Baseball – 2018 SSN Player of the Year: Craig Larsen, Toms River North
Craig Larsen was Toms River North’s top pitcher at the end of his junior season in 2017 and yet during his senior year, Mariners coach Andy Pagano could not bring himself to give Larsen the ball for long stretches of the 2018 season.
It was not because Larsen was ineffective and although the Toms River North rotation was indeed loaded, it was not because there was always somebody better. For the most part, according to Pagano, he didn’t want to take Larsen away from shortstop.
After playing second base in his first two varsity seasons, Larsen became an indispensable defender at the most important defensive position within the field of play for a Mariners team that won the Ocean County Tournament for the third straight year and the Shore Conference Tournament for the second straight year. His efforts on the field and at the plate made him a runaway choice for 2018 Shore Sports Network Player of the Year.
Coupled with his defense, Larsen’s 2017 offensive output would have put him in the Player of the Year running but his bat was anything but ordinary in 2018 and his growth in the batter’s box is what separated him from his peers this past season. While the defensive part of the equation is subjective, there is a case to be made that Larsen was both the best hitter and best defender in the Shore Conference this season.
The defense requires a visual presentation, but Larsen’s place among his Shore Conference peers as it pertains to his offense comes with some hard evidence. He finished third in the Shore Conference in batting average (.495), doubles (14) and runs scored (34), second in home runs (seven) and slugging percentage (.909) and first in RBI (40) despite spending the entire season hitting leadoff for Toms River North. All that while playing in a Class A South division that boasted the two top-ranked teams in the Shore Conference (Jackson Memorial and Toms River North), one more in the top 10 (Central Regional) and one unranked team (Toms River East) that made the OCT final and beat the Monmouth County Tournament champion in the Shore Conference Tournament.
Four of Larsen’s seven home runs came in just two games – both of which were two-homer games by the Mariners shortstop. He drove in a career-high eight RBI in a 21-4 regular-season win over Brick Memorial, during which he went 3-for-4 with a double to go with the two long balls. He also hit two home runs in a 10-3 win over Brick that clinched his team a share of the Shore Conference Class A North division title.
No regular-season games at Toms River North hare more intense than the rivalry throw-downs against Toms River South and Larsen was at his best against his team’s greatest nemesis. In the two games vs. the Indians, Larsen combined to go 6-for-8 with a double, two home runs, five runs scored and eight RBI in two Mariners wins. He finished 4-for-6 with a double, home run and five RBI in an 11-8 win over Toms River South in 11 innings on April 5.
As great as Larsen’s offensive numbers were over the course of his senior season, they were somehow better during tournament play. During Toms River North’s run through the OCT, he hit 6-for-11 (.545) with three doubles, a home run, six runs and six RBI for a slash line of .545/.600/1.091 during the four-game winning streak.
He also had the biggest swing of the Ocean County Tournament when he blasted a tie-breaking RBI double off Jackson Memorial’s lockdown closer, Mike Dimino, in the bottom of the sixth inning to give Toms River North a 3-2 lead, which was the final score.
In the Shore Conference Tournament, he was equally dominant, going 9-for-16 (.562) with four doubles, a triple, six runs and four RBI while posting an on-base percentage of .611 and a slugging percentage of .937. In the SCT final against Central, he clobbered a double that hit the base of the fence in left-center field – a surefire home run at almost any high-school field.
Factoring in his two NJSIAA Tournament games (2-for-5 with two walks), Larsen put up a tournament slash line of .531/.610/.906 in 41 plate appearances with seven doubles, a triple, a home run, 14 runs scored and 10 of his 40 RBI.
Even though Pagano expressed his reluctance to move Larsen off shortstop, the senior still made two appearances on the mound in the postseason and was dominant in both instances. He pitched a scoreless seventh inning to close out Toms River East in the OCT final and earned a win in relief with 2 2/3 scoreless frames against Point Pleasant Boro in an SCT quarterfinals battle.
Larsen will continue his playing career at the University of Pennsylvania and the Quakers can expect a player who has continued to raise the bar over his three high school seasons. Larsen was already an All-Shore player and a highly-regarded college prospect as a junior and he somehow managed to return as one of the Shore’s most improved players in 2018.