Baseball – 2021 SSN Coach of the Year: Chris LeMore, Middletown South
In the fall of 2019, Chris LeMore landed his dream job in high-school baseball and the circumstances could not have been better for him.
For the previous 16 years, LeMore had taught at Thompson Middle School in Middletown while taking on various coaching assignments around the Shore Conference, all the while waiting for the opportunity to coach the varsity team at his in-district high school, Middletown South.
Hired to take over head of the 2020 season, LeMore inherited a team with six returning starters and most of its pitching innings from a 2019 team that won the Shore Conference Class A North division championship during a 17-7 season.
Those ideal circumstances turned into a worst-case scenario when the COVID-19 pandemic cancelled the 2020 season, ending the careers of a group of seniors that were eager to leave their mark at Middletown South.
LeMore’s first season as Middletown South coach went from leading a ready-made winner in 2020 to building up a group of mostly-inexperienced players at the varsity level in 2021. That did not, however, change his vision for the team.
From the opening days of the season all the way to the memorable final Saturday of 2021, Middletown South bought into LeMore’s vision for the team and made it into a reality. The Eagles started the year unranked among the Shore Conference field and responded by going 22-9, reaching the Shore Conference Tournament final and ending the year by winning the program’s first NJSIAA Group IV championship in 25 years. That resume in his first year at Middletown South earned LeMore the Shore Sports Network Coach of the Year.
"I don't want to seem cocky, but I have been talking about this with the kids since I first met them in October of 2019," LeMore said of winning a state championship. "I told them this is where I wanted to go and this is where I wanted to be and this is how we were going to prepare - to play in this game. Whether it was (the Group IV) final, the Shore Conference final, the Monmouth County final, the sectional final, I just wanted them to know that is my expectation. The sky is the limit."
Middletown South’s season ended with a dogpile celebration at Veterans Park in Hamilton after beating Montclair for the Group IV championship, but the road to the state championship began when LeMore met with his players in the fall of 2019. He set the course for what the team would look like year-in and year-out, so when this year’s group returned minus the senior leadership from one year earlier, the 2021 players were ready.
That preparation was apparent during the first week of the season, during which Middletown South went 4-0 with wins over South Jersey Group II champion Manchester, Shore Conference champion Red Bank Catholic, Bloomfield and Ramapo. The win over Ramapo featured the pitching debut of sophomore Ben Schild, who pitched a two-hit shutout in a 4-0 win over a Raiders team that went 17-8 in 2021. The under the lights at North Brunswick’s Community Park showcased Middletown South’s energy, defensive prowess and offensive aggressiveness, as well as an ace in the making. It was the first look at the recipe that would win them the program’s first state championship since 1996.
Along the way, Middletown South faced the challenges of playing in the Class A North division, getting swept by Freehold Township during the second week of the season and splitting season series with Marlboro, CBA, Middletown North and Manalapan.
Meanwhile, the Eagles drew the No. 5 seed in the midseason Shore Conference Tournament and in their first SCT game, senior Matt Pontari pitched a no-hitter in leading Middletown South to a 2-1 victory over Central Jersey Group III champion Colts Neck. In winning that game, LeMore made the decision to hold Schild until the following weekend in a Shore Conference Tournament quarterfinal game against rival Middletown North, which would follow two regular-season meetings between the crosstown rivals.
In the first game of the three-game series, Middletown South ran into a buzzsaw when Lions senior Colin Dowlen took a perfect game into the seventh inning and finished off a 15-strikeout no-hitter to beat the Eagles, 3-0. Middletown South, however, bounced back by rallying to win the second regular season meeting, then sent Schild to the mound on May 22 to face Lions co-ace Danny Frontera.
Schild outdueled the Seton Hall commit in a 3-0 Middletown South win and the stage was set for the Eagles to take a run at the SCT championship by lining up their pitching for that tournament. The crowded Class A North race still had not left Middletown South behind, but LeMore and his team focused on winning two more SCT games to bring home the title.
A postponement of the SCT semifinal allowed Schild to return to the mound to face Rumson-Fair Haven and the sophomore battled his way past the Bulldogs to push the Eagles into the SCT final against Red Bank Catholic. The Caseys had ace Shane Panzini ready to go and he was on his game in the final, pitching six shutout innings with 12 strikeouts and no walks in a 7-0 Caseys win.
After being denied the Shore Conference Tournament title, Middletown South set out to finish the job in the state tournament, but would have to navigate through a treacherous six-game run through Group IV.
The first round of the state tournament is usually a very winnable game for a team assigned the No. 3 seed in its bracket, but Middletown South got no such break as the No. 3 seed in Central Jersey Group IV. The Eagles had to get by Montgomery and Rutgers-bound ace Cole Hansen, which prompted LeMore to start Schild right out of the gate. Not only did the Schild move pay off – he pitched a one-hit shutout – but LeMore also deployed seldom-used senior Ryan St. Clair, who broke a scoreless tie with a two-out RBI single in the bottom of the fifth inning.
"We wouldn't be here without Ryan St. Clair," LeMore said. "That's a kid that just battled all year. He kept putting the work in and his number got called in the first round against Hansen and he got us our first run with a line-drive single over shortstop. That's what we talk about with the kids: everyone is a part of it and everyone is accountable."
In the sectional semifinals, Middletown South hosted Freehold Township – the Class A North regular-season champions and the lone A North team to sweep Middletown South during the regular season. Freehold Township scored three runs in the top of the first inning against Pontari and ran out tough 2019 All-Shore pitcher Zach Gorman to the mound. The Eagles promptly answered with three runs in the bottom of the first to tie the game and Pontari broke the tie with a solo home run in the fourth on the way to a 5-3 Middletown South win.
The sectional semifinal required an hour-long bus ride to play second-seeded Hunterdon Central – perennially one of Group IV’s best programs. After one inning of action, the game was suspended due to thunderstorms and poor field conditions, meaning the Eagles had to take the bus ride again the following day.
Schild pitched the one inning on June 8 and returned to the mound on June 9, with the scene shifting to one of the turf fields at Diamond Nation. The Middletown South ace battled through four innings on 80 pitches before thunder, lightning and rain once again sent the game into a delay. About an hour and 15 minutes later, the teams returned to the field, but Schild would not return to the mound.
Even with Schild out of the game, Middletown South would not be denied. Sparked by a big two-run double by senior left fielder Patrick Eagone and a seven-run seventh inning that put the game out of reach, the Eagles beat the Red Devils, 12-7, to advance to the CJ IV final.
In the sectional final, Middletown South hosted division rival Marlboro after the teams split the regular-season series. The pitching matchup was a rematch of one of those games and the first meeting favored Marlboro, with Yale-bound two-way standout Mark Capell outdueling Pontari in a 4-0 Mustangs win.
With the championship on the line, Middletown South managed to manufacture two runs against Capell, who was on his game in going the distance. Pontari, though, was even better, tossing a six-hit shutout to help the Eagles capture their first sectional championship since 2011.
The gauntlet continued in the Group IV semifinal, which saw South Jersey champion Clearview make the trip north to Middletown South. Clearview ace Julian Costa kept Middletown South in check over the first five innings, allowing just a solo home run to senior first baseman Joe Stanzione while the Pioneers offense peppered Schild for three runs in five innings.
In the bottom of the sixth, however, Middletown South made its move. Stanzione blasted his second opposite-field solo home run to cut the deficit to 3-2 and with two out, Schild on third base as a tying run and a 1-2 count on No. 8 hitter Evan Wood, LeMore called for a suicide squeeze. Wood pulled the bat back on a pitch in the dirt, the ball got away and Schild crossed home with the tying run.
One inning later, Stanzione capped his huge day with a base-loaded line drive to the right-centerfield wall to cap a come-from-behind, 4-3 win for the Eagles.
Strangely enough, the Group IV championship game against Montclair might have been the easiest game Middletown South had during the course of its championship run. Stanzione staked Middletown South to a 1-0 lead with a first-inning RBI single and the Eagles went up 5-0 in the fourth thanks to a two-run single by Eagone and an RBI single by Trezza.
Schild again got the start and was at his best, pitching a two-hit shutout with seven strikeouts to cap a 5-0 win and complete the championship run.
When it was all said and done, Middletown South defeated every single team it played in 2021 except for Howell. The two A North opponents were supposed to play a second time, but the schedule did not allow for it and in the game Howell defeated Middletown South, the Eagles passed on using one of their top three starters in order to keep them lined up for the state tournament.
Throughout the memorable 2021 season, LeMore made sure to honor his seniors from the 2020 team that never was. The team wore the number 20 on the back of their hats throughout the year and the current members of the team made sure to pay tribute to that group at every opportunity.
LeMore also made sure to recognize predecessor Ryan Spillane, who led Middletown South to the 2011 Central Group III championship, two Class A North championships and brought on LeMore as an assistant toward the back-end of his tenure as Eagles head coach. Spillane was not rehired as the head coach in 2020 and when LeMore took over the program, he did not feel he and his current staff of assistants – Jerry Malanga, Jeff Schneider, Jon Troise, Anthony Davis, Mike Murphy and Tom Rooney – had to change much.
"(Spillane) and I are really good friends and I am happy for him too, even though he is not here as a coach," LeMore said. "He is still part of the program and he is always telling the kids go out and do their best."
After finishing his college career, LeMore spent two different stints as an assistant at Christian Brothers Academy under legendary coach Marty Kenney and in between, he was the head coach at both Marlboro and Red Bank Regional High Schools. Following his second tour with CBA, he took the head job at St. Rose and after two years there, he went back to the assistant’s chair at both Middletown South and St. John Vianney.
All the while, LeMore got to know his students at Thompson, several of whom would go on to play varsity baseball at Middletown South and in pounding the pavement throughout the Shore, LeMore always saw coaching his former students on the varsity team at his in-district high school as his dream job in coaching.
On June 19, LeMore and Middletown South got to complete the dream season in Hamilton, and with Schild returning for two more years and a winning culture firmly in place, the dream may just be getting started.