Baseball – 2015 Preview: Preseason Top 10
Another baseball season is upon us, and the Shore Conference will begin the 2015 campaign Wednesday with 18 first pitches, one of which will take place down in Florida, where Christian Brothers Academy plays Springfield, Pa. As is the ritual every year, it’s time to take a stab at picking the 10 best teams heading into the season. It’s always ambiguous as to what exactly somebody is picking here: the best teams right now? The best teams by the end of the season? Does program track record matter or is it all about the roster?
My answer to all of those: Who cares? We’ve got two months to figure it out. Let’s just play ball already.
1. Christian Brothers Academy
With Luca Dalatri on the mound, CBA was quite literally unbeatable last year. If the junior right-hander picks up where he left off in 2014, it will likely mean more of the same considering CBA has many of its top hitters back last year's Shore Conference and Monmouth County Tournament championship teams. Keep an eye on CBA in the game following the game that Dalatri’s name appears in the box score. That will indicate if this is going to be a special year.
2. Jackson Memorial
The hype for Toms River North is warranted and any objection to the Jaguars going ahead of the Mariners is perfectly reasonable, but part of the reward for bringing a bunch of key players back from a state championship team is getting to sit in the big chair to open the year. Yes, technically CBA has the top spot, but the Jaguars should at least start the season as the top-ranked Group IV school in the Shore. Toms River North will have a chance to trade places when the Mariners travel to Jackson Memorial on Saturday.
3. Toms River North
The gap between the Mariners and the next team is fairly wide considering there is not body of work yet. Teams ranked in the top three rarely run away and hide, but as far as pure talent goes, it’s hard to argue with Toms River North being the top team if everything breaks right. They can hit one-through-nine and they are likely to run out at least five quality pitchers over the course of the season. Over the long haul, this will be a tough team to take down.
4. Colts Neck
At this point in the top 10, track record is still important, especially since nothing is clear from here on out. Colts Neck got the most out of its roster last year and the Cougars might actually be a little better in some areas this year. How coach Mike Yorke and his staff use left-hander Chris Murphy will be one of the more interesting sub-plots of the first two weeks, only because using him in relief worked so well last season. Yorke said Murphy will get a chance to start this year, so it could simply be that Colts Neck will have a lock-down starter going six or seven innings every five or six days.
Despite losing one of the best players in the country to IMG Academy, Barnegat should still feel pretty good about its chances to build on last year’s 20-win season. The Bengals still have three proven pitchers, with another wave of arms coming up, and the lineup has a chance to be even better now that Jared Kacso, Ed Rogan, Nik Fraim and Aaron McLaughin are all a year older. And if you’re bummed you won’t get your fix of an imposing pitcher at Barnegat games, fear not: the Bengals went from a 6-foot-6 No. 1 starter with Jason Groome to a 6-9 No. 1 starter in Seamus Brazill.
The Crimson Knights have a top-four about as good any team other than maybe CBA, and how well the pieces blend in around senior returning starters Dan Wondrack, Ryan Orender, Nick Martinez and Brendan Barcas will dictate how the season goes. With a couple more program players and perhaps a diamond in the rough along the way, Wall will be a consistent tenant of the top five.
7. Toms River South
A general rule of thumb in constructing a top 10 is, “When in doubt, you can never go wrong with Toms River South.” In this case, there doesn’t need to be much doubt: the Indians have a chance to be a very good team this year after they lost very few bodies from last year, although one of those was All-Shore outfielder Russell Messler. This Indians team has a good stable of pitchers coming back and a catcher in Ryan Shiffer who can handle the staff, run the defense and anchor the lineup.
With five Division I baseball commits and six Division I athletes, Manasquan is better than the No. 8 team in the Shore on paper, at least at this stage of the game. The Warriors have three committed Division I pitchers in their rotation and they will unleash that staff on a Class A Central division that saw a lot of talent from last year graduate. The only real reason to worry a little bit is because this is a big jump for Manasquan. The Warriors have had their moments but have not been able to chop their way into the top 10, but have a chance to become mainstays starting this year.
Marlboro might have the best staff in the Shore Conference when all is said and done, but in Class A North, it will be only a small advantage over the other top teams. Jeremy Dyzenhaus, Phil Saglietto and Stephen Epstein appear ready to take the ball and emerge alongside workhorse and ace Andrew Nardi to shut teams down and keep Marlboro in the picture throughout the year. The Mustangs get a good opening-day test against a talented, hungry St. Rose team.
10. Middletown South
The Eagles are always built to pitch and play defense, and this Middletown South roster is built to do both to the max. Class A North is going to be a gauntlet as usual, and Manalapan is hot on the trail for a top 10 spot out of the gate, but getting to the Monmouth County Tournament semifinals last year with this young core seems like a pretty good sign that the Eagles have something pretty good brewing with this group.
Next in Line
Manalapan – Coaches around the Shore like the Braves’ talent and it will most likely show at some point, but the Braves are usually a May team and are coming off an uneventful 2014 season. Give them time.
St. John Vianney – It doesn’t matter how many starters are gone, the defending Non-Public A champions have to be on the radar.
Red Bank Catholic – The Caseys are reloading in some spots this season and they won’t mash at the plate like they have in recent years, but they still have the players to beat some of the Shore’s best.
St. Rose – It remains to be seen how the pitching shapes up, but this lineup – mostly back from a year ago – showed on several occasions it can hit good pitching.
Central – The defending Ocean County champs return Anthony Arneth, the pitcher who won them that championship game in dominant fashion. The pitching should be good and there are some big bats mixed in that lineup as well.