Baseball – 2014 Preview: Class B North
It's easy to forget now after only one team in the division made any noise in the postseason, but the Class B North race was actually the tightest one in the Shore Conference last year. Wall won the division by a game over Matawan and lost games to Freehold and Neptune during the season. Wall went on to beat CBA to advance to the Monmouth County Tournament championship game and also reached the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III final, which masked the fact that the Knights had to hold their breath while trying to lock up the division.
This year should not be so close. Wall returns all but one starter from last year's 22-6 team while the rest of the division copes with the usual amount of turnover. St. Rose looks like a safe pick to win Class B Central, but if one had to guarantee a division winner out of the six Shore Conference divisions, Wall in B North might be the way to go. That should actually make for a more interesting division rather than a less interesting one because every game will be a chance to pull an upset for Wall's opponent, and in baseball, as Neptune proved in no-hitting Wall last year, you just never really know.
Projected Order of Finish (Click on school for team preview)
Dan Wondrack, Catcher, Wall – The Shore is becoming known for its catching talent and Wondrack leads the Class of 2015.
Jack Gifford, 1B, Wall – Last season was a bit of a down year for Gifford, who was a revelation as a sophomore in 2012. Expect a return to form in the middle of Wall’s lineup.
Corey Martin, SS/2B, Red Bank – Won a starting job at second base last year and hit .415. Martin will make the move to shortstop, which means his defense will be more of a priority than any offensive improvement.
Connor Mullan, SS, Long Branch – Displayed power during his junior year to the tune of nine extra-base hits, including 2 homers.
Jimmy McGrorry, 3B, Ocean – Most of Ocean’s top hitters last year were seniors, but McGrorry did knock in 20 runs while hitting .280 as a junior.
Tim Willey, OF, Wall – With a number of big hits to his credit, Willey was third on the team in on-base and slugging percentage, trailing only Wondrack and Nick Martinez in each category.
Nick Martinez, CF, Wall – One of the more underrated players at the Shore, Martinez ran a .480 on-base percentage with eight doubles and 24 runs scored.
Jacob Nappi, OF, Red Bank – Nappi could take a spot in the lineup or the rotation, and after hitting over .400 last season and with a career hit total approaching 100, he gets the nod in the outfield.
Zach Godfrey, C, Ocean – Led all Spartans returnees in average (.313) and doubles (six) and will also provide experience behind the plate.
Tyler Swiggart, RHP, Wall – The George Washington recruit posted an ERA and WHIP that were each below 1.00 last season thanks to his control (19 walks in 67 2/3 innings) and a three-quarter delivery that is difficult for hitters to handle.
Ryan Lillie, LHP, Ocean – A breakout pitcher last season, Lillie posted a 2.29 ERA and struck out 34 in 49 innings as a junior.
Steve Coltrain, RHP, Wall – One of the best No. 3 starters in the Shore (1.98 ERA with a 3-0 record) last year, Coltrain will move into the No. 2 spot behind Swiggart.
A.J. Forgione, RHP, Red Bank – Enters the season as the No. 2 in the rotation behind Nappi, but last year’s numbers would put him in the conversation as one of the best in B North.
Mike Creamer, RHP, Matawan – Probably more of a threat at the plate going into the year, but Creamer has to be somewhere on this list and his ability on the mound gets him a spot with the pitchers.
Breakout Players to Watch
Dante Cuzzolino, RHP/INF, Freehold – A key varsity contributor as a freshman and sophomore, Cuzzolino will pick up plenty of innings for the Colonials this year.
Sam Maxwell, OF/RHP, Ocean – The Spartans are looking for new sources of offense and Maxwell has shown signs that he can not only give them good at-bats, but possibly even some quality innings on the mound.
Bobby Knee, 3B/RHP, Neptune – One of a handful of Neptune seniors that might get more recognition with more wins. With enough of those players earning their due, the wins could take care of themselves.
Bobby Patterson, RHP, Wall – Last year’s Wall pitching rotation was a hard one to crack and after waiting his turn, Patterson will be champing at the bit to deliver.
Nick Santuccio, RHP, Matawan – After a junior season as a reliable starter, Santuccio is ready to take on more innings and the Huskies may need that to happen in order to challenge for the division title again.
Will a whole team of returning starters benefit from last year’s big-game experience?
Based on returning players, Wall should be the Shore’s best team this year, but in order to finish off a championship of some kind, the Crimson Knights will have to get over the hump in a championship game. The only way to do that is to get to the championship game, and getting back is never as simple as it seems. Still, a team as solid as Wall is at every position with experience in tight elimination games fits the profile of a club ready to take the next step.
Which team poses the biggest challenge for the heavily favored Crimson Knights?
Ocean is the safe answer based on the Spartans’ recent history as a team that competes for division titles every year, and also on the fact that they have a quality No. 1 starter in Ryan Lillie who is capable of beating Wall. Red Bank, however, might be equally dangerous with two quality arms at the top of the rotation, including another standout left-hander in Jacob Nappi. Wall is the heavy favorite and any losses the Crimson Knights suffer will probably have more to do with the pitching matchup on that particular day, but enough of those days would make this race surprisingly interesting.
Can Freehold reload with replacements for two All-Shore level pitchers and a center fielder?
Freehold’s advantage in replace Mike Bolton, Jake Yanez and Jason Lundy is that a lot of the players that complemented those three last year are back and will just have to do their jobs a little better to get back to where they were. The trouble, in all likelihood, will be finding two pitchers as reliable as Yanez and Bolton. With a lot of options, however, Freehold remains a dark-horse in the division if a few things work out.
Does Matawan have enough remaining to get back into the top half of the division?
A healthy Mike Creamer will be a good start for Matawan in trying to replace one of its better senior classes in the last decade. Creamer will be the team’s top hitter, defender and pitcher if all goes well, but the Huskies will also need some of their part-time players to handle their increased roles. Red Bank and Ocean are not so far ahead that Matawan can’t compete if most of the previous scenario comes to pass.
Are either Neptune or Long Branch legitimate sleepers in the division?
Long Branch returns a standout in Connor Mullan but little else to the starting lineup, which makes any ideas of a surprise season hard to envision. The Scarlet Fliers, on the other hand, proved last year that they can hang with a top team when they no-hit Wall with two pitchers in a 6-2 win. Replacing catcher Jason Richard will be a tall order, but a lot of the junior talent from last year is back as senior talent in 2014, which could make for an interesting season at Neptune.