On April 23 of this past season, Frank Malta made a strategic decision that might have cost his team a chance to win a game and, in turn, an outright Shore Conference Class A South championship.

With two out in the top of the seventh and his team trailing rival Toms River South, 2-1, Malta called for a straight steal of home. Courtesy runner Kyle Thaiss never even made it to home plate.

It was the kind of decision that loses a battle, but Malta has coached long enough to keep his eye on the big picture. He relishes the unpredictable and after one unexpected decision in late April blew up in his face, it was a lesson to his team to be ready for anything.

Five weeks later, when a championship was on the line with Thaiss on third base, “anything” happened again and the senior was ready for it.

Jackson Memorial won its third NJSIAA sectional title under Malta in 2018 and it was not big hit from the No. 3 hitter or even the No. 9 hitter that won the game. It was a senior pinch-runner at third ready to adjust on the fly – the kind of play made by players who are prepared the kind of situations for which no one can really prepare. Those are the mark of a winning team, one that was coached by a veteran skipper who this season added the 2018 Shore Sports Network Coach of the Year to his list of accomplishments during his 14 seasons leading the Jaguars.

On the final play of the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV championship game against Shawnee, Thaiss led off third base with sophomore Ryan Lasko at the plate with one out in a 0-0 game. Lasko hit a low line drive to right field and Thaiss reacted by inching closer toward home plate with the thought that the ball would drop in front of the right fielder. Instead, it was caught and Thaiss had to scramble back to third base.

Then, something unexpected happened: the throw came to third and it was high. Just like that, it was time for Thaiss to sprint to the plate again. After touching third again, the senior trucked home and beat a throw in the dirt to give Jackson Memorial the only run in its 1-0 win over the Renegades and first sectional title since winning all of Group IV in 2014.

Jackson Memorial baseball South Jersey, Group 4 champion. (Photo by Gregg Lerner)

Thaiss is the younger brother of Matt Thaiss, a top prospect for the Los Angeles Angels who was four-year starter and three-time All-Shore selection at Jackson Memorial from 2010 to 2013. The younger Thaiss was also a starter for most of his junior year but took on a baserunning role this season to make room for the sophomore Lasko in the lineup in center field.

This year required a buy-in from a number of seniors as a talented sophomore class ascended to occupy five key positions in the starting lineup – catcher, second base, third base, first base and center field. Senior Mike Koslowki was solid at the plate while sharing time with sophomore Jake Wendell at third base and senior Tom Pellone was a starter at designated hitter for the second straight year.

Jackson Memorial also had a senior-heavy core of pitchers with Nick Sefick, Matt D’Amore, Mike Dimino, Ryder Tallent and Shawn Kelich, but the emergence of sophomores Nick Beetel, Joe Princiotta and Matt Potok required them to give up some innings.

Dimino’s role, in particular, was indicative of the lengths to which Jackson’s players were willing to go to help the cause this season, as well as Malta’s openness to changing plans. Dimino is headed to Monmouth University to pitch and rather than employ the senior right-hander as one of his top starters, Malta tabbed him with the role of closer on a staff filled with capable starters.

That role opened up the chance for Dimino to play in the field, which Malta admittedly did not foresee heading into camp this season. Dimino, however, worked at shortstop in the offseason and won the starting job over freshman Ty Beck, who still played when Dimino pitched. In addition to leading the infield with his stellar defense, Dimino hit .329 with four doubles, a triple, 22 runs scored and 13 RBI.

Dimino also thrived in the closer role that Malta designed for him, which was a product both of creative thinking on the part of Malta that stemmed from having so much pitching talent. The senior right-hander went 3-2 with five saves and a 0.58 ERA over 24 innings with 31 strikeouts and just four walks.

In addition to winning the South Jersey Group IV title, Jackson Memorial led the Shore Conference with 25 wins in going 25-7 and also shared the Class A South championship with Toms River North – the three-time defending Ocean County Tournament champion, two-time defending Shore Conference Tournament champion and the preseason No. 1 team in the Shore Sports Network Top 10. The two A South rivals met four times in 2018 – twice in the regular season, once in the OCT and again in the NJSIAA Tournament – and Jackson Memorial beat the Mariners three out of four, including in the South Jersey Group IV quarterfinals.

Jackson Memorial coach Frank Malta. (Photo by Bill Normile)

The Jaguars began the year unranked in the Shore Sports Network Top 10 after losing seasons in both 2016 and 2017 and finished the year No. 1 in the Shore Conference according to SSN, the Asbury Park Press and NJ.com.

Malta earned the 2018 Coach of the Year award over a field of quality candidates, one of which was Malta’s former assistant. Prior to taking the head coaching job at Raritan, Jeff Struble was an assistant under Malta and parlayed his experience at Jackson Memorial into the head position with the Rockets. This season, Struble led Raritan to a 21-6 season and an appearance in the NJSIAA Group II final – Raritan’s first sectional championship since 2012 and first group final since 2004.

As good as Jackson Memorial’s 2018 season was, the next several years have the potential to be even better, with five sophomores and two juniors returning to the everyday lineup and three sophomore pitchers back as well.

 

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