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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. 15: Toms River East

Late May of 2019 marked an awakening for the Toms River East baseball team and considering the sparse number of seniors on the team, it made sense that it took a while for last year’s Raiders to find themselves.

With a senior-heavy group coming back, Toms River East planned on picking up in 2020 where it left off in 2019, which was with a run to the NJSIAA South Jersey Group III semifinals as a No. 12 seed.

Now, all those Raiders seniors coming back in hopes of taking the team to the next level – some of them even returning to baseball after at least a year away from the program – are anxiously awaiting to hear when their season will begin or whether they will have a season at all.

For a group that figured things out during May of last season and was eager for a final chance to build on the late-season surge, the delay of the season and the real threat of its cancelation has been excruciating.

“From my contact with them, they are all disappointed – like everybody else is right now,” Toms River East coach Keith Smicklo said. “We’re telling them to stay ready, stay in shape, because you never know what can happen. But they read the news, they know what’s going on and what they are dealing with.

Toms River East senior Matt Santos. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

Toms River East’s overall optimism heading into the start of camp on March 6 stemmed from its returning trio of pitchers. Senior right-handers Matt Santos and Reece Miller were the Raiders’ top-two pitchers a year ago and each came through on the mound in big games in May. Santos pitched in all three South Group III Tournament games, although he did not pick up a win in any of them and took the loss in relief in a 6-5 loss to top-seeded Triton in nine innings.

“He got hit around early in the year a little bit,” Smicklo said of Santos. “He eventually got his confidence over the course of the year and by the end, we felt like every time we gave him the ball, we were going to win the game or at least have a chance if we could score a couple of runs. He pitched great in the state tournament and he was absolutely lights out against Ocean City.”

Miller started the first-round win over Highland and picked up the win with 4 2/3 innings of work, then took a shutout into the sixth inning of his team’s semifinal loss at Triton before departing with the bases loaded, none out and a 5-0 lead.

Toms River East sent out a notice to the rest of the state of its potential in tournament games when the Raiders stunned top-seeded Jackson Memorial in the Ocean County Tournament quarterfinals behind a one-hitter by Miller.

“Reece is a hard-working kid,” Smicklo said. “He worked really hard in the offseason and really came in stronger and ready to be the leader of the pitching staff and one of the leaders on the team. He gained a lot of confidence and you could see it every time he took the ball. Every start, he just got better and better.”

Dan Facchiano is the other senior pitcher back for Toms River East and he is lined up to pitch as a starter behind the Santos and Miller. Facchiano earned the win with two innings of scoreless relief in Toms River East’s 10-inning, quarterfinal win at Ocean City. Santos pitched seven one-hit innings in that one and also hit a go-ahead two-run homer in the top of the seventh.

The experienced top of the pitching staff is Toms River East’s greatest strength heading into a potential 2020 season but the Raiders had some other things going for them. The only seniors to graduate from last year’s starting lineup were Logan Sommerer, Tyler Toth and Mark Murtha. On top of that, the Raiders bring back strong defense at catcher with senior Ryan Goodall and shortstop with senior Ryan Cicardo – both of whom were among the top-five hitters on the roster a year ago.

Cicardo and Goodall both project as top-of-the-order hitters for Toms River East, which also returns two other starters on the infield in Santos at first base and senior Robert Pero at second. Junior Joe Ussery also returns to the outfield and could help out on the infield as well.

Toms River East senior catcher Ryan Goodall. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

The toughest setback for the roster was the loss of junior Aidan Meola, who moved to Palm Beach, Fla. Meola is the son of U.S. Soccer great Tony Meola and the older brother of Stetson University captain and former Raiders standout Jon Meola. Over the offseason, Aidan Meola announced his commitment to Oklahoma State and would have been one of the Shore’s top hitters as the Raiders’ returning third baseman.

With Meola gone, there is a chance for some other players to step up and one thing that had Smicklo optimistic about the start of the season was the extra depth in the program.

“This is the first group that I have had for all four years so this was the first spring where everybody knew how we were running practice and what the routine was,” said Smicklo, now in his fourth season. “It’s also the best overall team we have had here. We have had some stud pitchers and hitters but this group is the deepest since I have been here and also the most versatile since I have been here. We have the pitching depth and we have athletes who can do a lot of different things and give the coaching staff some options.”

With an infield spot open – two when Santos pitches – seniors Riley Engelhard and Jake Steinmetz would be key pieces in 2020. Engelhard is back in the program after two years away and profiles at a corner infield spot. Junior Mark Roma – another returnee to the program after a year away – is another possibility on the infield and could also occupy a spot in the outfield.

Toms River East’s other options in the outfield include senior Nasceem Davis and junior Sal Gioia. Davis is a third player returning to the program after not playing high-school baseball last year and was on track to compete for innings in centerfield, while Gioia got some time with the varsity squad a year ago as a sophomore.

“It’s encouraging to see guys come back and want to be part of what we were trying to do this year,” Smicklo said. “I think there was a sense that we could have a special year and I think those guys that came back wanted to be able to experience that. The good thing is they are all good athletes, they play other spots and they know what’s expected of them. They want to help this team win.”

Finding the right mix of players around the returning starters and getting the staff to deliver on expectations would make the Raiders a serious top-10 threat and perhaps a dark-horse team in the Class A South race in a normal season. Ultimately, though, the senior-heavy Raiders are just hoping for any chance to show their postseason prowess in 2019 was a sign of things to come in 2020.

“They are still working hard. They are staying in shape. They are just disappointed. I try telling them to stay positive but it is what it is. It’s out of their control and sometimes you have to remind yourself there are more important things than the high-school baseball season.”

 

Toms River East

Head Coach: Keith Smicklo, fourth season
2019 Record: 10-14 (4-10, seventh in A South)

Top Returning Hitters (with 2019 stats)

PlayerABH2B3BHRRRBIAVGOBPSLUGSB
Ryan Goodall (Sr., C)6818431813.265.390.4566
Matt Santos (Sr., 1B)7222902714.306.375.5143
Ryan Cicardo (Sr., SS)7620500137.263.325.32912
Robert Pero (Sr., 2B)6112300711.197.319.2464
Joe Ussery (Jr., OF)6612601178.182.316.3188

 

Top Returning Pitchers (with 2019 stats)

PlayerWLIPHERBBSOERAWHIP
Reece Miller (Sr., RHP)3247432021302.981.36
Matt Santos (Sr., RHP)3442351420312.331.31
Dan Facchiano (Sr., RHP)22192088122.941.47

 

Big Shoes to Fill: Riley Engelhard, INF

With Aidan Meola’s promising bat out of the picture following his move to Florida, Engelhard becomes a key piece for the Raiders. Engelhard has been focusing on basketball over the past two seasons but has the wherewithal to step back onto the field and make an impact in the field and at the plate.

Top Newcomer: Mark Roma, INF/OF

Roma is another player who was in the program, did not come out last year, and returned for 2020 hoping to carve out a niche. As a potential utility player, Roma would likely land in one of the open spots left by last year’s graduates and Meola – with third base and a corner outfield position high on the list for the versatile junior.

X-Factor: Joe Ussery, OF

It’s never completely safe to assume pitchers are going to repeat or build on strong seasons but the Raiders would need Miller, Santos and Facchiano to live up to the standards they set last year in order to have the year they were expecting. That means scoring runs and catching the ball remain the wild cards and Ussery’s bat, which flashed some potential at different points last year, could be a source for offense as he gears up for a big junior season.