High School Baseball: Shore Conference Preseason Top 10
The high school baseball season in New Jersey begins on Monday and there is a wealth of talent in a competitive Shore Conference. Six seniors in the conference have committed to ACC programs and three of those players are on the No. 1 ranked team heading into the season. With so much talent throughout the conference, the Shore should once again have a fair amount of representation in Toms River during the NJSIAA championship weekend in early June. Here is how the teams stack up against one another opening day approaches.
1. Christian Brothers Academy
Expectations are always high at CBA and this year’s seniors have had high expectations attached to them since they were freshmen. They have not won a division title in their four years, but started to show signs of postseason ability by advancing to the Monmouth County semifinals and Shore Conference Tournament quarterfinals last year. This year, there will be no moral victories for a Colts team with three senior players heading to ACC schools – senior Joe Dudek (North Carolina), senior Matt Pidich (Pittsburgh) and senior John McCarren (Wake Forest). Pidich and McCarren will headline the pitching staff and Dudek will also give CBA some innings on the mound while anchoring the offense. That is a lot of top talent at the top of a deep program and although CBA has not been a major player in the Shore Conference postseason in any of the last three years, this year should be a lot different.
2. Red Bank Catholic
The Caseys have overtaken CBA as the premiere Monmouth County non-public power, but their hold on that title is going to a little more tenuous this season. While CBA returns a number of Division I players, RBC does the same with senior Mike Rescigno (Maryland) and junior shortstop Al Molina (Coastal Carolina). Rescigno will anchor the lineup and the pitching staff after a dominant season with the bat and on the mound last year. The Caseys have plenty of offensive and defensive ability on the diamond but the question will be the pitching staff behind Rescigno. There is plenty of depth there and if a couple of arms can emerge, RBC will have a chance to do major damage in May and possibly into June.
3. Jackson Memorial
Although the Jaguars slipped up against eventual Group IV champion Manalapan, they finished the season as the Shore Conference’s No. 1 team after losing only three games all season while showcasing a balanced roster that hit, pitched and fielded better than any team on a game-to-game basis. Jackson Memorial returns University of Virginia recruit Matt Thaiss behind the plate and his experience will help bring along a somewhat unproven pitching staff. Coach Frank Malta and pitching coach J.M. Gold have been able to come up with pitching year after year and if the pitching is just solid this year, Jackson Memorial will have as good a chance as any other team to win in the postseason.
4. Toms River North
The Mariners came on strong at the end of last season, advancing to the Shore Conference Tournament final, where they ran into Jackson Memorial and red-hot right-hander Brandon Holup. Toms River North will try to carry that momentum into this season and although it will have to replace five starters and two starting pitchers, there are key pieces in place that should make the Mariners a contender. Duke University recruit Karl Blum is poised for his best season after an up-and-down junior season on the mound. Fellow senior Ron Marinaccio missed the first three weeks of the season and still went 5-0 on the mound while hitting .444 at the plate. Jackson Memorial has had Toms River North’s number over the last few years, but the Mariners return more pitching than the Jaguars do and that could be the key to Toms River North reclaiming the top spot in Class A South.
5. Colts Neck
Few teams, if any, return more position-player talent than the Cougars. Even though senior football standout Tim Vangelas has elected not to play baseball this spring, Colts Neck still has a wealth of offensive firepower, led by senior catcher and West Virginia University recruit Matt Kleinstein. They also sport Division I recruits at shortstop (Long Island University-Brooklyn recruit Jon Baturgil) and in the outfield (University of Maine recruit Lucien Della Fera) to go with a deep lineup of capable hitters that will put a lot of pressure on Class A North’s litany of quality pitchers. The Cougars found enough pitching to be competitive last year and that will again be the challenge this season. If the pitching comes through, Colts Neck has a chance to win any postseason tournament it enters.
The Braves appeared to be on their way to a disappointing 2012 season before a huge win over Jackson Memorial in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV quarterfinals propelled Manalapan to an improbable run to a second straight Group IV championship. Manalapan lost most of its starting lineup prior to last year, so the program has shown it can reload after losing a significant amount of talent. With that said, it’s hard to imagine Manalapan doing the same thing this year after losing four middle-of-the-order hitters, which include its shortstop, center fielder and No. 1 pitcher. The Braves do return two top players in catcher Mike Knauf and third baseman Billy Moed and two quality pitchers in Matt Simonetti and Dennis Girolamo, so even if Manalapan can’t repeat in Group IV, the Braves will be among the Shore’s most competitive programs once again.
7. Toms River South
This ranking is a program rank more than a roster rank because the Indians will once again have to reload after graduating a number of key pieces. The good news for Toms River South is that it was in the same position heading into the last year and the Indians overcame inexperience around the diamond to finish in the final top five in the Shore Conference. The bad news is that Toms River South had a Division I pitcher and shortstop – Rutgers players Kyle Driscoll and R.J. Devish – heading into last year and there is no obvious, ready-made Division I arm to anchor the rotation this year. Junior Russell Messler had a breakout sophomore season last year and will be one of the top players in the Shore Conference, and a deep program should produce a good season, but it remains to be seen how far a relatively unproven Indians roster can go this year.
8. Jackson Liberty
On returning talent, Jackson Liberty is arguably a top-five team. Right-handers Tyler Pallante and James Sofield give the Lions a formidable one-two punch on the mound and senior catcher Brendan Benecke and shortstop Angel Garced make the Lions strong up the middle. Where the Lions still need to prove themselves is against top teams in big games, where Jackson Liberty has been close over the last three years but has ultimately come up just short. Wall has been a major stumbling block for the Lions in each of the past two seasons, but with division realignment, the Lions no longer play Wall twice a season. The Class B South division is theirs for the taking, but the Lions would undoubtedly like to take the next step and advance deep into the Shore Conference and NJSIAA Group III tournaments. With a good, balanced core of players back this year, Jackson Liberty could be poised for that kind of season.
The Colonials capped an inconsistent 2012 season by catching fire in the NJSIAA Group III Tournament and advancing all the way to the championship game. While Freehold will have to replace most of its lineup, the Colonials return their top two pitchers – seniors Jake Yanez and Mike Bolton. Yanez and Bolton were lights-out during the Group III playoffs and on days when either is on the mound, Freehold will be tough to take down. If the Colonials can play good defense behind the two pitchers, and the lineup comes together around senior center fielder Jason Lundy, the Colonials can again be a threat in the postseason.
10. Brick Memorial
The final spot in the top 10 goes to a Mustangs team that returns most of its impressive pitching staff from last year, led by right-hander Brian Cottrell. Brick Memorial will need to replace some quality position-player talent after losing five starters in the field, but a deep junior class led by center fielder Kyle Cala should help provide some support for the solid pitching staff. There are plenty of teams throughout the Shore Conference that can make a strong claim for a top 10 spot and Brick Memorial will have its hands full in a tough Class A South division, but with their pitching, the Mustangs get the nod.
On the Bubble
Marlboro – The Mustangs also return a healthy amount of pitching and defense and is right there with Brick Memorial as a solid team in a tough division who could make that leap into the top tier of the conference.
St. John Vianney – The middle of the order is impressive, so if the pitching comes along, the Lancers could step up and challenge Red Bank Catholic in Class A Central.
Middletown South – Even without the headliner at the top of the pitching rotation, Middletown South has a balanced rotation and a well-rounded lineup that will keep the Eagles relevant in Class A North.
St. Rose – Wagner recruit Brad Currao is one of the top players in the Shore Conference and the Purple Roses are always tough coming out of Class B Central, but there are some questions to be answered before they get the bump into the top 10.