier last week -- 8-3 on April 13. Lefty ace Joe Colosimo (2-1) fanned five in the win over Kittatinny, while senior shortstop Michael Armstrong went 2-for-3 with a triple and an RBI. Colosimo helped himself by going 2-for-3 with an RBI double.
Up next: Sussex Tech at home on Tuesday; Newton at home on Wednesday; at Hopatcong on Thursday; Kittatinny-Phillipsburg winner at home on Saturday in Hunterdon-Warren-Sussex first round.
On the bubble: High Point (4-7), North Warren (3-5), Voorhees (2-5), Warren Hills (2-7).