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Shore Sports Network is counting down its top 20 baseball teams heading into the would-be 2020 season by profiling each one. You can read the division-by-division previews and the other top-20 profiles here.

Shore Sports Network Baseball 20 in 2020 – No. 14: Howell

The 2019 season was somewhat of a cruel joke for the Howell baseball team and head coach Eric Johnson. A team that had scored runs by the bushel in prior years finally had the pitching to match, but the offense – while serviceable – lacked the power of year’s past.

Now that Johnson has what he thinks is a roster that balances out as well as any he has had during his decade at the helm, the joke has gotten even crueler.

The 2020 season remains on life support and the Rebels are among the many teams praying for a miraculous recovery in time to salvage at least some baseball before the end of June. With a more experienced lineup and some depth to the pitching staff that proved invaluable last season, Howell could make even more noise than usual if given a chance.

“It seems like we have always been that team with the big bats, but last year went the other way,” Johnson said. “Last year was one of better years pitching we have had since I have been here.

The Rebels have routinely been competitive during Johnson’s tenure and last year’s 12-11 campaign with fourth-place finish in Class A North was an example of that, even amid some adversity. In addition to fielding a relatively young lineup, Howell had to overcome an injury to current Monmouth University freshman Ryan Bearse that kept him off the mound for most of the season and affected his hitting. Seniors Kyle Brex at shortstop and Bryan Bernard on the mound both had strong years and Colin Loch pitched well in 11 2/3 innings, but the rest of the major contribution came from players that are back this season.

“Losing Bearse on the mound was a big setback and we had to recalibrate,” Johnson said. “It forced us to use some guys earlier than we had planned and they stepped in and got some good experience. This year, we return a lot of offense. We have six guys with lot of varsity experience in the field and we’re hoping for that hitting-pitching balance where in past years, it’s been one or the other. I thought we could get that balance, finally.”

With one half of its senior one-two punch on the mound limited by injury, Howell had to tap into its depth and that set the Rebels up nicely heading into a would-be 2020 season. Current junior Chris Ellison emerged as last year’s No. 2 starter behind Bernard and was set to assume the role of ace at the start of 2020. Although his record was 0-5, Ellison gave up three earned runs in his first start of the season against Freehold Township, then gave up just two in each of his final four. Those four starts included three teams ranked in the Shore Sports Network Top 10 (Middletown South, Manalapan and Red Bank Catholic) and an NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV quarterfinal against Cherry Hill East.

Howell junior Chris Ellison. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

“Ellison’s starts were against nothing but good teams,” Johnson said. “We went toe-to-toe with (Virginia commit Shane) Panzini against Red Bank Catholic and matched zeroes with him for a while. He had tough losses to Middletown South and Manalapan. He was 0-5 but he kept us in all of those games. We were looking forward to getting him some more runs this year and getting a few of those games to go our way.”

Senior left-hander Jake Lenardo is Howell’s other returning pitcher coming off a strong showing in 2019. Lenardo started only one game but carved out a role as an effective reliever. He sported a 2.03 ERA with 20 strikeouts in 20 2/3 innings and also picked up a pair of saves in two opportunities.

Although senior left-hander Max Freideman and junior Vin Impresa did not put up big pitching numbers a year ago, both were optimistic about their prospects for this season. Friedeman is two years removed from beating Trey Dombrowski head-to-head as a sophomore and is healthy and stronger heading into his senior year, while Impresa is a more polished pitcher heading into his junior year, according to Johnson.

Senior A.J. Furlong would also factor into the pitching rotation as well as in the outfield after getting a taste at the varsity level a year ago.

The sufficient depth and experience in the rotation should complement a lineup with a similar profile. The standout in the batting order is senior centerfielder Tommy Talbot, who hit .395 as a junior and was selected by the A North coaches as the division’s Co-Hitter of the Year, along with Middletown South senior Danny Minze. Talbot entered his senior season just 13 steals shy of the career record at Howell and after stealing 14 as a junior, he would have had a shot to break it with a full season.

“Tommy puts his bat on the ball,” Johnson said. “He is really good at going the other way and up the middle. He is so fast, those slow grounders usually turn into hits. He is not that big power guy but he will beat an outfielder every now and again. He put on some muscle and was looking to add to the power numbers a little more this year.”

Impresa, Ellison and fellow junior Antonio Gatti all had strong offensive seasons as sophomores in 2019 and would all likely follow close behind the leadoff man Talbot in the order. Gatti returns to right field after hitting .357 last year and could take over the leadoff duties if Johnson prefers to give Talbot more RBI chances.

“We got some nice contributions from guys we weren’t necessarily expecting to do a lot for us,” Johnson said. “Antonio Gatti broke out as sophomore – he was not somebody we were expecting to be an everyday player but he was huge.”

Howell junior Antonio Gatti. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

Ellison and Impresa both played third base last year and Impresa is slated to take on the position on a more full-time basis while Johnson looks to find Ellison a spot that will be less taxing on his arm. Ellison has the wherewithal to take over an open shortstop job, but Johnson has been made wary of asking his best pitcher to also play the most demanding defensive position other than catcher.

Seniors Chris Acampora and Jack Bearse are also back after getting starting experience last year. Acampora is an experienced catcher who gives Howell a leader and a steady hand at an important position while Bearse can handle first and third base, depending on who is pitching. Senior Brandon Troop, meanwhile, has taken the lead at playing second base after getting some time as a junior.

“Acampora was really solid behind the dish and we kept seeing improvements hitting-wise,” Johnson said. “Jack Bearse showed he can handle varsity pitching. He didn’t have the best year in terms of numbers but he started to come on at the end and has looked more comfortable heading into this year.”

Shortstop is an open spot that required a preseason battle to settle the starting job, with senior Nick Guarino starting out with the slight edge as the experienced hand of the group, according to Johnson.

Senior Max Schwark came back strong this season after missing a year of high-school baseball and although he is primarily a catcher who is behind Acampora on the depth chart, he is angling for a spot somewhere in the batting order – perhaps as designated hitter or another spot out in the field.

Juniors Alex Jenkins and Ryan Benkhen also figure to contribute going forward – Jenkins as a corner infielder or a DH and Benkhen in the outfield.

Howell has a nice core of juniors with Ellison, Impresa, Gatti along with the incoming talent, but enough senior bulk to its team that losing a season would be a missed opportunity for the program, not to mention a crushing blow to a heavy percentage of the team. The Rebels should be well-positioned heading into 2021 but Johnson doesn’t want to think about that yet.

“We have been keeping our distance from them because we don’t want it to seem like we’re encouraging them to all get together,” Johnson said. “We just want them focused on themselves and their families and whatever school work they have.

“They are doing a lot on their own so I’m not worried about them being motivated to get their baseball work in. It’s been a tough stretch, especially for the seniors. They are just trying to stay ready because if we do come back, they want to make the most of it.”

 

Howell

Head Coach: Eric Johnson, 11th season
2019 Record: 12-11 (8-6, fourth in A North)

Top Returning Hitters (with 2019 Stats)

PlayerABH2BHRRRBIAVGOBPSLUGSB
Tommy Talbot (Sr., CF)7630202314.395.489.42114
Antonio Gatti (Jr., RF)562020103.357.446.3932
Vin Impresa (Jr., 3B)42133172.310.370.4520
Chris Ellison (Jr., INF)491341108.265.390.4081
Chris Acampora (Sr., C)70176058.243.299.3290

 

Top Returning Pitchers (with 2019 Stats)

PlayerWLIPHERBBSOERAWHIP
Chris Ellison (Jr., RHP)0528.1281210272.961.34
Jake Lenardo (Sr., LHP)3020.21967202.031.26

 

Big Shoes to Fill: Nick Guarino, SS

Kyle Brex was an All-Shore shortstop and one of Howell’s top-two hitters along with Talbot. While it’s unlikely another All-Shore bat was set to replace him there, Guarino is a senior ready to get his shot and with some other good bats returning, the Rebels just needed him to do the job defensively and turn in quality at-bats.

Top Newcomer: Max Schwark, C/UTIL

Although the catcher spot is occupied by Acampora heading into the potential 2020 season, Schwark returned to the program with a solid bat that could get him into the lineup at another position. According to Johnson, Schwark recently got an offer to play at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

X-Factors: The senior southpaws

Jake Lenardo was a reliable reliever as a junior and Max Friedeman entered camp healthy and two years removed from earning a win in one of Howell’s most impressive wins over the past two seasons – beating Trey Dombroski and Wall during the regular season. For the Rebels to make a run this season, they will need at least one to emerge as a reliable starter and if they can get enough help from the trio of Ellison, Impresa and Freideman, Lenardo could also reprise his role as shut-down reliever.