The 2018 season ended without a Class A Central team in the final Shore Sports Network Top 10, but the division still had some memorable moments from a variety of its teams. Raritan returned to prominence in 2017 behind an impressive pitching staff that remains largely intact, while Rumson (vs. Manasquan) and St. John Vianney (vs. Pinelands) picked up noteworthy non-divisional wins during the regular season. Matawan beat a quality Freehold Township team in 11 innings in the Monmouth County Tournament and Red Bank also made noise by reaching the NJSIAA North Jersey Group III semifinals as a No. 15 seed – highlighted by a 15-inning win over Middletown North.

On the whole, the division looks stronger on paper than a year ago, which should make for a competitive season from start to finish – both in divisional play and once the A Central teams venture out in to the tournaments. Ultimately, however, there is a heavy favorite to win the regular-season title and while the lineup has a lot to do with it, it ultimately comes down to pitching.

 

In predicted order of finish

Raritan

Head Coach: Jeff Struble, sixth season
2017 Record: 16-7 (10-2, first in A Central)
Key Returners: Zack Johnston (Sr., RHP), Alex Lamattina (Sr., C), Dan Vanmeerbeke (Sr., 2B/RHP), Tyler Bruno (Jr., CF), Jake Tennant (Jr., 3B/RHP), Sean Ohea (Jr., OF), Kyle Lamattina (Sr., UTIL), D.J. Dekis (So., 1B)
Key Losses: Matt Birdsall (RHP), Ken Friend (OF), Mike Wojtowicz (SS)
Key Newcomers: Ryan Kasmer (Jr., OF), Dan Fiore (So., OF), Chris Gonzalez (Fr., SS)

The Rockets returned to the top of the A Central heap last year and despite losing ace and All-Shore right-hander Matt Birdsall to graduation, they look like an even better team this season. It all starts with the pitching staff at Raritan and even without Birdsall, the Rockets have three proven pitchers who all proved they could cut through A Central lineups during the 2017 campaign. Senior right-handers Zack Johnston and Dan Vanmeerbeke top the rotation after both posted ERA’s below 2.00 as juniors, with Johnston putting up a microscopic 0.81 mark. Last year’s staff was also remarkably good at pounding the strikezone, with Birdsall, Johnston, Vanmeerbeke and returning junior Jake Tennant issuing a combined 22 walks in 154 2/3 innings – which comes in at almost exactly one walk per seven innings.

As if overcoming Raritan’s pitching staff was not enough, the Rockets also look like best offensive team in the division as well and potentially a better at the dish than they were a year ago with their four top hitters back. Junior center fielder Tyler Bruno was a top-five hitter in the division as a sophomore as well as a solid defender in the outfield. Senior Alex Lammatina is the top returning catcher in the division, while Vanmeerbeke and Tennant are also both coming off big offensive seasons. Johnston can handle the bat as well and junior outfielder Sean Ohea came on strong as a sophomore with a .321 average.

Raritan had to sweat out the division last year because of an error in tracking its pitch count that led to a forfeit, but on the field, the Rockets were a step above the rest of the A Central field. The division should be a little stronger in 2018, but so too is Raritan and the Rockets are primed to once again run the show in A Central while eying more postseason success come May.

 

Holmdel

Head Coach: Chris Arecchi, second season
2017 Record: 9-11 (7-5, third in A Central)
Key Returners: Sal Monticciolo (Sr., 1B), Alex DiBona (Sr., SS/3B/RHP), Brandon Saghafi (Sr., C/RHP), Jason Lyons (Jr., SS/RHP), Ezra Caspi (Jr., OF), Alec Licato (Jr., RHP), Mike Devino (Sr., INF/C)
Key Losses: Chris Ammirati (OF/RHP), Matt Fanelli (DH), Alex Galarza (OF)
Key Newcomers: Nick Fanzini (Jr., UTIL), Brendan Cowley (Jr., UTIL), Ron Shangle (JR., P), Evan Smith (Jr., P)

Last year marked a significant step forward for the Holmdel program, which ran up a winning record in Class A Central play and finished third in the division behind Raritan and Matawan thanks to a high-scoring lineup. The Hornets lost a pair of big bats in Matt Fanelli and Chris Ammirati, but still return an imposing collection of position players that will have a chance to build on some of the strides they helped the team make last year.

Senior slugger and Fairleigh Dickinson commit Sal Monticciolo is one of the best returning hitters in the Shore Conference and will again hold the lineup together coming off his monster junior campaign in which he posted the third-best slugging percentage at the Shore (.887) and the best among players who did not play in the Class B Central division. Infielders Alex DiBona and Jason Lyons also had strong showings at the plate last year, with Lyons hitting .357 as a sophomore shortstop. With Lyons, senior catcher Brandon Saghafi and junior outfielder Ezra Caspi, Holmdel will also be strong up the middle on defense.

The difference between the Hornets taking another step and making a giant leap this year will be their pitching, which was still inconsistent a year ago. DiBona was the most reliable member of the staff last year and will lead the unit again this season, while junior Alec Licato is looking to build on a solid showing as a sophomore, which included a pair of complete-game victories. Juniors Rob Shangle and Evan Smith will also battle for innings and if they can click on the mound this year, Holmdel could have a nice mix of junior pitchers to continue the program’s push forward.

 

St. John Vianney

Head Coach: Mike Morgan, 12th season
2017 Record: 7-14 (3-9, seventh in A Central)
Key Returners: Logan Marter (Sr., OF/LHP), Chris Caragliano (Jr., 3B), Evan Perrette (Sr., 2B), Spencer Margulis (Jr., C/OF), Robert Skinner (Jr., SS), Brenden Martin (Jr., RHP), Alex Tango (Jr., RHP), Frank D’Alessio (Sr., OF), Michael DiPede (Sr., INF)
Key Losses: Sebi Bellone (C), Gerardo Rivera-Colon (1B), Ryan DeMille (RHP), Matt Cerniglia (OF), Seamus Coyle (1B)
Key Newcomers: Pat Caragliano (Sr., C/OF), Anthony Altmonte (Sr., C/INF), Luciano Fabrizzi (Jr., C), Nick Noto (Jr., INF), Matt McCormack (Sr., P), Matt Dellea (Jr., P), Peter Loumakos (Sr., P), John Kaminski (Jr., INF), Jack Owens (Jr., OF), Domenic Cerniglia (So., INF/OF), Ryan Chin (So., OF/RHP), Jeremia Minaya (So., INF/P), Tristan Delaney (So., INF/P), Ryan Sekman (Fr., INF/P), Robert Smith (Fr., P), Robert Lehan (So., P)

In a Class A Central division that did not produce an overly dominant team within the Shore Conference, it is almost unfathomable that a program with the recent success of St. John Vianney could finish in last place, but that is exactly what happened to the Lancers in 2017. There appear to be two primary reasons that happened: first, A Central didn’t have a top 10 team in the Shore Conference, but it also had some capable teams from top to bottom. Rumson-Fair Haven beat Shore Sports Network Pitcher of the Year Connor Muly and Manasquan during the regular season and Red Bank – with its two dominant pitchers – won two games in the NJSIAA North Jersey Group III Playoffs as a No. 15 seed.

Getting back to St. John Vianney, the second reason the Lancers struggled their way to a 3-9 mark was they just couldn’t put teams away in close games. Half of Vianney’s 14 losses with by a margin of three runs or fewer, so part of a turnaround season will simply be finishing games like those off. The Lancers have a nice mix of returning talent in the field, at the plate and on the mound, led by senior outfielder and left-handed pitcher Logan Marter, who posted a sub-1.00 ERA in 26 innings last year.

Vianney will be solid around the infield this year with returnees Evan Perrette at second, Brian Skinner at shortstop and Chris Caragliano at shortstop. Senior Spencer Margulis swung the bat well in a part time role and he is one of the options to take over at catcher for All-Division backstop Sebi Bellone. Junior returnees Brenden Martin and Alex Tango will back up Marter in the rotation and the Lancers will work in a new crop behind them, which includes sophomore right-hander Ryan Chin. With a little more performance throughout the staff and good fortune in those close games, St. John Vianney should have a better showing in 2018.

 

Matawan

Head Coach: Bobby Carnovsky, sixth season
2017 Record: 12-12 (8-4, second in A Central)
Key Returners: Jackson Hercek (Jr., OF/RHP), Steven Salot (Sr., INF), Rich Olsen (Jr., OF/LHP), Derek Jordan (Sr., UTIL), Chris Gendi (Jr., RHP/INF), Danny Hirujo (Jr., RHP/INF)
Key Losses: Tom Collazo (SS), Antonio Martinez (2B), Mike Trapani (C), Kyle Gamble (RHP), Jake Burlew (LHP/1B), John Carelli (LHP), Wayne Bloom (1B/OF)
Key Newcomers: Ben Palumbo (Jr., INF/C), Jay Kalieta (So., OF), Griffin Falco (So., C), Christian Rodriguez (Sr., OF), Zach Grillo (Sr., INF/C)

Matawan junior Jackson Hercek. (Photo by Matt Manley)

A strong start to the 2017 season kept Matawan in the A Central running until the very end before Raritan put the division away during the stretch run. The Huskies have a chance to replicate that effort in 2018, although there will not be as much senior leadership on hand to steer the ship. Junior Jackson Hercek might have been the team’s most talented all-around player as a sophomore and he will lead the Huskies this year both at the plate and on the mound. Hercek is one of five players with starting experience back from last year and while the Huskies have to replace a shortstop, a catcher and a second baseman – all of whom hit in the top half of the order – they have a nice base with which to work.

Senior Steven Salot returns to the left side of the infield and classmate Richie Olsen will flank Hercek in right field. Senior Derek Jordan and junior Danny Hirujo are versatile players, with Jordan capable of playing infield or outfield and Hijuro working on the infield when he is not on the mound. Catcher is a little more of a question mark than the other spots, and sophomore Griffin Falco looks to tackle that task. Outfielder Jay Kalieta is another sophomore with a chance to make an impact in one of the open spots in the lineup.

On the the rubber, Hirujo and classmate Chris Gendi will back Hercek in the rotation, with Gendi looking to build off 12 2/3 solid innings as a sophomore. Olsen will offer a left-handed option for Matawan as well and if those four can eat up most of the innings, the Huskies should stay squarely in the mix for the A Central title once again.

 

Rumson-Fair Haven

Head Coach: Kevin James, 16th season
2017 Record: 8-11 (5-7, tied fourth in A Central)
Key Returners: Alex Burnett (Sr., RHP), Robby Smith (Sr., C), Thomas Forlenza (Sr., C/DH), Thomas Scinto (Sr., CF), Dan Harby (Sr., LF), Dylan Avino (Sr., P), Sean Mikolajczak (Jr., 3B/RHP), Mike Martino (Sr., 1B/P), Kevin Stant (Sr., SS/RHP), Gordon Forsyth (So., 1B/RHP), Jack Velcamp (Sr., 2B; Manager)
Key Losses: Matt Fahey (CF), Connor Dupree (3B), Jack Boyer (1B), Andy Schluter (OF), Alex Walsack (2B)
Key Newcomers: Kyle Caruso (Sr., 2B), John McHeffy (Sr., OF), Max Glenn (Sr., OF/LHP), J.C. Carolan (Jr., LHP), Ryan Dupree (Jr., OF), Kevin Shanes (So., LHP)

Like most of the teams in Class A Central, Rumson went through a season of ups and downs on the field and for the Bulldogs, the x-factor was usually that day’s pitcher. Rumson brings back its two most talented arms from a year ago in senior Alex Burnett and sophomore Gordon Forsyth and both will look to turn in more consistent seasons on the mound – something both are certainly capable of doing. Forsyth emerged as Rumson’s most reliable pitcher as a freshman and should be even better in his second high school season.

The two hurlers at the top of the staff will again pitch to senior catcher Robby Smith, a three-year starter heading to Dickinson College next year. Smith handled both the staff and his duties at the plate, hitting .294 with nine RBI. Rumson will need Smith to be a steady source of offense again with so many key bats gone to graduation, namely center fielder and All-Shore outfielder Matt Fahey and corner infielders Connor Dupree and Jack Boyer. Starting corner outfielders Thomas Scinto and Dan Harby are back as seniors, with Scinto taking over full-time in center. Juniors Kevin Stant and Sean Mikolajczak will take on more regular roles as starters on the left side of the infield, with Stant returning at shortstop. Senior Mike Martino will also step into a full-time role at first base.

Rumson had some highlight moments in 2017, namely beating Manasquan right-hander and Shore Sports Network Pitcher of the Year Connor Muly by putting up six runs in the game. The offense put up some runs last year, albeit with a different cast of players, so the key to this season will be getting steady performance on the mound as a complement. With Burnett serving as the senior with a strong arm and Forsyth an advanced sophomore, the potential is there for a resurgent season for the Bulldogs.

 

Shore

Head Coach: John Kuhlthau, first season
2017 Record: 6-13 (4-8, sixth in A Central)
Key Returners: Mike Shirvanian (Sr., SS/RHP), Tommy Dunleavy (Sr., 3B), James LaBruno (Sr., OF), Mikey Deusch (Jr., LHP/1B), Jared Breithoff (Sr., C), Jim Maletto (Sr., RHP/2B), Oscar Scott (So., OF/P), Kevin Pennell (Jr., 3B/RHP), Cody Fleischer (So., C)
Key Losses: Mike Jelliff (2B/RHP), Austin Cannon (CF), Ryan Jones (3B), Dean Smolokoff (C)
Key Newcomers: Bailey Crochet (Sr., RHP/SS), Jack DuBois (Sr., OF), J.T. Schloesser (Sr., RHP/2B), Hunter Ward (Sr., RHP/OF), Max Cameron (Jr., RHP/1B), Salvatore LaRosa (Jr., C/OF), Brett Young (Jr., OF), Gabe Zwerin (Jr., LHP/OF), Christian Bauman (So., RHP/OF)

The Blue Devils enter the season with one of three new head coaches in the Shore Conference, with former assistant Jay Kuhlthau taking over for Pat O’Neil, who led Shore to a Group I title in 2014. Kuhlthau takes over a team that returns some experience around the diamond, but will have to replace a few impact players on offense. Mike Jelliff, Austin Cannon and Ryan Jones had the top three on-base percentages on the team last year and Jelliff was one of the Shore’s top hitters over the course of his senior campaign.

Shore’s pitching was somewhat inconsistent, but senior right-hander Mike Shirvanian was steady on his end and returns to lead the staff in 2018. Junior left-hander Mikey Deusch is also back and with a couple of adjustments should fit in nicely as the No. 2 in the rotation. The staff beyond Shirvanian really struggled in 2017, but Deusch enjoyed some early success as a freshman and will be the x-factor in turning the tide for the Shore pitchers this year.

Shirvanian will play shortstop when he is not pitching and will be part of a lineup that returns senior third baseman Tommy Dunleavy and senior outfielder James LaBruno as season-long starters from last year. Dunleavy led the team with five doubles and also knocked in five runs. Senior catcher Jared Breithoff also got some starts last year, while senior Jimmy Maletto went 6-for-16 (.375) with a double and three RBI and will look to extrapolate that success over a full season. The bats should come around in time, but Shore’s season undoubtedly rest on the arms of Shirvanian and Deusch. If Shirvanian remains steady and Deusch takes the next step, Shore should find itself back among the top four teams in the division.

 

Red Bank

Head Coach: Nick Tucker, fifth season
2017 Record: 11-12 (5-7, tied fourth in A Central)
Key Returners: Jack Povey (Jr., RHP/INF), Aidan Kelly (Jr., SS), Luke Jurek (Jr., OF), Colin Chatto (Jr., C)
Key Losses: Mason O’Mara (RHP/1B), John Juco (2B), Jack Mangold (SS), Will Grant (3B), Matt Santos (1B), Jack Stamer (OF), Jonah Rosen (OF), Josh Horowitz (RHP
Key Newcomers: Mike Eulner (Sr., 1B/P), Zach Yates (Sr., INF/P), Nick Quaranta (Sr., 3B/P), Stephen Navitsky (Sr., 2B), Nick Arnone (Sr., OF), Kevin Weisman (Sr., DH), Evan Potts (Jr., OF), Ryan McIntyre (Jr., SS/3B), Mike Gilson (Jr., OF), Max Stamer (So., OF/P), C.J. Paolino (Fr., C), Andrew Glauber (Fr., P)

On the one hand, Red Bank enters 2018 in a bit of a bind with a great deal of its offensive having moved on through graduation. On the other hand, the Bucs came on strong at the end of last year, first and foremost, behind a dynamic pitching staff and perhaps the most dynamic of the pitchers in that staff is back. Junior Jack Povey combined with graduated right-hander Mason O’Mara to form a potent one-two punch at the top of the rotation and Povey returns this year ready to assume the role of staff ace after committing to Villanova.

Povey will have to carry a great deal of the load for the staff and will also have to do his part on offense as well. He and fellow junior Aidan Kelly are the only two returning starters in the lineup and neither recorded an extra-base hit as sophomores. Both will look to make the junior jump, with Kelly a strong candidate to do so after hitting .263 as a sophomore outfielder. Kelly will also move from left field to shortstop to lead the defense behind Povey and an otherwise inexperienced pitching staff.

A lack of experience is going to be a significant obstacle for Red Bank heading into the season, but any time Povey is on the mound, the Bucs will have a chance to win as long as they can make the plays behind their ace and battle at the plate. Last year, Red Bank came on strong at the tail end of the season and advanced to the NJSIAA North Jersey Group III semifinals by beating second-seed Cranford and winning a 15-inning classic at Middletown North – in which Povey pitched seven solid innings. The players in uniform all have that experience in the forefront of their minds and if they can develop over the first month of the season, they have a top pitcher to make a little postseason noise again this year.

 

Division Lineup

Alex Lamattina, Sr., Catcher, Raritan (.379/.474/.484,

Sal Monticciolo, Sr., 1B, Holmdel (.507/.573/.887, 7 2B, 4 3B, 4 HR, 27 R, 24 RBI)

Evan Perette, Sr., 2B, St. John Vianney (.390/.490/.439, 2 2B, 5 R, 7 RBI)

Jason Lyons, Jr., SS, Holmdel (.357/.429/.411, 3 2B, 16 R, 10 RBI)

Jake Tenant, Jr., 3B/RHP, Raritan (.403/.450/.541, 8 2B, 1 3B, 10 R, 20 RBI)

Jackson Hercek, Jr., OF/RHP, Matawan (.375/.433/.438, 3 2B, 1 3B, 12 R, 10 RBI, 4 SB)

Tyler Bruno, Jr., CF, Raritan (.442/.494/.532, 7 2B, 24 R, 14 RBI)

Chris Caragliano, Sr., 3B/OF, St. John Vianney (.358/.448/.452, 2 2B, 1 HR, 9 R, 6 RBI, 5 SB)

Alex DiBona, Sr., SS/3B/RHP, Holmdel (.311/.364/.393, 5 2B, 15 R, 9 RBI)

 

Division Rotation

Zack Johnston, Sr., RHP, Raritan (5-2, 43.1 IP, 34 H, 6 BB, 41 K, 0.81 ERA)

Jack Povey, Jr., RHP/INF, Red Bank (2-3, 42 IP, 42 H, 17 BB, 53 K, 3.17 ERA)

Dan Vanmeerbeke, Sr., RHP/2B, Raritan (4-1, 32.1 IP, 27 H, 3 BB, 29 K, 1.73 ERA)

Logan Marter, Sr., LHP/OF, St. John Vianney (2-1, 24 IP, 21 H, 14 BB, 26 K, 0.70 ERA)

Mike Shirvanian, Sr., RHP/SS, Shore (3-3, 41.2 IP, 49 H, 6 BB, 33 K, 2.35 ERA)

 

Breakout Players to Watch

Gordon Forsyth, So., RHP, Rumson-Fair Haven

Spencer Margulis, Jr., C/OF, St. John Vianney

Ezra Caspi, Jr., OF, Holmdel

Sean Ohea, Jr., OF, Raritan

Danny Hirujo, Jr., RHP/INF, Matawan

 

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