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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. 20: Toms River South

Few coaches in any sport anywhere are more closely associated with the program that they lead more than Toms River South High School baseball coach Ken Frank.

For 41 seasons, Frank has led Toms River South to just shy of 60 championships – division, county, conference and NJSIAA sectional and group titles – and a state-record 894 wins. The field on which his team plays his games is already named for him and he hasn’t even retired yet.

Frank was looking forward to continuing that for a 42nd season, which would very likely include his unprecedented 900th career victory as a high-school head coach, but the COVID-19 global pandemic has done what father time and opposing coaching have not been able to do: keep Frank away from the field.

“I don’t like being inside,” Frank said. “I’m not a TV guy. I like being around my family, my grandkids and of course, the team. But like we always tell the kids: You’ve got to make adjustments. That’s true in baseball and in life and with this virus, we’ve got to take it seriously. Everybody has to do their part so I’m just trying to stay in and be safe.”

Toms River South coach Ken Frank. (Photo by Ray Richardson)

While the Shore’s baseball sage admits feeling somewhat lost without a team to coach during the state-wide stay-at-home order, it’s the players for whom he is most hurting right now. Those players have been the driving force of the 894 wins and however many wins Frank was set to add to his resume this season, he was looking forward to watching this year’s group provide their own unique contribution to Toms River South’s unique history.

“I just feel bad for the kids,” Frank said. “They were working really hard in practice and I know they put in a lot of work in the offseason to be ready to play on opening day. A lot of them were going to have an opportunity to play a lot for the first time after waiting a couple years. They put in the work, but who could have ever seen this coming? I think I have seen just about everything but I have never seen anything like this.”

Compared to Toms River South teams of the past, the current roster is not awe-inducing but in the short time they were together, Frank saw the makings of a blue-collar team that was ready to embrace an underdog role. Not many Indians teams get the chance to defy mild expectations but with very little experience and no all-division players returning in a Shore Conference that has a good deal of high-level talent coming back, this year’s team was already looking forward to making believers out of any doubters.

“This group has a lot of energy and I was really excited to be out there with them,” Frank said. “There was a lot of unknown for us going into the first practice but typically when there are a lot of unknowns around here, historically, we tend to come out looking pretty good. There is a tradition around here that we’re very proud of and the kids were all excited to be a part of it.”

While this was not likely to be a vintage Toms River South team with a top-of-the order unleashing lasers all over Ken Frank Stadium, a bottom of the order slapping the ball around and driving opposing infields crazy and hard-throwing pitchers challenging hitters with high velocity, the team has its standouts and the collective unit has some real upside.

It starts up the middle with senior shortstop Max Rivas, who is committed to Stetson University – a national contender out of Florida that has produced Jacob deGrom, Corey Kluber and Seattle Mariners top pitching prospect and 2018 first-rounder Logan Gilbert. On the position-player side, it is also the current team of former Toms River East standout Jon Meola, who was named captain for the now-abbreviated 2020 season.

Last year, Rivas hit .339 with a pair of doubles, 11 runs scored and seven RBI while playing mostly second base – deferring to then-senior Jordan Erbe. Rivas would move back to shortstop for the Indians if the season were to begin and would captain a fairly new unit around the diamond.

Another spot Toms River South has covered with experience from a year ago is at catcher, where senior Mike Montenegro reprises his starting role. To go with his stellar defense behind the plate, Montenegro hit .254 with six doubles and 10 RBI in 2019. He is also an above average athlete compared to most catchers and scored nine runs with Frank opting against using a courtesy runner in Montenegro’s place.

Toms River South senior Mike Montenegro. (Photo courtesy: Toms River South Yearbook, via Lors)

Junior Tyler Madeo also got some time as a starter during his sophomore season – mostly in right field. Madeo hit .211 with a .302 on-base percentage last year and would be a good candidate to take a bigger role in the lineup and on the team in the event actual games get played later this spring.

The pitching staff also has a quartet of returnees, led by senior Logan Spakowski. The senior right-hander posted a 1.69 ERA in 20 1/3 innings last season while emerging as Toms River South’s No. 3 pitcher behind seniors Gabe Driscoll and Matt Hartshorn. Spakowski is also a candidate to play some second and third base should the season get underway.

Senior Kiefer Samul is also back with 16 1/3 innings in 2019 under his belt, during which he posted a 3-1 record with a 3.43 ERA – including a win over rival Toms River North. Joe Ferreri and Erik Narvaez are the other two returning pitchers back from last year, although those two seniors combined for only 5 2/3 innings. Narvaez came with a sidearm delivery during his junior season, but was working on adjusting to a more conventional, over-the-top delivery with more velocity this spring, according to Indians pitching coach Mitch Powitz.

Altogether, those four pitchers struck out 24 batters and walked 23 in 42 2/3 innings while Driscoll and Hartshorn combined to whiff 101 in 90 2/3 with only 21 walks. For those senior hurlers, attacking the strike zone was the focus heading into camp and relying on Montenegro behind the plate and the Rivas-led defense would be paramount.

Samul and Narvaez entered the spring in the mix for starting outfield spots while Ferreri projected as the starter at first base. Madeo and senior Bo Marro – both of whom were top players on Toms River South’s football team in the fall – are set to occupy right field and center field, with Marro returning to the program after two years away.

Austin Beard and Ryan Mackle lead the junior class of newcomers, with Beard angling for a starting spot at third base and Mackle – the younger brother of three-year standout Colin Mackle – eyeing the starting job at second. Joe Schifilitti and Ty Gibson are two other juniors who made an impression in the one week of camp while senior Christan Blaska was also making a strong case for playing time before baseball was shut down.

Frank is not easily adjusted to being cooped up in his home. Even when it is not baseball season, he routinely attends Toms River North basketball games to watch his son-in-law, Rory Caswell, coach the Mariners. He has 10 grandchildren and an 11th on the way, but has been limited to spending time with them via FaceTime and through the window of his home – like so many other Americans in his situation.

“We’re a close family so it has been difficult,” Frank said. “We’re a hugging family, we’re a kissing family – we show our affection. It’s tough on the young kids because they don’t know why they are looking at grandpa and grandma through the window.

“We’re making the most of it. We’ve been fortunate so far that we’re healthy and all our friends are doing well. A lot of the old ballplayers have called to check to see how I’m doing so when you have people calling to check up on you and make sure you’re okay, that’s makes you smile, lifts you up a little bit.”

For a man who grew up in Jersey City in the 1950’s and 60’s and has been immersed in baseball for his entire life, these past four weeks have represented a culture shock for Frank. Still, he has lived a full baseball life and then some. It is his players – particularly the seniors who are bearing the brunt of the psychological suffering.

While Frank stays in for his own good and the good of the community, he hopes his players have a chance to take the field later this spring for their own good.

“They are antsy to get back out there,” Frank said. “It’s not looking too good right now but (the NJSIAA) is saying the right things. We’re hoping to get a season but who knows? All you can do is stay positive.”

 

Toms River South

Head Coach: Ken Frank, 42nd season
2019 Record: 13-10 (8-6, third in A South)
Top Returning Hitters (with 2019 stats)

PlayerABH2BRRBIAVGOBPSLUG
Maximus Rivas (Sr., SS)62212117.339.468.371
Mike Montenegro (Sr., C)67176910.254.306.343

 

Top Returning Pitcher (with 2019 stats)

PlayerWLIPHBBSOERAWHIP
Logan Spakowski (RHP)2120.2207111.691.31

 

 

Big Shoes to Fill: Kiefer Samul, OF/RHP

Toms River South lost some quality innings from a year ago and three of its top pitchers – Gabe Driscoll, Matt Hartshorn and Colin Mackle – were also among the best hitters on the team. Of the returning players, Samul looks like the most ready-made two-way threat available to Frank following a solid showing on the mound last year and an encouraging summer at the plate.

Top Newcomer(s): Austin Beard (Jr., 3B) and Ryan Mackle (Jr., 2B)

Beard and Mackle still had some work to do in winning starting jobs but both have made good early impressions entering the second half of their high-school careers.

X-Factor: Bo Marro, OF/RHP

Marro was a standout within his class as a freshman but opted not to play high school baseball in either of the past two seasons. He has showcased his athleticism on the football field during his high school career and returned to the fold this March poised to make a major impact in the outfield, at the plate and even on the mound. With the Indians graduating so much of their extra-base power at the plate and strikeout potential on the mound, Marro has the potential to provide some much-needed upside.

Check Back Tuesday Morning to Find Out No. 19