Baseball – 2018 Preview: Class A North
Welcome to Class A North, where both the first-place and seventh-place teams reached sectional finals and everybody in between spent the season in the Shore Sports Network Top 10, or at least knocking on the door. The eight-team field is so loaded that a last-place finish is nothing to stop a team from making a run in the state tournament as long as it can qualify. Neptune was the obvious example of that last year, when the Scarlet Fliers entered the Central Jersey Group III Tournament as a 7-12 No. 14 seed and preceded to lose to eventual Group III champion Allentown in extra innings.
Every team in Class A North, whether projected No. 1 or No. 8, has a formula to win some kind of hardware this season if just a couple of things break right. There is a strong case to be made that all eight teams should be considered top 20 teams in the Shore Conference and any one of them could see time in the top 10 this season. For now, though, it’s time to tackle the unenviable task of picking a rank order of one of the state’s most unforgiving divisions.
In predicted order of finish
Christian Brothers Academy
Head Coach: Marty Kenney, 45th season
2017 Record: 18-10 (9-5, second in A North)
Key Returners: Nick Hohenstein (Sr., RHP/OF), Tommy DiTullio (Jr., SS), Andrea Dalatri (Sr., 3B), Johnny Dudek (Sr., 1B), Jack Harnisch (Sr., 2B), Matt Fitzsimmons (Sr., 1B), Blaise Venancio (Sr., LHP), Matt Barnes (Sr., RHP), Matt Kern (Sr., C), Joe Escondon (Jr., LHP)
Key Losses: Joe Sparber (C), Spencer Bauer (RHP/3B) – transferred to Manasquan; Peter Morreale (2B) – transferred to Marlboro
Key Newcomers: Mason Wolf (So., C), Anthony Celestre (Jr., 2B/OF), Braedin Hunt (So., RHP/OF), Pat Reilly (So., RHP), Jake Lawrie (Sr., LHP)
While CBA’s 2017 wasn’t exactly hurting for talent, the Colts entered the year as somewhat of an unknown after relying so much on current University of North Carolina sophomores Luca Dalatri and Brandon Martorano for three very successful seasons. Although CBA did not hang a banner and did not crack the Shore Sports Network Top 10, the Colts made some very important strides with a team that only featured two seniors. Now the Colts return a team with a deep pitching staff, a dangerous lineup and very good athletes around the diamond.
Senior Nick Hohenstein has been an impact player and an All-Shore performer in each of his past two seasons with the Colts and enjoyed his best all-around season as a junior. In addition to running an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of 1.109, the La Salle recruit pitched to a 1.78 ERA and a 56-to-10 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 55 innings on the mound, setting new career marks for himself. The Colts also got a breakout year from left-hander and St. Joseph’s commit Blaise Venancio, who sported a sparkling 1.25 ERA over 50 1/3 innings. The third starter was a committee of capable pitchers and among that group this year will be senior right-hander Matt Barnes, junior left-hander Joe Escondon, senior left-hander Jake Lawrie and promising sophomore right-hander Braedin Hunt.
CBA will be able to keep runs off the board with its standout pitching, but also thanks to a strong infield defense that returns in full. Junior shortstop and Bryant University commit Tommy DiTullio debuted as one of the Shore’s best defenders in his first year of varsity ball, while senior third baseman Andrea Dalatri drove in a team-best 28 runs out of the clean-up spot. Senior second baseman Jack Harnisch is also back to pair with DiTullio up the middle and seniors Johnny Dudek and Matt Fitzsimmons will split the first base and designated hitter duties. CBA is aiming to put some more runs on the board – something that eluded the Colts more than they would have liked last year – to support a stellar pitching staff that will make it a team to beat in 2018.
Head Coach: Brian Boyce, 13th season
2017 Record: 17-10 (8-6, tied third in A North)
Key Returners: Giovanni Ciaccio (Sr., CF), Dan DeBlasio (Sr., 1B/OF), E.J. Melendez (Sr., RHP/DH), Robert Gargano (Sr., LHP/OF), Vin Lanza (Sr., 2B), Jack Schweitzer (Sr., C/OF), Anthony Naylor (Sr., OF), Jake Pellecchia (Jr., SS), Anthony Jomo (Sr., LHP), Justin Korman (Sr., RHP), Nick DiMiceli (Sr., OF)
Key Losses: Steven Bullen (1B), John Pudder (RHP), John Michael Sabatino (RHP), Joe Pellecchia (C), Mike Perlamuter (2B/3B)
Key Newcomers: Ryan Crehan (Sr., LHP), Ben Levine (Jr., LHP/1B), Billy Waters (Jr., 3B/2B), Andrew Lore (Jr., 1B/C), Michael Kuver (Jr., OF), Nick DiPiertrantonio (So., SS), Nick Serrentino (Jr., C), Aaron Ayers (Jr., RHP) – Transfer from Marlboro
Loading a starting lineup and a pitching rotation with talented, hungry seniors is a great way to win championships and it’s hard to get any more senior-loaded than Manalapan is this season. The Braves had some good moments during an 17-win season with a junior-heavy team in 2017 and return with the renewed focus of a team that knows what is on the line. Manalapan has had two instances under current coach Brian Boyce with a similar amount of talent – once two years ago with a team that fell short of expectations and once in 2011, when the Braves won the NJSIAA Group IV title.
In some ways, this team resembles the 2011 group, but the similarities to 2016 – at least on paper, not in the wins and losses yet, obviously – are more apparent. The Braves are loaded with hitters and athletes all over the field, highlighted by center fielder Giovanni Ciaccio, first baseman Dan DeBlasio and outfielder Anthony Naylor. Ciaccio and DeBlasio have been big producers since their sophomore seasons, while Naylor stepped in and produced in his first year as a starter. Catcher Jack Schweitzer, outfielder Robert Gargano and second baseman Vin Lanza are three more seniors with lineup experience and junior Jake Pellecchia will take over an open spot at shortstop after playing a part-time varsity role as a sophomore.
For Manalapan to get back into the ranks of Shore Conference and Group IV championship contenders, it will need its deep, experienced pitching staff to find its form. Senior E.J. Melendez got off to a strong start last year before battling through some inconsistency late in the year, while left-hander Anthony Jomo and senior Justin Korman both pitched well, mostly in relief. Manalapan coach Brian Boyce found he liked splitting up games to deal with the new pitch-count rules and the results is a versatile staff heading into this year. With the additions of left-handers Ryan Crehan and Ben Levine and junior right-hander Aaron Ayers to the staff, Manalapan will again lean on a helping of quality arms to do the job and back up an experienced lineup during its pursuit of championships in A North and beyond.
Head Coach: Todd Smith, ninth season
2017 Record: 12-12 (8-6, tied third in A North)
Key Returners: Ryan Ford (Sr., RHP/1B/3B), Bryan Reed (Sr., RHP/1B), Nick Lodispoto (Sr., LF/LHP), Brandon Smith (Jr., SS), Cristian Corcione (Jr., 2B), Mike Woods (Jr., CF), Liam Simon (Jr., RHP), Ryan Kurczeski (Jr., RHP), Luke Milchman (Sr., DH), Chris Goodman (Sr., OF), Kevin Goodman (Sr., OF)
Key Losses: Mike Pirrotta (RHP/1B), Andrew Beam (C), Zach Perricone (RHP/UTIL), Greg Najar (OF/RHP), Nick Coluccio (C)
Key Newcomers: James Romero (Sr., 3B), Nick Portaleos (So., C), Brian Lee (Jr., LF), Vladimir Scriptunas (Jr., P)
Injuries have ruined some of Freehold Township’s potential over the last couple if seasons, but the Patriots enter this season with a little more health and a lot more depth with which to make a run at an A North title. Despite losing a pair of standout pitchers from last year in Mike Pirrotta and Zach Perricone, the Patriots bring back a pitching staff that stacks up with anyone in A North and most teams in the Shore Conference. Senior right-hander Bryan Reed quietly put together a dominant 33 2/3 innings as a junior last year and is the Freehold Township pitching coming off the best 2017. The Patriots also have Penn State commit Ryan Ford back in the rotation after backing up Pirrotta and Reed over the course of last year. Junior Liam Simon is primed for a big season after committed to Notre Dame over the offseason. Those three right-handers can keep Freehold Township in every game and on good days, they can dominate.
The Patriots did not score all that much a year ago and some progress at the plate would do wonders for a team that has the pitching in place. Although Ford did not put up big numbers a year ago, he had a monster season at the plate as a sophomore and is projected to be a hitter at the college level with a powerful swing from the left side of the plate. If Ford can return to his form of two years ago, the offense should fall into place around him, with plenty of contact-and-speed types like senior outfielder Nick Lodispoto, junior shortstop Brandon Smith, junior second baseman Cristian Corcione and junior center fielder Mike Woods. Those four players also give Freehold Township one of the most athletic defenses in the conference, which should make an already great pitching staff even better.
If anything keeps Freehold Township back this year, a lack of extra-base power around Ford or injuries in the pitching staff. As long as the three right-handers can make their starts and pitch their innings, Freehold Township will be one of the teams vying for the A North title. If the offense takes off at the same time, the ceiling gets a lot higher.
Head Coach: Jon Block, 27th season
2017 Record: 18-9 (10-4, first in A North)
Key Returners: Mark Costanzo (Sr., SS/RHP), Phil Marcantonio (Sr., C), Nick Aiello (Sr., RHP/OF), Matt Granato (Sr., 3B/RHP), Dane Della Valle (Sr., LHP/1B), Matt DaSilva (Sr., OF)
Key Losses: Tom Holdorf (1B/LHP), Dan Chiusano (LHP/OF), Chris Cassandra (SS), Isaiah Howard (OF), Pat White (1B/RHP), Mike Belka (OF)
Key Newcomers: Henry Nonnamacher (Jr., C), Anthony Farinaccio (Sr., OF), Zach Sepkowski (Sr., OF), Travis Thompson (Sr., LHP), Colin Popper (Sr., 2B), Luke Crivelli (Jr., 1B/OF), Cam Eslager (Jr., 2B/3B), Kacey MacCutcheon (Jr., 2B/SS), Steven Gee (Jr., RHP/2B), Dominic Nonnamacher (Jr., RHP/OF), Frank Santarsiero (Jr., OF), Adam Schwerthoffer (Jr., RHP/1B), Rich Vignelli (Jr., RHP/OF)
Freehold Boro came with about a foot of winning the Central Jersey Group IV championship last year, but Mark Costanzo’s bases-loaded line drive found the outstretched glove of Hunterdon Central third baseman Sal Lombardo for the final out of a 2-1 Red Devils win. Constanzo delivered in big spots for Freehold Boro throughout the season and did again in that moment, only to watch his frozen rope find a glove. Costanzo and his teammates will have a shot at redemption this season, but will have to make do without a handful of key members from the 2017 team that won the outright Class A North title.
The toughest members to replace off of last year’s team will be left-handers Dan Chiusano and Tom Holdorf. Both were two-time All-Shore selections, with Holdorf also serving as a middle-of-the order bat in addition to his stellar pitching. Freehold Boro is fortunate to bring back another accomplished left-hander in senior Dane Della Valle, who turned in a brilliant varsity debut last year with a 6-0 record and 1.02 ERA while serving as both a starter and a reliever. The rest of the pitching staff will be comprised mostly of players who have experience playing other positions but will see an increase in their use as pitchers. Senior outfielder Nick Aiello, senior third baseman Matt Granato and Constanzo will be among that group, while junior right-handers Dominic Nonnamacher and Adam Schwertenhoffer look to emerge as reliable pitchers and take pressure off of Della Valle and some of the position players.
Constanzo will shift from second base to shortstop to cover for graduated four-year letter-winner Chris Cassandra, giving the Colonials another good glove at the premier defensive spot on the infield. Senior Phil Marcantonio was an All-Shore catcher last year and in addition to mashing in the middle of the order, he will be looked to take more of a leadership role with the pitching staff after working with two experienced aces last year. With Marcantonio, Costanzo, Granato and Aiello back, the offense shouldn’t suffer much if at all and if Della Valle delivers on the mound again, Freehold Boro just might make it two A North titles in a row and find itself with another shot at a sectional title.
Head Coach: Mike Yorke, 19th season
2017 Record: 14-12 (7-7, fifth in A North)
Key Returners: Anthony Galason (Sr, OF/RHP), Hunter Boag (Sr., OF/RHP), Jack Tirrell (Sr., SS), Joe Kohm (Sr., OF), Nick Straub (Sr., 2B), Shawn Scully (Sr., UTIL), Adrian Jimenez (Jr., 3B/RHP), Reece Horneck (Jr., OF), Rob Mannino (So., C), Anthony Sasso (Sr., RHP)
Key Losses: Jon Weitzman (1B/RHP), Dillon Pellecchia (RHP), Brendan Clarke (SS/CF), Nick Straub (2B), Dan Schulte (OF), Sam Christopher (OF), Kevin Condon (RHP), Max Hawkins (LHP)
Key Newcomers: Brooks Condon (Jr., UTIL), Dan Cowles (So., 1B), Mike Jannucci (Jr., 3B), Anthony Lazaro (Jr., 3B), Brendan Reece (Sr., P/OF), Alec Molloy (Sr., P), Tom Marten (Sr., P), Zach Albom (Sr., P)
With the exception of an All-Shore campaign by returning senior Anthony Galason, Colts Neck had a quiet season in 2017 – it certainly was not a bad year at 14-12 overall and 7-7 in an unforgiving Class A North, but the Cougars never really threatened in the division race and the highlight of its postseason was a 2-1 win over No. 7 South Brunswick as the No. 10 seed in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV Tournament. It was a solid overall season for a team with three solid pitchers and some talent around the diamond.
The Cougars will be thinking bigger in 2018 with Galason back as a seinor and some promising players around him, both in the field, at the plate and on the mound. Replace two-way talent Jon Weitzman and right-hander Dillon Pellecchia will be Colts Neck’s tallest orders, but the Cougars successfully constructed a successful pitching staff last year despite losing a lot of talent from the prior year – not an uncommon occurrence for head coach Mike Yorke and longtime pitching coach Bob Jack. This year’s group has a chance to be similarly successful with Galason, senior returnee Hunter Boag and senior Furman commit Anthony Sasso, who transferred from Toms River North in the middle of last season.
At the plate, Galason, Boag, Joe Kohm and Nick Straub return as Colts Neck’s big hitters, with Straub returning to the infield and the other three getting time in the outfield and at designated hitter. Junior Reece Horneck is another outfielder for the Cougars and after hitting .286 with a double and a triple in 28 at-bats as a sophomore, he committed to Rutgers. Senior shortstop Jack Tirrell returns to his spot on the infield as well and the Cougars will be strong behind the plate with the emergence of sophomore catcher Rob Mannino. With so many good teams in A North, it won’t be easy for Colts Neck to stake out a spot at the top of the division, but if the Cougars can get big years on the mound out of Sasso and Galason, they have the position-player strength to get it done.
Head Coach: Jim Ferraro, 10th season
2017 Record: 12-13 (6-8, sixth in A North)
Key Returners: Justin Levito (Sr., SS), Justin Kapuscinski (Jr., C), Vin Ferrigno (Jr., 1B), Anthony Brienza (Jr., 2B), Davonte Smith (Sr., OF), David Vignapiano (So., RHP), Ian Li (Jr., RHP)
Key Losses: Gene Napolitano (C), Jeremy Bello (RHP), Will Trochiano (SS), Mark Ventre (OF), Jared Wright (OF), Luke Ricciardi (3B), Noah Hutter (RHP), Will Kramer (RHP)
Key Newcomers: Justin Bernstein (Sr., OF), Matt LaPoff (Sr., UTIL), Ramon Fontanes (So., OF), Sean Donaghue (Jr., C/1B), Matt Gomolka (Jr., P), Peter Kuwjaski (Jr., OF), Peter Morreale (Jr., INF) – transfer from CBA; Gurkaran Singh (Jr., RHP/3B) – transfer from West Windsor-Plainsboro South
After a slow start to the season, Marlboro rallied to make the Shore Conference Tournament, but could not climb to the .500 mark to finish the season. The Mustangs were mostly solid on defense and had some standout performers at the plate, but the pitching just never materialized, at least not beyond senior ace Jeremy Bello. With Bello gone to graduation, Marlboro’s hopes in 2018 again rest on a pitching staff that has a lot to prove after taking its lumps a year ago.
Two underclassmen who got time on the mound were right-handers David Vignapiano and Ian Li – Vignapiano as a freshman and Li as a sophomore. Junior Gurkaran Singh transferred in from West Windsor-Plainsboro South and could very well wind up the ace of the staff, as well as a big bat in the middle of the order.
While Marlboro was a decent offensive team last year, most of its most productive hitters are graduated. One exception is imposing junior slugging catcher Justin Kapuscinski, who has yet to bust out with a big power season but showed an advanced approach last year (.343/.477/.429 slash line) while being pitched to very carefully by the pitchers of A North. Senior shortstop and Sacred Heart commit Justin Levito is a plus defender and will look to pick up his offense this year, as will returning junior contributors Vin Ferrigno and Anthony Brienza. More juniors will be joining the mix this season, including Christian Brothers Academy transfer Peter Morreale who can play either second or third. There are some elements that need to fall into place, but there is a lot of talent on hand for Marlboro, particularly in its junior class. If the juniors can all come into their own together at some point this year, the Mustangs will be a force in A North once again.
Head Coach: Eric Johnson, ninth season
2017 Record: 7-16 (3-11, eighth in A North)
Key Returners: Ryan Bearse (Jr., SS/RHP), Mike Walsh (Sr., LHP/1B), Nick Ruszczyk (Sr., OF), Eddie Morales (Sr., 2B/SS), Mike Wynne (Sr., RHP/2B/OF), John Limaldi (Sr., LHP/OF), Dylan Beyer (Sr., P/OF), Kyle Brex (Jr., 2B/SS), Bryan Bernard (Jr., P/OF), Michael Gomes (Jr., P)
Key Losses: J.P. Traynor (C/3B), Grant Hackett (CF), Nick Lorenzo (OF), Austin Dave (1B), Kyle Ferraro (RHP), Frank Cianciotta (C)
Key Newcomers: Tommy Talbott (So., OF), Chris Acampora (So., C), Kevin Lindon (Sr., C), Junior Jake Kutcher (Jr., OF)
Life in A North is not easy for any team and it is especially difficult for the teams that struggle to pitch like Marlboro and Howell did. The Rebels had some success with left-hander Mike Walks and right-hander Mike Wynne, but for the most part, they consistently found themselves burning through pitchers in high-scoring games against teams that could match them with a potent offense and had more pitchers who could get outs. The result was a team that allowed the most runs in A North (142) but also scored the third most (144) behind Manalapan (156) and Colts Neck (146).
Walsh and Wynne are back this year and will try to bring some stability to a pitching staff that greatly needs it, especially with some of the losses in the starting batting order. Senior left-hander and Clark University commit John Limaldi is also a candidate to emerge on Howell’s improved pitching staff after a productive offseason, as is junior right-hander and starting shortstop Ryan Bearse.
Bearse and Walsh are also two of Howell’s top returning bats from a lineup that was reliable throughout the season. Senior outfielder Nick Ruszczyk has already had two productive varsity seasons as a power hitter, while all-around athlete Eddie Morales – a standout quarterback in football and the basketball program’s all-time leading rebounder despite standing 5-foot-11 – will bring some action to the lineup as well. Sophomores Tommy Talbott and Chris Acampora are looking to make an instant impact as well for a Howell team with an improved pitching situation that just might be enough to push the Rebels over the top.
Head Coach: Kevin Frederick, fourth season
2017 Record: 10-13 (5-9, seventh in A North)
Key Returners: Ron Cole (Jr., RHP/1B), Devon Furges (Sr., C), Sebastian Jno-Baptiste (Jr., CF), Rocco Richard (So., SS), John Gannon (So., 3B), Matt Bonderant (Sr., LF)
Key Losses: Dylan Taliaferro (LHP/1B/OF), Justin Tucker (LHP), Aedan Martin (SS/RHP)
Key Newcomers: Sam Draper (Sr., P), Greg Millaway (Sr., P/1B), Kyle Bailey (Jr., OF), Jack Smith (Sr., 2B)
Coming off a memorable state tournament run and returning one of the most gifted pitchers in the Shore Conference, Neptune still looks like a team that will have to scratch and claw to stay out of the bottom position in the Class A North standings. While the rest of the teams in the division are Group-IV-sized schools with some of the deepest talent pools in the Shore Conference, Neptune is a Group III program that relies on a much more concentrated collection of talent. On any given day, Neptune can and perhaps will beat a top team in Class A North this year, but staying with all of this bigger programs will be tough for a Scarlet Fliers team that is still – despite its trip to the Central Jersey Group III final last year – finding its program identity.
The good news for Neptune is the Scarlet Fliers are most definitely changing their culture thanks to a group of seniors who moved on last June and some returnees hungry to build on last year’s success. Junior right-hander Ron Cole is the headliner, having already committed to the University of Kentucky following a strong sophomore season and summer of pitching. With the Scarlet Fliers last year, Cole struck out 51 in 38 2/3 innings while facing some of the Shore’s top lineups. Cole boasts a fastball that pushes into the low-90-miles-per-hour range to go with a sharp breaking ball with slider action. He will pitch to a senior catching in Devon Furges who can also handle the bat, evidenced by a solid .246/.364/.400 batting line last year.
Neptune also returns dynamic junior centerfielder Sebastian Jno-Baptiste to the top of the order with sophomores Rocco Richard and John Gannon making up the left side of the infield. Senior Matt Bonderant is also back starting in left field and Cole will be a middle-of-the-order bat and first baseman when he is not on the mound. Neptune’s pitching behind Cole will be its biggest question mark, but if Cole is hitting the glove and churning out six-and-seven-inning gems, Neptune will win its fair share of games throughout the season and return to the CJ III bracket as a team to be feared.
Division Lineup (With 2017 Stats)
Phil Marcantonio, Sr., Catcher, Freehold Boro (.341/.404/.635, 12 2B, 2 3B, 3 HR, 20 RBI)
Dan DeBlasio, Sr., 1B/OF, Manalapan (.319/.417/.486, 7 2B, 1 3B, 1 HR, 18 R, 10 RBI)
Mark Costanzo, Sr., SS, Freehold Boro (.350/.409/.537, 7 2B, 1 3B, 2 HR, 18 R, 20 RBI, 11 SB)
Tommy DiTullio, Jr., SS, CBA (.307/.386/.416, 5 2B, 2 HR, 20 R, 13 RBI)
Ryan Ford, Sr., 3B/1B/RHP, Freehold Twp. (.242/.363/.364, 2 2B, 2 HR, 13 R, 12 RBI, 5 SB)
Anthony Galason, Sr., OF/RHP, Colts Neck (.373/.452/.533, 5 2B, 2 3B, 1 HR, 19 R, 20 RBI, 9 SB)
Giovanni Ciaccio, Sr., CF, Manalapan (.326/.426/.512, 5 2B, 1 3B, 3 HR, 16 R, 22 RBI)
Nick Hohenstein, Sr., RF/RHP, CBA (.369/.500/.690, 13 2B, 1 3B, 4 HR, 24 R, 28 RBI)
Andrea Dalatri, Sr., 3B, CBA (.280/.301/.441, 9 2B, 2 HR, 12 R, 28 RBI)
Division Rotation (With 2017 Stats)
Blaise Venancio, Sr., LHP, CBA (3-2, 50.1 IP, 32 H, 13 BB, 46 K, 1.35 ERA)
Dane Della Valle, Sr., LHP, Freehold Boro (6-0, 41.1 IP, 30 H, 11 BB, 34 K, 1.02 ERA)
Ron Cole, Sr., RHP, Neptune (2-2, 38.2 IP, 38 H, 18 BB, 51 K, 2.17 ERA)
Bryan Reed, Sr., RHP, Freehold Twp. (3-2, 33.2 IP, 20 H, 10 BB, 34 K, 1.46 ERA)
Mike Walsh, Sr., LHP, Howell (0-2, 22 IP, 14 H, 13 BB, 12 K, 1.27 ERA)
Breakout Players to Watch
Reece Hornek, Jr., OF, Colts Neck
Liam Simon, Jr., RHP, Freehold Twp.
Gurkaran Singh, Jr., 3B/RHP, Marlboro
Sebastian Jno-Baptiste, Jr., CF, Neptune
Braedin Hunt, So., RHP, CBA
**This post was edited to reflect that Howell's John Limaldi is committed to play at Clark University. The original version had him committed to Bryant University.