A hitter getting respect from an opponent usually means not seeing many fastballs and getting a steady diet of breaking stuff on the outer half of the plate.

A team getting respect means having to frequently face opponents' No. 1 pitchers, who are often lined up specifically to face a challenging lineup.

Monmouth senior catcher Josh Jackson has been Superman for the Falccons in the early part of the season to lead them to a strong start. (Photo by Matt Manley)

Senior catcher Josh Jackson and Monmouth Regional may have entered this season under the radar, but both have now been given those traditional signs of respect in the midst of the team's 6-1 start heading into Wednesday's Class B North game against Ocean.

The Falcons vaulted from an unranked squad in the preseason to the No. 2 team in the Shore Sports Network Top 10 heading into this week, with Jackson's middle-of-the-order production helping to lead the way.

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"For years growing up I've heard people saying Monmouth's sports are no good and haven't gotten respect in the Shore,'' Jackson said. "The fact that teams are looking at us differently and throwing their No. 1 guys against us, that's how Monmouth baseball used to be, and I'm glad we're bringing that back."

Facing the Best

Not only are teams throwing aces like Manasquan senior lefty Tommy Sheehan and Middletown North junior righty Tyler Ras against Monmouth - the Falcons have put runs on the board against them.

They scored four runs, one earned, against Sheehan, a Notre Dame recruit and MLB draft prospect, which included a booming first-inning RBI triple from Jackson. Manasquan rallied for a 7-4 win to hand Monmouth its only loss heading into this week, but the Falcons showed they could compete against one of the state's top pitchers.

Against Ras, an Alabama recruit, they knocked him out of the game after 4 1/3 innings by scoring six runs, four earned, in a 9-1 victory.

"Before we faced Tommy Sheehan, we cranked up the Jugs (machine) in practice and the older guys just told the younger guys, 'Use your hands, put it in play, and good things will happen,''' Monmouth head coach Paul Crivello said. "That gave us confidence going in to face Tyler Ras because they got to see the 92-93-mile-per-hour fastball, so they were just like, 'Let's have the same approach and do it again,' and good things happened for us."

"From the beginning of the season we knew we were going to see arms like that, so it was just about whether we were going to be able to compete with them,'' Jackson said. "In practice, everyone honed in on getting a foot down and going the other way. After we did it against those two guys, I was like, 'We can beat anyone in the Shore.'''

A big reason is Jackson, who hits third for the Falcons. Heading into Wednesday's game, he was batting .476 with an .810 slugging percentage and a .621 on-base percentage thanks to seven walks in 21 at-bats. Four of his 10 hits are for extra bases, including a solo homer in the sixth inning in a tie game that gave Monmouth a win over Neptune.

"His two-strike approach has gotten a lot better, especially from sophomore year, when he had a lot of strikeouts, to now,'' Crivello said. "He's shortened his swing up a little bit and the ball flies off his bat. Sometimes I get nervous that he's going to hurt somebody the ball comes off his bat so hard."

Opponents have certainly taken notice, as few pitchers have regularly challenged him with fastballs.

"I've gotten a lot more respect this year because I rarely see any fastballs besides Tommy and Tyler because they know their fastballs are very good and they can blow it by guys,'' Jackson said. "Other than that, I've seen a lot of off-speed and pitchers working around me."

That tactic has often backfired, as Monmouth's lineup has been productive throughout. Senior first baseman Paul Birzin has made teams pay out of the cleanup spot, while senior captain Mark Abrams, junior outfielder Ricky Voss, junior infielder Liam Kile and Robbinsville transfer Justin Scotto have all made an impact in big games. Sophomore Dante Ciaramella is also in the midst of a breakout season.

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"A lot of teams think if they shut me down, they'll shut our offense down, but other guys have already shown they will step up,'' Jackson said. "You can try to take the bat out of my hands, but other guys will get the job done. That's what I love about this team."

They need that lineup after being realigned from Class A Central into the highly-competitive Class B North, where just about every game is a dogfight. A prime example is a 1-0 nailbiter the Falcons had to pull out against last-place Long Branch.

Perhaps their biggest statement came in a 13-7 win over Red Bank Catholic, which entered the season ranked No. 2 in the Shore.

The Caseys' potent lineup hung five runs on the Falcons in the top of the first inning, but they showed they had the firepower to win a slugfest when they roared back for a 13-7 win. Abrams led the way with a grand slam and five RBI.

"I think that was a turning point because we didn't score many runs our first three games, and I think that was like, 'We can do this. If we can hit with them, we can hit with anybody,''' Crivello said.

Another major reason for Monmouth's eye-opening start is the leadership from its captains - Jackson, Adams and Birzin. Jackson is a two-year captain, as last year he was the first junior to receive the honor in Crivello's four-year tenure as head coach. He hit .424 with 8 extra-base hits and 20 RBI while assuming a leadership role.

"(Jackson) is one of a kind, especially as a leader,'' Crivello said. "Kids follow him and they believe him."

"I got a feel for how (being a captain) was last year when we were one out short of going further into the state tournament, so I knew that coming into this year we couldn't be lackadaisical, and we had to come out hot and get the young guys on board with the philosophy and show them how to win,'' Jackson said.

A Bright Future

After helping the Falcons to a 13-win season last year, Jackson then solidified his future by committing to Delaware State.

Jackson was recruited as a catcher, a position he has returned to this season after playing third base for the Falcons the last two years to fill a hole in the team's lineup.

"Having him behind the plate for our pitching staff is a luxury,'' Crivello said.

He will become the third member of his family who will attend a historically black college and university (HBCU) when he heads off to play for the Hornets in the fall. The coaches got in contact with him after seeing him play at two showcases over the summer for his travel team, Jersey Shore Prospects.

Jackson will play for head coach Dean Blandin, who has 407 career wins in 17 seasons.

"My mom wanted me to go to a historically black college,'' Jackson said. "I didn't really know about (Delaware State) at all. I went to a visit to the school and I loved it."

While many Shore football stars have gone on to play at HBCUs, Jackson is the rare baseball talent to commit to one. The decline of African-American baseball players has become an ongoing issue, which was highlighted on Jackie Robinson Day in Major League Baseball on April 15. Among Opening Day rosters in Major League Baseball, only 7.1 percent of the players were African-American, the lowest percentage since 1958, according to USA Today.

Despite being a HBCU, Delaware State has more white players than black players on its roster.

"A lot of (African-American) players don't think they can pursue it after high school so they don't want to play,'' Jackson said. "As I've gotten older, most of them have stopped playing and focused on football or basketball. I don't mind being one of few African-American players out there. It allows me to show I can compete with anybody.

Before he heads south down the N.J. Turnpike in a few months, Jackson is focused on restoring Monmouth to a place among the Shore Conference elite that it has often held during its history. The Falcons lost 6-5 in the Central Jersey Group II quarterfinals to eventual champion Delaware Valley last year, so now they are out to finish the job while armed with the knowledge they can compete against some of the best pitching in the state.

"I like seeing everyone's No. 1 because if you beat them, it shows that we're really here to play,'' Jackson said. "It's not a fluke that we're beating these teams. We want to be one of the best teams in the Shore and come back in the states and finish this year with a ring."

You can follow Scott Stump on Twitter @Scott_Stump or email him at stump@allshoremedia.com. 

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