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“Culture” is a buzzword for a lot of new head coaches across the athletic spectrum and in that sense, new Jackson Memorial head baseball coach Pat George is not especially unique.

The difference is that while so many coaches take their new jobs looking to establish their own culture for their players to adapt to, George is adamant that his goal is to continue what is already in place at one of the Shore’s baseball powerhouses.

When Frank Malta stepped down as coach of the Jaguars head coach in January after 15 years at the helm, he not only left behind a roster that is ready to win now but a program with a built-in expectation to win and pipeline loaded with talent to support the ambition.

Now George, who was an assistant under Malta in 2018 and got his first head-coaching job last season with Princeton Day School, will look to be the keeper of a program that once again enters the spring with championship aspirations.

“There is a passion and enthusiasm for the game here that you don’t find many other places,” George said. “Coach Malta really instilled that work-ethic and passion to be great every single day and you see it in all the kids here and even at the youth level in the township. There is just a great baseball culture here and I’m just looking to try to nurture that and help keep it going.”

Photo by Richard E. O'Donnell

Back in 2018, when George was on Malta’s staff, Jackson Memorial won the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV championship with a sophomore-loaded team. Following a 20-win 2019 campaign that ended with early tournament exits, the Jaguars were set to return in 2020 with one of the state’s most talented rosters.

Then, the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the season was canceled, and what looked like a special 2020 season for Jackson Memorial baseball never got off the ground.

Jackson Memorial’s players got a chance to salvage part of the season by playing in the Last Dance World Series, which included well over 200 high-school-based teams from around the state playing to one singular champion in July. Jackson Memorial won the South Jersey championship to reach the overall championship game, which the Jaguars lost to Cranford.

It wasn’t a full season, but the three-week run through the southern half of the state provided some closure for the seniors and lit a fire under the group of Jaguars back for 2021.

“We were really looking forward to the Last Dance and we made it all the way to the last game,” senior right-hander and Coastal Carolina commit Matt Potok said. “It was a great run but we weren’t happy losing our last game to Cranford. This year, we want to be the last team standing. We’re going for nothing less than a state championship.”

Few players in the entire Last Dance Tournament made a bigger impact than Potok, who won all three of his starts during the tournament without allowing an earned run or walking a batter in his 18 innings while also striking out 22.

Jackson Memorial senior Matt Potok. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

Combined with fellow fireballer Zach Crotchfelt – a junior left-hander committed to Auburn University – Jackson Memorial will have one of the most imposing one-two punches in New Jersey’s field of public-school programs.

“Both of those guys are just so poised on the mound,” George said. “They are extremely talented, obviously, but just the way they carry themselves makes them able to focus on the task at hand and perform that much better. They are different pitchers but the presence they have on the mound is very similar.”

While Potok and Crotchfelt made an obvious impact in the Last Dance, one of the more under-the-radar members of that team was George, who joined the summer staff. As it turns out, he got to better know the younger players on the roster, as well as his returning pitchers before becoming their coach. George – a history teacher at Jackson Memorial – kept the ship steady by keeping pitching coach Nick Koman and assistant Tom Cahill on board for the upcoming season.

Jackson Memorial junior Zach Crotchfelt. (Photo by Richard E. O'Donnell)

George can appreciate another under-the-radar player from the Last Dance team – senior catcher Zach Rogacki. During his first three high-school seasons, Rogacki was stuck behind two varsity starters in Tom Cartnick – who absolutely dominated at the plate during the Last Dance – and Andrew Sefick and surrendered his starting spot in the outfield during the summer to a rotation of seniors playing in their last collection of games with their classmates.

“Zach has been waiting his turn for a couple of years now and I know he is ready excited to get a chance to show what he can do,” George said. “I know he was hoping last year would be his chance but I think like a lot of us, he is just grateful and excited to have the opportunity this year and he is showing it. He works hard, he is a vocal leader, he fires guys up, he leads the pitching staff, he gives us that spark at the top of the batting order; he can do it all for us.”

After his turn to jump into the starting lineup as a junior disappeared, Rogacki is as intent as anyone on the Jaguars to make 2021 count. In a scrimmage at Red Bank Catholic, with University of Virginia commit and MLB Draft hopeful Shane Panzini on the mound for the Caseys, Rogacki reached base safely in four of his five of his trips to the plate, including a single and walk vs. Panzini and a triple later in the game.

“He has been great with the pitchers and to see him locked in at the plate is awesome,” Potok said. “He calls a good game, he does a great job setting up targets and if I’m a little off, he’ll make it look like a strike.”

With the top of the rotation and catcher solid for the Jaguars, the rest of the roster will have some uncertainty, but plenty of talent to make up for it. Senior Ty Beck is a returning starter at shortstop and junior Devin Foderaro showed promise during the Last Dance as another option on the mound. Junior left-hander Zach McCabe will be another prominent option for George in the rotation, with a host of arms backing up the four at the top.

Beck is the lone returning starter on offense, although Rogacki is certainly prepared to step in as a senior and Crotchfelt is a power bat in the middle of the lineup who can play first base when he doesn’t pitch. Junior Chris Cartnick showed he can handle second base and big at-bats when he locked up a starting spot during the Last Dance, while talented junior Charlie Meglio has shown a lot of potential with both the bat and the glove as the new third basemen. With Potok on the mound, the Rogacki-Crotchfelt-Cartnick-Beck-Meglio infield will keep Jackson Memorial competitive with anyone.

The outfield will be entirely new, with juniors Tommy Kendrick and Andrew Patire occupying two of the spots and sophomores Danny Beldoqicz and Mike Arent battling for the third. J.R. Osmond is another sophomore ready to make an impact as a designated hitter and part-time first baseman who could find himself behind the plate sometime in the future as well.

George saw what last year’s graduating class did as sophomores in 2018 and he can’t help but dream the same for his first team as Jackson Memorial head coach. There could be some growing pains for the seven new starters, but that should be mitigated by two of the top pitchers in the Shore anchoring the rotation.

“I see a lot of similarities with the 2018 team,” George said. “They are young, they don’t have a ton of experienced, but it’s a confident group that has some real talent. With the two guys we have on the mound, they are going to be in a lot of games so they should have a chance to learn pretty quickly.”

Jackson Memorial at a Glance

Head Coach: Pat George, first season
Key Losses: Ryan Lasko (CF), Tom Cartnick (C), Carmine Petosa (1B), Christian Pellone (2B), Jake Wendell (3B), Andrew Sefick (C), Nick Beetel (LHP), Dan Greenwood (RHP), Rocco LaVista (RHP), Matt Feld (OF), Joe Santoriello (RHP), Zach Appuliese (OF), Jared Caruso (C), Bill Petrina (OF), Austin Parikh (OF/INF)

Around the Diamond (Returning 2019 starters in bold with available stats)

Catcher: Zach Rogacki, Jr.

First Base: Zach Crotchfelt, Jr.

Second Base: Chris Cartnick, Jr.

Shortstop: Ty Beck, Sr. (.250/.308/.271, 1 2B, 10 R, 9 RBI)

Third Base: Charlie Meglio, So.

Leftfield: Andrew Patire, Jr.

Centerfield: Tommy Kendrick, Jr.

Rightfield: Danny Beldowicz, So.; Mike Arent, So.

DH: J.R. Osmond (So., 1B/C)

Other Key Hitters

Aidan O’Donnell (So., C)

Kenny Reed (Jr., OF)

Tommy Zeh (Jr., 3B)

Pitchers

Matt Potok, Sr., RHP (6-0, 0.62 ERA, 34 IP, 25 H, 3 BB, 33 K)

Zach Crotchfelt, Jr., LHP (2-1, 1.75 ERA, 12 IP, 6 H, 7 BB, 13 K)

Zach McCabe, Jr., LHP

Devin Foderaro, Jr., RHP

Ty Beck, Sr., RHP

Greg Carrillo, Sr., LHP

Sage Goeke, Jr., LHP

Jordan Naffaa, Sr., RHP

Nick Storaci, Sr., RHP