BAYVILLE – In his first two years of high school baseball, Tom Ruscitti established himself as one of the Shore Conference’s best underclassmen. He was a middle-of-the-order varsity hitter on a young Central Regional team as a freshman and an All-Shore catcher as a sophomore – the kind of start to a career that bodes well for a players’ college prospects as well as his accomplishments within high school.

Then, at the start of his junior season in 2017, Ruscitti hit a slump. That’s not at all uncommon in baseball but what stood out about Ruscitti’s slump is that it lasted beyond the first two weeks of the season, then beyond the first month until the Golden Eagles backstop reached the end of his junior year with a batting line nothing like the one he put up as a sophomore a year earlier.

Plenty has happened to Ruscitti as an athlete and a person over the last year, both for the better and not. All of it has been part of the process of re-invigorating his high school career and returning to the record-setting trajectory he established during his first two seasons.

Watching Ruscitti clobber the ball this year makes it hard to fathom he ever struggled at all. He leads the Shore Conference in home runs with 10, which is also a single-season record at Central. While rising to the top of an all-time leaderboard in any program is noteworthy, doing so at a school that former MLB All-Star Al Leiter – arguably the Shore’s greatest baseball export of the last 50 years – is on another level.

Ruscitti’s .897 slugging percentage and 32 RBI both rank among the top five in the conference and in a Shore Conference with plenty of offensive fire power at the catcher position, Ruscitti tops the list in almost every major category. He even runs the bases for himself rather than deferring to a courtesy runner.

This monster season was not hard to see coming two years ago, but the road to becoming one of the best hitters in the conference, in this case, was not a steady climb.

Year-Long Slump

Ruscitti entered his junior year with interest from local Division I programs pouring in after he hit .403/.456/.758 with 11 doubles, a triple, three home runs and 29 RBI as a sophomore catcher at Central. That was a follow-up to freshman year in which he hit .286 with seven doubles and a home run while playing shortstop.

With a Shore Sports Network All-Shore Third Team selection already on his resume, Ruscitti was one of Ocean County’s most feared and revered hitters heading into 2017 and he was pitched like it. He drew a career-high 17 walks and logged a solid .429 on-base percentage throughout the season but struggled to drive the ball like he had as a sophomore.

The result was a .277/.429/.385 line and 84 trips to the plate without a home run.

Central senior Tom Ruscitti leads the Shore Conference with 10 home runs, which is also a Central single-season record. (Photo by Matt Manley)

“I just think I got into a situation where I was thinking a little too much,” Ruscitti said. “Going back and looking at it, I think I fell into a few bad habits that I had to correct. Over the offseason, I basically just focused on getting back into good habits.”

Considering his 15 extra-base hits as a sophomore, it was hard to see that slide coming for Ruscitti, especially given his athletic prowess and work ethic. He was coming off an All-Shore season as the goalkeeper on the Central soccer team and was a contributor off the bench on a senior-laden, 22-win basketball team. With a junior-heavy baseball club and a season at catcher already under hit belt, all the pieces appeared in place for a big junior year for Ruscitti.

“Pitches that he was punishing as a sophomore, he was just missing as a junior,” third-year Central head coach Mike Casale said. “He was still taking his walks – even more so that he did in his first two years – so the quality of his at-bats was still good. He just needed to get himself back to the point where he is driving the mistakes.”

Despite his personal power outage, Central managed to reach the Ocean County Tournament quarterfinals and also won a game in the NJSIAA South Jersey Group III bracket en route to a 12-11 record in its first season back in Class A South.

“The good thing about it was he didn’t let it affect the rest of his game,” Casale said. “He did a good job behind the plate, he was always a good teammate. He never gets too high or too low and I think that’s definitely a positive trait when you are struggling.”

Motivated to return to his standing as the feared hitter in what was to be a senior-heavy lineup, Ruscitti went to work during the offseason. Despite his junior-year struggles, he did settle his college choice by committing to Farleigh Dickinson University and with that part of his baseball future set, his last goal was to finish off his high school career on a high note.

The Bounceback

Ruscitti came out swinging as a senior, belting three home runs during the preseason. He started the regular season reasonably well and after an April 20 win over Lacey, he was hitting .308/.438/.500 with two doubles and six RBI in eight games.

All of a sudden, Ruscitti took off. Since April 23, he is hitting .462/.563/1.096 with nine home runs, six doubles and 26 RBI in only 17 games. Four of his 10 home runs this year have come against Class A South co-champion Jackson Memorial and two more came in a loss at Class B South champion Jackson Liberty. Ruscitti also homered in each of Central’s two NJSIAA Tournament games – a first-round win over Pinelands and a South Jersey Group III quarterfinal loss to Timber Creek.

According to Ruscitti, the game at Jackson Liberty was when he knew that he was back. If a two-homer game against Jackson Memorial on April 26 wasn’t enough to convince him, two more homers against the Lions four days later was.

“I had some good games and some balls I hit out before then, but that game is when I just felt it click,” Ruscitti said. “I hit two homers the game before, so doing it again made me feel like, ‘Okay, I’m definitely heading in the right direction.’”

Ruscitti and Casale have slightly different explanations for why Ruscitti went from zero home runs as a junior to leading the Shore Conference this year. According to Ruscitti, it was mostly about fixing his hands.

“My hands were starting a little higher and as a result, I was looping my swing a little too much,” Ruscitti said. “I was late on a lot of pitches and swinging under them. This year, I’m starting a little bit lower with my hands and just trying to see the ball a little longer and keep the swing simple.”

Casale thought Ruscitti was thinking too much as a junior, but also saw some of the bad mechanical habits as well. He believes Ruscitti tried to pull the ball too much last year and that led to an avalanche of problems.

“He is so quick, which is why he has so much power to right field,” Casale said. “I think he fell into the trap of trying to get out in front of everything trying to pull the ball over the right-field fence instead of seeing the ball longer and trusting his hands.”

Although Ruscitti’s pull power is still his bread and butter, he has hit of two home runs to the opposite field this year – one to left-center and one down the left-field line at Central’s home field.

“This year, he’s doing a much better job of staying on the ball, using the left side of the field when he is pitched that way and he’s even hitting for power that way,” Casale said. “He still hits those impressive home runs to right, but you can’t pitch him away and knowing you are going to get him out.”

Central senior Tom Ruscitti. (Photo by Matt Manley)

Off-field Adversity

If over-thinking his hitting was at all the culprit, Ruscitti has had plenty to take his mind away from obsessing over his swing. In addition to his on-field roles as the catcher and a senior leader, Ruscitti’s family life has weighed heavily on him lately.

Ruscitti’s mother, Gloria, recently underwent surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from the right side of her ribcage, according to Tom. The tumor was discovered at the end of April and according to Ruscitti, his mother’s doctor told her it could have been there for as many as three-to-four years.

“It’s been tough the last few weeks,” Ruscitti said. “It’s always in the back of my mind. If anything, coming out to the field is a chance to think about something else for a little while. She’s battling through it and we’re looking forward to having her home and getting her better.”

Gloria Ruscitti’s battle comes not long after Ruscitti watched his basketball coach, Mike Clemente Jr., undergo aggressive radiation treatment for mediastinal non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Clemente was diagnosed in July and by January, he was in remission.

“To have the support of the community helps and this school and people in the area really responded when coach (Clemente) was going through it,” Ruscitti said. “It’s never easy but having that support takes a little bit of the pressure off.”

Flying to the Finish

Ruscitti is one of seven seniors who are regular starters for the Golden Eagles and this year represents a chance for the group to leave a mark on a program that won an Ocean County Tournament championship in 2014, when Ruscitti and his classmates were all in eighth grade.

After defeating Toms River East in 10 innings in the Shore Conference Tournament, the Golden Eagles are two wins away from winning the program’s first Shore Conference Tournament since 1980. The first of those wins will have to come against second-seeded Wall in the second game of the semifinal double-header at Count Basie Park in Red Bank, with the first pitch scheduled for 7 p.m.

If Ruscitti has a few more big swings in his bat this season, they will come against at least one of the top pitching staffs in the Shore Conference. Wall boasts three junior standouts in its rotation, while Toms River North – which is the defending champion and plays Monmouth Regional in the other semifinal – has four senior pitchers committed to play Division I baseball. If the last two years are an indication, Ruscitti doesn’t mind a challenge.

“As a group, we’ve been playing together forever,” Ruscitti said. “We knew what we were capable of coming into the year and to get to this point is great. We’re just hoping we can end it with a trophy. That would be nice.”

 

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