Anyone on a Class A South coaching staff will say it as though they rehearsed it over and over again like it was a bunt defense: "Class A South is the the toughest division in the state." Ocean County's division of baseball giants has been a gauntlet for some time now and while that was the case for seven of the teams last year, it's hard to imagine Jackson Memorial understood what all the fuss was about. The Jaguars went 14-0 and although those on the team would insist it wasn't as easy as it looked - especially in light of two tournament losses to Toms River North and one to Brick Memorial - an unbeaten division mark goes against the notion that the division is anybody's game every year.

While Jackson Memorial enters the season as the favorite again, it is as a tentative favorite. Not only do the Jaguars need to replace a number of players vital to last year's success, but there are five other teams with rosters that stack up with the Jaguars roster on paper. It is implied every season, but it rings especially true this year: Class A South will be wildly competitive.

Jackson Memorial first baseman Matt Guarino will look to clean up in the middle of the Jaguars' lineup again after driving in 31 runs last season. (Photo by Bill Normile)

Predicted Order of Finish (Click on school for team preview)

1. Jackson Memorial
2. Toms River East
3. Toms River North
4. Toms River South
5. Brick Memorial
6. Brick
7. Lacey
8. Southern

Division Lineup

Brian Gallagher, Catcher, Brick – Take your pick between Gallagher and Toms River South’s Ryan Shiffer. Gallagher, who also has a good defensive reputation, edged him in OPS and is the senior, so he wins the virtual coin flip.

Matt Guarino, 1B, Jackson Memorial – Came a long way from hitting well under .200 as a sophomore: .411, nine doubles, three home runs and 31 RBI.

Christian Campbell, 2B/SS, Toms River South – A proven table-setter (.430 on-base percentage last year), Campbell is looking at a likely move from second to shortstop for his senior year.

Jon Meola, SS, Toms River East – A University of Virginia recruit, Meola ripped seven doubles and hit his lone homer of the 2013 season off of future ACC opponent Karl Blum (Duke).

Charlie Mulé, 3B, Toms River East – A hitting machine as a junior, Mulé hit .476 with five doubles while bringing a steady glove to the hot corner.

Russell Messler, OF, Toms River South – The tools are impressive and the numbers even more so. The Rutgers recruit also showed a much-improved handle on the strike zone last year (.606 on-base percentage), knowing when to be patient and when to pounce.

Kyle Cala, CF, Brick Memorial – If Messler was the best outfielder in the division, Cala was right with him. The senior was a doubles machine during the state tournament, ripping one in three straight Central Jersey Group IV games.

Nick Dabrio, OF, Jackson Memorial – A Seton Hall recruit, Dabrio had only one at-bat last year due to a back injury, but is entering this season 100 percent healthy.

Connor Rooney, SS/P, Lacey – Could easily be listed with the pitchers as well, but Rooney brings enough to the table offensively and defensively to put him with the hitters.


Division Rotation

Steve Slagmolen, RHP, Toms River North – Showed his mental toughness by striking out Matt Thaiss in the bottom of the seventh of the Ocean County Tournament final, the defining moment in a strong season for Slagmolen.

Anthony DeBlasio, RHP, Toms River East – DeBlasio helped bring some stability to the rotation behind Paul Schifilliti and is ready to take over as the No. 1 this year.

Anthony Assante, RHP, Brick Memorial – Gave the Mustangs a chance to win every time out during the postseason and took a tough no-decision in the sectional final against Hunterdon Central after 4 1/3 innings.

Brett Hyers, RHP, Toms River North – Some arm trouble cut his season short, but Hyers was impressive in his sophomore debut, posting a 17-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 20 innings.

Tyler Mellot, RHP, Toms River South – Toms River South continues to churn out quality arms of all shapes and sizes, and Mellot is another who gets a lot behind his fastball despite a slight frame. His 1.44 ERA in 24 innings suggests something is working.


Breakout Players to Watch

Joey Rose, SS/P, Toms River North – Lots of power potential here. Rose has a chance to be a very good one for the Mariners.

Ryan Tacaks, RHP, Jackson Memorial – Although the Jaguars have to replace a lot of pitching, they were not particularly strong on the mound relative to the rest of the team. Tacaks has the repertoire to change that.

Nick Moglia, 1B/RHP, Brick – With a year to grow into his 6’5” frame, Moglia should be sharper on the hill this year while also providing some help at first base.

Brian Markoski, 1B, Brick Memorial – Exhibited great command of the strike zone as a freshman (17 walks) and a season of at-bats should only help.

Brandon Janofsky, SS, Jackson Memorial – The only established starter on this list, Janofsky has a chance to be a very good player for the Jaguars. He will be looking to build on a .250 season at the plate, although his defense at second base was already stellar.


Burning Questions

How many teams have a realistic chance at winning the division?

The answer appears to be as many as six: Jackson, the three Toms Rivers and the two Bricks. Regardless of the order in which you put the teams, there is a good case to be made for the sixth team in the bunch as far as a division title goes. Every team has talent and every team has an area of concern and that’s what makes the A South race the most interesting Shore Conference division race heading into the season. It would not be a surprise to see a division winner with four or five losses and it would be a little surprising if one of the six fails to make the SCT.

Which outfielder has the better senior season: Russell Messler or Kyle Cala?

While Messler has the edge in each of the last two years, Cala is a four-year starter who is poised to break several Brick Memorial career records this season. While milestones are a nice résumé builder for a Player of the Year candidacy, it comes down to production and performance, and in that case, it could still go either way. Both teams will be relying heavily on their respective slugging outfielder, so any team success will be telling as well.

Which group will make a bigger impact: the Jackson Memorial pitching staff or the new Toms River North position players?

Both units have been impressive in the preseason thus far, so the early indication is that both will be positives for their teams this year. While pitching normally wins the day, Jackson Memorial has not asked its pitchers to be stars in recent years because the Jaguars have had such great defenses behind them and potent offenses to get back any runs that they give up. They pound the bottom of the strike one and let the defense work, which will be the formula again this year. Toms River North, meanwhile, will need to find some offense while also developing a defense that can back up a talented but still somewhat unproven pitching staff.

Will Carmen Sclafani bring his winning touch to the Brick baseball team as well?

Anyone who watched Sclafani on a football field saw an example of a winning player, and while it wasn’t so obvious on the baseball field, that same sense of the moment was there. Sclafani brought stability to the shortstop position for the Mariners and also came up with a number of big hits out of the No. 9 spot in the order, racking up 21 RBI to lead the team. Not only does he bring the same element to Brick’s team, but his departure is also a hit to a division rival, although the Mariners will use it as an opportunity to play some talented youngsters. If Brick can pitch better than it did last year and keep games close, Sclafani will likely find himself winning some games for the Dragons.

Is Toms River East primed for a return to championship form?

As with any other team in the division, Toms River East has its share of unknown quantities heading into the year, namely at catcher and on the right side of the field. But with three senior starting pitchers coming off solid seasons and a mix of power, contact and athleticism on the left side of the diamond, the Raiders have the ingredients to get back to the top of the division if some of the unknowns become positives. With a senior-heavy team and one of the better juniors in the state in shortstop Jon Meola, Toms River East should propel itself out of the middle of the pack and into a late-season race.