A couple years ago, he recalls, Jerry Frulio ran into his old high baseball school coach, former Central Regional Bob Reutter, at an event Frulio has been orchestrating for six years now. While most run-ins with old coaches might consist of some quick catching up and some reminiscing, this exchange went a little differently.

“I’ll never forget,” Frulio recalled. “He said, ‘This is the best thing you have ever done.’”

The “this” of which Rutter spoke is the Strike Out Autism Challenge that Frulio started as a couple of games at two different sites back in 2013 and has exploded into a Shore-wide phenomenon that has raised by Frulio’s estimates more than $50,000 over the past two years alone. This sixth annual version of the event returns this coming Saturday to 12 different sites around the Shore Conference featuring 48 baseball and 20 softball teams from around the state.

Frulio was twice selected as an All-Shore player while at Central Regional, played in the NCAA College Baseball Super Regionals while at George Mason University and went on to become a successful high school varsity coach at both Central and St. Rose before taking over as the head of the Central Regional Autism Awareness Club – the beneficiary of Saturday’s festivities.

He joked that perhaps his old coach was paying him a back-handed compliment but knows full well that his desire to contribute to an important cause has turned into something big, even if he never saw it coming.

Toms River South will be a popular site at this year's Strike Out Autism Challenge. (Photo by Ray Richardson)

“It started as two sites (Central and Wall) and when I first started it, my thought was just to do a good job with those sites and maybe get some more teams to come down,” Frulio said. “But the response since that first year was so unbelievable and so many people have reached out and the result has been that it’s just gotten bigger and bigger. We started off with four teams at Central, we were up to 40 two years ago, 44 last year and now 48 this year, plus we’ve gotten softball involved the past few years, which has been huge.

“It’s so far beyond what I thought it was going to be at this point and it’s just a testament to how many people have a loved one or know someone with a child who is dealing with autism. It affects so many people and I think more and more people are starting to understand how important it is to become educated about it in order to deal with it.”

Over the past two seasons, individual teams participated in the fundraising effort by selling Autism Awareness rubber wristbands, which Frulio said was a major boon to the efforts of the event. This year, instead of selling wristbands, each participating team has been given 100 raffle tickets to sell at $5 apiece prior to Saturday. Anyone attending a game at any of the 12 sites on Saturday can also purchase a raffle ticket for $5 or donate at any of the table set-ups, although admission to any of the sites is free.

According to Frulio, the top prize in this year’s raffle is a voucher for a vacation worth $5,000 courtesy of MT Travel, a local travel agency founded by two men with a background coaching Shore Conference athletics. Mark Haug is a former track and field coach at Central and Tim Murphy coached the Golden Eagles football team – two members of the Central coaching fraternity who have been eager to participate in Frulio’s event.

Second prize is a Samsung 40-inch flat screen LED television worth $400 and the third-place winner of Saturday’s raffle will win a $250 Visa gift card, according to Frulio.

Proceeds from the raffle and all other donations will go directly to the Central Autism Awareness Club, which is managed through Central Regional High School and gives out 100 percent of the money to special needs programs throughout the area. Frulio said the club has bought and distributed tablets – which have become an essential tool in educating students with Autism – for dozens of schools in the Shore area, as well as desktops and other supplies, to aid in the education effort.

“We initially paired with some foundations that specialize in helping families dealing with autism and they are great organizations, but we just felt like we could do more good and get help to more people if we were able to take the donations and start distributing them to schools in our area who need it.

“One of the things I try to get out to the coaches who participate is for them to talk to people in their school and find out if there is a need for anything. Any schools in the area and even outside it, if there is something they are looking to buy for the kids, let us know and we’ll take care of it. That’s what this is all about.”

Last year, the club decided to donate $10,000 to the Toms River Field of Dreams Project, which is hoping to break ground in Toms River on a three-acre park designed to give kids with special needs a park tailored toward them. The project is the brainchild of former Toms River North boys basketball coach Chris Kane, who told the Asbury Park Press back in February that the fundraising efforts are about $300,000 away from hitting his goal of $2.2 million to proceed.

As much as the financial contributions have made a direct impact on special needs students, Frulio believes raising awareness about the developmental disorder is of equal importance and remains a focus of his. His 10-year-old son, Dayton, was diagnosed with autism in 2010 and since then, his mission he has been heavily involved in raising awareness about and money for ways to combat the effects of the disorder.

“The money is great and all of the stuff we are able to do for different schools is essential, but to me, the most important thing has always been raising awareness about autism,” Frulio said. “A lot of people know something about it, but not a lot of people know a lot and our goal when we get together at the beginning of every school year is to educate as many people as possible about the issue.”

By every measure, the effort is working as more and more people are offering their time – both at events like Saturday and beyond. Monmouth University head baseball coach Dean Ehehalt offered a chance for Frulio and Dayton to throw out the first pitch at Monmouth’s home series-opener Friday against the University of Maine to help kick off the weekend event and further raise awareness about Strike Out Autism and its efforts.

On Saturday, former Major Leaguer and Central Regional star Al Leiter – currently an on-air analyst for the YES Network and MLB Network – will throw out the first pitch before the 11 a.m. game at Central Regional between Leiter’s alma mater and Shore Conference Class A South division rival Toms River East.

Leiter will be back in his old stomping grounds before heading to watch his son Jack’s team, Delbarton, play St. Augustine Prep in the 2 p.m. game at Toms River South – hands-down the highest-profile game Frulio has booked in his six years running the Strike Out Autism Challenge. Delbarton beat St. Augustine in last year’s NSJIAA Non-Public A championship game, 2-1, at Toms River East and the two powerhouse programs entered this season as the top two teams in the state, according to NJ.com.

Jack Leiter is a junior right-hander already verbally committed to play at Vanderbilt University and after making his season debut with seven strikeouts in four shutout innings on Monday, he will be eligible to pitch on full rest Saturday against the No. 2 Hermits. St. Augustine, meanwhile, boasts eight pitchers who have committed to Division I college programs.

That clash of titans will follow the 11 a.m. game between host Toms River South and Allentown – a rematch of a classic NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III semifinal in Toms River won by Allentown, which scored four runs in the sixth inning to stun the Indians, 4-3. Toms River South won its first game on Monday night against Brick in walk-off fashion.

“I’m going to be at Central all day, but I wish I could get over to Toms River South because it is going to be an incredible atmosphere,” Frulio said. “You already hear about how people from all over the state are going to be coming to check out that game and I even had coaches ask to play in the morning or at night on Saturday just so they can go over and watch it.”

While Toms River South will be the center of the N.J. High School baseball universe on Saturday, there is no shortage of high-profile games to catch on Saturday. Below are the next five baseball games to watch, followed by a complete schedule of Saturday’s baseball and softball games – including eight games of softball at Middletown North, with games running on the varsity and jayvee fields from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Wall junior Grant Shulman. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

Christian Brothers Academy vs. Wall, 2 p.m. at Central Regional

The Central Regional site has become known over the years for its carnival-type atmosphere during the Strike Out Autism Challenge, but this year it will be the site where the Shore’s top two teams will do battle. CBA entered this week No. 1 in the Shore Sports Network Top 10 and Wall right behind the Colts at No. 2. Wall remains unbeaten heading into Thursday game against Manasquan, while CBA took its first loss of the season Tuesday against Marlboro on a walk-off single by Justin Levito in the bottom of the seventh inning.

Saturday will be junior Grant Shulman’s turn in the rotation for Wall and all the right-hander has done to start the season is pitch 12 scoreless innings with six hits allowed, three walks and 13 strikeouts, including a 1-0, three-hit shutout against Middletown South. To put that in perspective, despite getting shutout by Shulman, Middletown South is still second in the Shore Conference with 46 runs scored.

CBA’s pitcher is a little more up-in-the-air as senior left-hander and 2017 Shore Sports Network All-Shore pitcher Blaise Venancio threw 58 pitches Monday in his season debut, making him eligble to pitch against Freehold Township on Thursday should the Colts need him. If he does not pitch on Thursday, Venancio would be a prime candidate to start on Saturday.

Venancio pitched a gem against Wall in last year’s Shore Conference Tournament quarterfinals, but was outdone by fellow left-hander Trey Dombroski, who is off to another sparkling start this year, in a 1-0 Crimson Knights victory.

Jackson Memorial at Jackson Liberty, 11 a.m.

The Jackson rivalry has become a staple of the Strike Out Autism Challenge and this is, arguably, the biggest game between the two teams since Memorial beat Liberty on a walk-off three-run homer by Matt Meleo in the 2010 Shore Conference Tournament semifinals. The No. 4 team in the Shore Sports Network Top 10, Jackson Liberty enters as one of the Shore’s hottest teams, scoring a Shore-best 54 runs in its first three games thanks to a relentless lineup. The star for the Lions has been junior outfielder Scott Wierciszewski, who is hitting .625 (10-for-16) with two home runs and 19 RBI through three games.

No. 5 Jackson Memorial is coming off two rare losing seasons in 2016 and 2017 under veteran coach Frank Malta, but the Jaguars looked primed for a return to the elite of the Shore Conference and Group IV. The Jaguars’ senior-laden pitching staff has been its rock so far, led by Nick Sefick and Matt D’Amore. The Memorial offense has also shown promis, led by junior outfielder Alex Iadisernia and sophomore first baseman and Wake Forest commit Carmine Petosa.

In addition to this being a crosstown rivalry game between two top-five teams, it is an intriguing matchup of a junior-loaded Jackson Liberty team and a Jackson Memorial team with an exciting collection of sophomores – five of which are in the regular starting lineup. Given Jackson’s recent Little League Success on both sides of town, the pipeline is sure to keep feeding both programs – and the rivalry – into the near future.

Manalapan at Toms River North, 2 p.m.

This is the classic clash of senior-led pitching and senior-led offense, with No. 7 Toms River North boasting a pitching staff that includes four seniors committed to Division I programs – Craig Larsen (University of Pennsylvania), Jared Bellissimo (Rutgers), Brendan Mullins (Penn State) and Mike Centeno (University of New Orleans). In addition to their ability on the mound, Larsen and Bellissimo are also All-Shore position players, with Bellissimo coming off a career-game Monday against Southern (4-for-4, two home runs, a triple and seven RBI) and another home run Wednesday vs. Brick Memorial.

No. 3 Manalapan had a nightmare fourth inning against CBA on Monday, in which the Braves gave up nine runs on only three hits to the Colts before ultimately losing, 9-0. That one inning is really the lone blemish for the Braves during a 6-1 start and the offense got going again Tuesday in a 7-1 win over Freehold Township. Senior center fielder Giovanni Ciaccio – signed to play at Long Island University Post – has led the way so far by hitting .529 (9-for-17) with three doubles, two triples and eight RBI.

Toms River East at Central, 11 a.m.

Not only will Al Leiter be throwing out the first pitch, but a couple of fast-starting teams will be following him on the field. Toms River East has already won more games as it did all of last year thanks to a rejuvenated offense. The Raiders are without All-Shore right-hander Nick DeGennaro indefinitely but have jumped out to a perfect 4-0 start behind a lineup that has scored at least eight runs in each of the first three games. Freshman Aidan Meola has picked up nine hits in four games, while sophomore Matt Santos and senior Brad Brush have contributed on the mound and at the plate.

Central dropped its first game of the season Monday at Jackson Memorial but started 3-0 with wins over Pinelands right-hander and Monmouth University commit Joey Ventresca, preseason No. 1 Toms River North and defending South Jersey Group IV champion Southern. Senior Colin Stacy took the loss on the mound vs. Jackson Memorial in his first start of the season, but earned a save vs. Pinelands and a win over Toms River North in 6 2/3 innings of relief.

Middletown South vs. Colts Neck, 10 a.m. at Middletown North

These two teams played on Monday, with Middletown South getting the better of the Cougars, 6-3. The Eagles are out to a 4-1 start and have scored 46 runs in five games despite getting shut out by Wall on Saturday. They beat Alabama commit Tyler Ras in a 7-0 opening-day win over Middletown North, put up 16 runs in a win over Ocean, and scored 17 in a win over an improved Long Branch team on Tuesday. In addition to returning standouts and double-play combo Aurelio Licata and Robby Zega, the Eagles have gotten big contributions from sophomore Chris O’Connor, junior Jack Kinsella, junior Trevor Brey and junior Dylon Walling, as well as some solid pitching and hitting from senior Joe Sprake.

On the surface, No. 9 Colts Neck is struggling at 1-4, but the Cougars have been close to breaking through from the very beginning of the season. Outside of the loss to Middletown South, all of Colts Neck’s losses have been by a one-run margin, including a 4-3 loss to No. 1 CBA, a 7-6, extra-inning loss to No. 3 Manalapan and a 5-4 loss to Howell on Tuesday. Despite their team’s slow start, seniors Hunter Boag and Anthony Galason are off to strong starts, with Boag hitting .571 (8-for-14) with a home run and three doubles and Galason .444 (8-for-18) with four doubles.

Here is the entire lineup for Saturday’s Strike Out Autism Challenge, both in baseball and softball.

 

Baseball

At Central Regional

Central vs. Toms River East, 11 a.m.

Wall vs. CBA, 2 p.m.

At Toms River South

Toms River South vs. Allentown, 11 a.m.

St. Augustine vs. Delbarton, 2 p.m.

At Toms River North

Southern vs. Piscataway, 11 a.m.

Toms River North vs. Manalapan, 2 p.m.

At Middletown North

Colts Neck vs. Middletown South, 10 a.m.

Middletown North vs. Colonia, 1 p.m.

At Count Basie Park, Red Bank

Red Bank vs. Neptune, 10 a.m.

Red Bank Catholic vs. Pinelands, 1 p.m.

At Jackson Liberty High School

Jackson Liberty vs. Jackson Memorial, 11 a.m.

Brick Memorial vs. Lacey, 2 p.m.

At Howell

Howell vs. Manchester, 11 a.m.

Manasquan vs. Holmdel, 2 p.m.

At St. Rose Athletic Complex

St. Rose vs. Freehold Twp., 11 a.m.

Donovan Catholic vs. Williamstown, 2 p.m.

At Monmouth Regional

Monmouth vs. Brick, 10 a.m.

Shore vs. Mater Dei Prep, 2 p.m.

At Ocean

Long Branch vs. Matawan, 10 a.m.

Ocean vs. Freehold Boro, 1:30 p.m.

At Point Pleasant Boro

Point Beach vs. Lakewood, 1 p.m.

Point Boro vs. Rumson-Fair Haven, 4 p.m.

At St. John Vianney

St. John Vianney vs. Marlboro, Noon

Raritan vs. Barnegat, 2 p.m.

 

Softball

At Central Regional

Central vs. Toms River East, 11:15 a.m.

Lacey vs. Howell, 1:15 p.m.

At Middletown North

Middletown South vs. Jackson Liberty, 9 a.m.

Freehold Boro vs. Wall, 9 a.m.

Middletown North vs. Allentown, 11 a.m.

Henry Hudson vs. Barnegat, 11 a.m.

St. John Vianney vs. Immaculate Heart Academy, 1 p.m.

Manalapan vs. Toms River South, 1 p.m.

Freehold Twp. vs. Toms River North, 3 p.m.

Matawan vs. Colts Neck, 3 p.m.

 

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