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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 here.

Shore Sports Network Baseball 20 in 2020 – No. 18: Colts Neck

The last four weeks in the United States – and most other countries in the world – expectations have either changed or all but disappeared. In the little corner of the world that includes high-school and amateur athletics, that means young athletes preparing for a short spring season or no spring season at all.

Colts Neck senior Rob Mannino has experience with evolving expectations and making the most of them. The catcher-by-trade has been unable to play his natural position on the baseball diamond since his sophomore year due to a shoulder injury. It has stalled his development at the position and his college recruitment process, but it hasn’t stopped him.

If his senior season is in danger of being canceled as a precaution related to the COVID-19 pandemic, Mannino and his fellow Colts Neck seniors will deal with it as best they can, just as Mannino has dealt with his own adversity for the last couple of seasons.

“You feel bad for every senior that’s going through this, and especially a guy like Rob,” Colts Neck coach Mike Yorke said. “He probably wasn’t going to get to catch this year anyway so in that sense, he isn’t missing a chance to show he is fully healthy yet. At the same time, I think the way he has swung the bat and the way he has been an energy guy for us has given him confidence so that when he starts to get his arm strength back, he is going to be mentally ready to go.”

Colts Neck senior Rob Mannino. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

Despite not being able to give the Cougars one of the Shore and state’s more athletic, strong-armed catchers, Mannino has given his team plenty. He was an All-Shore designated hitter a season ago, when he hit .368 with seven doubles, a triple, two homers, 21 runs, 12 RBI and seven steals, and according to Colts Neck coach Mike Yorke, is eyeing getting back in the field as an outfielder or second baseman in 2020.

“He is such a good athlete that he can play just about anywhere and excel,” Yorke said. “He has been lobbying to play the outfield and even some second base so if we feel like the arm has come around enough to handle it and he feels good about, that was something we were thinking about looking into later in the season.”

Mannino committed to Rutgers University as a sophomore but when Steve Owens took over as the new coach of the Scarlet Knights following Joe Litterio’s dismissal, Mannino’s scholarship offer was off the table. Yorke said his senior leader has had trouble finding the right fit without the ability to showcase his catching ability, but has shifted his focus to getting the best opportunity possible and making the most of it – even if it is prep school or a Junior College opportunity.

“He has a plan and he is just taking it one day at a time,” Yorke said. “We feel pretty good that he’s eventually going to get back to 100 percent. Even if he has to move to another position, he has all the tools to play at the next level and be really good. It’s just a matter of him showing college coaches he is all the way back.”

In a potential 2020 season, Mannino was part of a small core of seniors poised to make a difference for a Colts Neck team that had some memorable moments in 2019. The Cougars’ other big hitter back from the top-half of the order last year is senior first baseman Danny Cowles – an all-division slugger heading to St. Thomas Aquinas College next year who hit .409 with six doubles, a triple, a homer and 17 RBI as a junior.

"Danny is a great guy to have in the middle of the order," Yorke said. "He is an RBI guy. He goes up there with a plan and he does a great job using his hands and using the whole field. I know he worked hard to get stronger and was working on pulling the ball for a little more power this year, so I was looking forward to seeing what he could do with that."

Mannino hit quality pitching throughout the season, including an opposite-field home run off current Kentucky freshman and former Neptune ace Ron Cole. Cowles, meanwhile, drove in Colts Neck’s lone run of a 3-1 loss to Wall in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group III quarterfinals by singling home a run off current senior and Coastal Carolina commit Teddy Sharkey.

Colts Neck has upset Wall in each of the past two seasons – last year beating the eventual Group III champion and No. 1 team in the Shore Sports Network Final Top 10 in walk-off fashion on April 18. Mannino went 1-for-2 with a pair of walks in that game and scored the winning run on Reece Horneck’s game-winning single.

Pitchers Chase Masterson and Justin Coppola are Colts Neck’s other key returning seniors from 2019 and will again be key cogs in the rotations – Masterson from the left side and Coppola from the right. Coppola led Colts Neck with 26 2/3 innings last season, during which he fanned 34 batters and posted a 3.15 ERA as the Cougars’ go-to pitcher.

Masterson was even harder to square up. The southpaw struck out 26 while allowing only seven hits in 15 2/3 innings last year and with a successful effort cutting his 22 walks a year ago, he could have a chance to be a force at the top of the rotation.

“I was optimistic about what we had, especially with some of pitching depth we were seeing,” Yorke said. “(Pitching) Coach (Bob) Jack and I were talking a lot early about some of the things we could do with this group and we were starting to get pretty excited about the potential we had there. It was a good mix of experience with guys like Coppola and Masterson and some of the new arms.”

Yorke and Colts Neck are hoping for a chance to show off some of its up-and-coming young talent in a 2020 season, led by Army commit Collin Kratzer. After a solid debut as a freshman second baseman, Kratzer is slated to take over at shortstop and could potentially pitch in a relief role. Kratzer’s numbers (.250, four doubles, 13 runs) were respectable by freshman-on-varsity standards but his strong finish – highlighted by a game-winning hit in extra innings vs. Toms River South in the Shore Conference Tournament – adds to his potential to break out as soon as the games start.

Colts Neck sophomore Colin Kratzer (left) and Wall's John Iradi. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

“He had his ups and downs but the best thing about him is you could see, pretty clearly, that he was not overpowered at all,” Yorke said of Kratzer. “He wasn’t phased by big moments and you saw that with the big double to right-center down at Toms River South.”

Junior outfielder Cameron Knipp and sophomore catcher Joe Cilea are ready to move into full-time starting jobs after seeing part-time duty in 2019. Cilea impressed enough as a freshman and in the one week of work this season to lessen the blow of missing out on Mannino behind the dish.

“We brought Cilea up last year to get a look and you can see how fundamentally sound he is,” Yorke said. “He is still a young player learning the position, but he is a smart kid who is just going to keep getting better.”

On the pitching side, Colts Neck added transfers Christian Rice and Gubitosi. Rice is a junior right-hander who played at St. Joseph by the Sea in Staten Island las year while Gubitosi is a sophomore left-hander who played on Freehold Boro’s freshman team in 2019. The two hurlers are slated to add both depth and upside behind the two seniors for a Colts Neck staff that has a chance to be significantly improved.

The path to this point certainly hasn’t been a predictable one for the Cougars given their injuries and additions from outside the program, but if the season can get started, they have an experienced core of leaders to set the tone and the young talent to complement them. Altogether, that gives Colts Neck a chance to surprise in a Class B North division that should be more wide-open in light of Wall’s graduation losses.

“The division is always tough but whether we have been in B North or A North, the expectation for our program is we are always going to be competitive, no matter who we play,” Yorke said. “I think this year we had a chance – and hopefully, still have a chance – to compete for a top spot. There are some really quality teams when you talk about Wall, Ocean, St. John Vianney, Neptune, Matawan, Middletown North and Red Bank but we feel like we would be right in the mix with this group.”

 

Colts Neck

Head Coach: Mike Yorke, 21st season
2019 Record: 12-9 (8-6, third in B North)

Top Returning Hitters (with 2019 stats)

PlayerABH2B3BHRRRBIAVGOBPSLUGSB
Rob Mannino (Sr., DH)57217122112.368.538.6327
Danny Cowles (Sr., 1B)44186111017.409.547.6594
Collin Kratzer (So., SS)6416400135.250.342.3131

 

Top Returning Pitchers (with 2019 stats)

PlayerWLIPHERBBSOERAWHIP
Justin Coppola (Sr., RHP)2226.2241216343.151.50
Chase Masterson (Sr., LHP)2015.27722263.131.85

 

 

Big Shoes to Fill: Cameron Knipp, OF

Colts Neck’s biggest loss to graduation was right fielder and middle-of-the-order masher Reece Horneck, but the Cougars are replacing just about an entire outfield. Knipp is the one returning with experience, having logged 24 plate appearances as a sophomore, so the current junior will be leaned upon whenever Colts Neck resumes.

Top Newcomer: Christian Rice, RHP

Rice was a promising right-hander on Staten Island before moving to Colts Neck and impressing Yorke and Jack in the little time he had to make an impression. Even with Coppola and Masterson in place in the rotation, Rice had a shot to emerge as the ace of the staff and still could if there is any baseball in N.J. this spring.

X-Factor: Chase Masterson, LHP

Speaking of Masterson, the left-hander’s upside showed through at several points last season, including five no-hit innings with 11 strikeouts in a Monmouth County Tournament game vs. Holmdel. With improved command, he has a chance to ascend to the top of a staff that has had some options in recent years but no clear ace.

Check back Wednesday to read about No. 17 in the Top 20 in 2020