LAWRENCEVILLE, N.J. - Had the defense been as clean and tight as the freshly shaved mohawks the Gateway baseball team received Monday, they might not still be seeking a Group 1 New Jersey championship.

But the Gators' play in the field was as out of control as Flyers forward Scott Hartnell's 'do, and their seven errors played a crucial role yesterday in what turned into a 6-2 loss to Central Jersey champ David Brearley (16-6) in the state semifinal yesterday at Rider University.

The Gators hit the ball hard enough and certainly pitched well enough to get a win, but when the defense makes as many mistakes as it did, well, it's just too much to overcome.

"The defense just didn't come ready to play," said Gateway coach Frank Alloway, whose team fell to 17-6. "They [Brearley] did a great job of fielding and hitting, putting the ball in play. We hit the ball hard, but a lot of times, we hit it right at them. We just didn't execute in the field."

Gateway scored the first run of the quick-moving game in the top of the fourth. Rick Ponto singled with two outs, moved to second on a Sam Frank walk and scored on a single to right by Shane Sweeney on an 0-1 pitch.

But in the bottom of the inning, the wheels started to come loose for the Gators. Brearley's No. 3 hitter Cory Stryker got on to start the inning when his grounder was bobbled at short. Three straight singles after that produced three runs. Gateway sophomore pitcher Chris Patterson got out of the jam by getting a doubleplay groundout and a fly ball to end the inning.

Then the wheels completely flew off in the fifth. Nine-hitter John Devigili began the inning by reaching on a fielding error. Tommy Mannix then laid down a good sacrifice bunt that turned into more when the throw to first wound up in rightfield. After Jimmy Stafford hit a ground ball that turned into a run-down out, it left Mannix at third and Stafford at second. Stryker then hit a sacrifice fly to right that scored Mannix. Stafford went to third when the throw from left to home was way off mark, then scored when the ensuing throw to third wound up in left.

You get the picture. It wasn't pretty.

What was attractive was Stafford's pitching performance. The senior righty used his lethal curveball masterfully, allowing five hits, while striking out four and walking only two in going the distance.

"The curveball was working, surprisingly," said Stafford, who threw 90 pitches and improved to 5-2. "It helped me out a lot, kept them off balance. With the fastball, I was trying to hit the corners like I always do, because I can't overpower them. That was the best my curveball has been all year. My best thing is to just try and be accurate."

He was dead-on yesterday, and even had enough gas left in the final inning to work out of a jam.

Sweeney got a one-out infield hit, and Joe Stewart followed with a walk. Brent Rubena knocked Sweeney home with a single, and the Gators faithful, which included two busloads of students, had reason to believe. But Nick Rutter's soft liner, which appeared to be falling just behind second base, was nabbed by shortstop Mannix, who fired to second to double off the runner and end any hopes of a state title for Gateway.

"This is definitely a letdown," said third baseman Dom DePasquale. "We worked hard all year and ended up being South Jersey [Group 1] champions. Coming into here, we had in our heads that we could win the whole thing. It is a letdown that we didn't come up big.

"I'm upset now, and our whole team's upset now for not winning this game, but when you really think about it, we are South Jersey champions. That's a big thing."

DePasquale is Gateway's all-time hits leader, with 123, with two Colonial Conference games to go. He also is a star linebacker/fullback on the football team and will continue his football career next year at Widener, where he also might play baseball.

But there was nothing he could do offensively to help his team overcome its defensive shortcomings.

"That's tough for them," David Brearley coach Joe Capizzano said of Gateway's fielding flaws. "But I guess it's good for us. We tell the guys to be disciplined in the [strike] zone and get on base. Discipline will get you on the bag, and we try to run as much as we can and make things happen. If we're putting the ball in play, we're a tough team to beat."

And, as anyone on Gateway would attest, it's tough to win when giving the other team bases. Still, after the sting of yesterday's loss subsides, there will be reason to celebrate.

"I told the seniors that they had a great year and they are South Jersey champs, and no one can take that away from them," Alloway said. "For the younger guys who are coming back, this is something they can bring back with them next year and build on."

By then, the bad haircuts will be long gone and this loss, they hope, will be forgotten. The sectional title (the school's second and first in 10 years), however, can be savored for a long time. *