Baseball – 2022 Awards Finalists: Who Will Be the Named Best of the Best in Shore Baseball?
The time to name the winners of the three major awards for the 2022 Shore Conference Baseball season is nearly here and before we get there, Shore Sports Network is going to give you a look at the very best candidates for each.
As Major League Baseball does with its awards winners and as is done in revealing the Heisman Trophy in College Football, we’re going to give you the top three finalists in each of the three award categories: Player of the Year, Pitcher of the Year and Coach of the Year. After watching games and talking to coaches throughout the season, as well as coming through an ocean of stats, Senior Baseball Editor Matt Manley has the final say on the winners post them later in the week.
In the meantime, let’s meet the finalists for the three awards.
Player of the Year
A.J. Gracia, Jr., CF/LHP, Ranney
As one would expect of a Duke commit playing for a team in the Shore Conference’s Class B Central division, Gracia put up other-worldly numbers. He led the Shore Conference in on-base percentage (.688), slugging percentage (1.167), runs scored (46) and stolen bases (40) and was second in average (.527), home runs (12) and RBI (43). He also plays his home games on the most homer-friendly field in the Shore Conference, where he blasted nine of his 12 home runs.
Looking deeper, though, Gracia is worthy of his All-State status beyond the surface numbers and an in-person glimpse confirms his national reputation. The 6-foot-3 left-hander does everything well on the field and he showed it against just about everyone on Ranney’s schedule, which included some heavyweight programs. Gracia homered in three of Ranney’s four NJSIAA Tournament wins, including a majestic blast to lead off his team’s 10-1 win over Immaculata in the Non-Public B final. He also collected an extra-base hit in six of Ranney’s seven tournament games, including a left-on-left RBI double against Jackson Memorial ace and Auburn-bound senior Zach Crotchfelt and a homer off West Virginia commit and St. John Vianney ace Aiden Cody.
On top of his dominance in the box, Gracia was also Ranney’s best pitcher. He would have a strong case as an All-Shore selection without his hitting, so when you factoring that kind of ability and performance on the mound with one of the better offensive seasons in the state, Gracia’s Player of the Year case is a serious one.
Cam Leiter, Sr., RHP/DH, Central
Without looking at a single stat or watching a single inning of any of his games over the last two seasons, Cam Leiter’s last name and school affiliation would make the vast majority of baseball fans think of him as a pitcher. They would not be off-base either. Leiter was one of the Shore Conference’s best pitchers in 2022, posting an ERA (0.89) and WHIP (0.94) both under 1.00 while striking out 88 in 47 innings. Leiter wasn’t the workhorse that some of the other top pitchers in the Shore were who posted over 60 innings, but he took the ball against some of the state’s best clubs: St. Augustine, Kingsway and Jackson Memorial twice.
Surprisingly, though, it was Leiter’s bat that has put him in the running for the Player of the Year. He finished fifth in the conference in batting average (.489) and was at .500 after the first at-bat of Central’s final game – the Ocean County Tournament final against Jackson Memorial. That first-inning hit against Jackson also tied Central’s single-season hits record, which was set last season by Evan Agrapides. Leiter came up empty in his last two chances in pursuing the record, which was a rare occurrence in tournament play. In 10 postseason games, Leiter hit .517 while smashing five of his eight homers and driving in 12 of his 34 RBI on the season.
Leiter is heading to the University of Central Florida to join the pitching staff but he had quite an audition this season as a potential two-way player. At the very least, he has put himself on the verge of a Player of the Year award, if he can beat out Gracia and the third finalist.
Joe Stanzione, 5th-yr. Sr., 1B, Middletown South
Stanzione opted to return to Middletown South on a bridge year – he graduated from Middletown South in 2021 but remained on the team while attending classes at Brookdale Community College during the school year – and went on to break a prestigious Shore Conference record. With 15 home runs on the season, Stanzione conquered a 28-year-old record held by Jackson Memorial alumni Marc Fink, who cracked 14 home runs as a senior in 1994.
Stanzione got off to a lukewarm start to the season and heated up quickly at the tail-end of April. After two-homer games against Middletown North, Howell and Wall – two overall group champions and a sectional-finalist in Central Jersey Group II – Stanzione found himself three homers away from breaking the record. He drew one closer with a blast at Ranney in a regular-season game, then tied the record with a rocket vs. Steinert in Middletown South’s final regular season game. The record-breaker came in the second at-bat of the first round of the NJSIAA Tournament, with Stanzione launching a two-run blast to left-center in a win over Princeton.
An upset at the hands of East Brunswick in the sectional quarterfinals halted Stanzione’s pursuit of the state record (18), but it did not keep him from leading Middletown South to a Monmouth County Tournament title, etching his name in the record books as the Shore’s single-season home run king, and leaving for Gardner-Webb University as one of the most feared hitters the Shore has seen in quite some time.
Pitcher of the Year
Zach Crotchfelt, Sr., LHP, Jackson Memorial
Crotchfelt finished tops in the Shore and the entire state in strikeouts (131) for the season, establishing himself as an absolute workhorse who threw on four-days rest three different times this season – which is becoming more and more of a rarity in high-school baseball. After a suboptimal debut in a loss to Bishop Eustace, Crotchfelt rattled off eight wins in a row, including a no-hitter against Toms River East, a career-high 16 strikeouts against Toms River North and one-hit outings against Brick Memorial and Southern. He also beat Top 10 teams Central and Ranney, outdueling Leiter and Gracia in those two Jaguars wins.
The winning streak ended in the Shore Conference Tournament final against Red Bank Catholic, which hit Crotchfelt harder than any team has during his high-school career. The Jaguars southpaw then rebounded with another one-hit outing and 13 strikeouts over six innings in a win over Old Bridge in the NJSIAA Tournament.
It’s not part of his pitching resume, but Crotchfelt also earned recognition for his hitting ability, showcased by his .359 average with three home runs (including one off Leiter) and 27 RBI. If all of those credentials don’t make enough of a case, Crotchfelt has the most draft-ready arsenal of any Shore Conference pitcher and, perhaps, of any pitcher in the state. He topped out at 96 miles-per-hour in one of his starts and sat 91-to-93 throughout the season with an impressive slider and improving changeup.
Anthony Gubitosi, Sr., LHP, Colts Neck
Crotchfelt is the front-runner on the eye-test, but no pitcher in the Shore Conference was more dependable on a start-to-start basis than Gubitosi. The Delaware-bound left-hander led the Shore in innings (69), ERA (0.40) and overall record (9-0) while coming in second behind Crotchfelt in strikeouts (120). Gubitosi turned in three of the season’s most dominant starts, including his second and third of the season: an 18-strikeout one-hitter in a win over St. John Vianney and 15 strikeouts in six one-hit, shutout innings vs. Manasquan. Gubitosi also fired a 17-strikeout no-hitter against Freehold Boro.
Gubitosi ran into some issues finding the plate over his final two starts, in which he walked six batters in each one. That did not help the opponent score, though, with the Colts Neck ace completing a two-hit shutout vs. Ocean and four-hitter in a 4-1 win over No. 1 Steinert – both in the Central Jersey Group III Playoffs.
Crotchfelt and the third finalist were considered the front-runners for Pitcher of the Year heading into the season, but Gubitosi’s performance from start-to-finish is about as much as a pitcher can do to make a case to win the award.
Ben Schild, Jr., RHP, Middletown South
If not for the dominant season of Shane Panzini at Red Bank Catholic in 2021, Schild might have a Pitcher of the Year award under his belt already with two more shots left to win another. Compared to Crotchfelt and Gubitosi, Schild did not make as many trips to the mound and his outings during the middle-to-end-of-April were on the shorter side due to some arm issues that he was eventually able to work through. The result was only 49 1/3 innings, putting him almost 20 behind Gubitosi.
But, oh, what a 49-inning season is was. Schild finished fourth in the conference in ERA (0.86) and first in WHIP (0.77) while going 7-0, which runs his career record to 15-0. If you only include his starts – which eliminates a blown save at Howell – Schild’s ERA was 0.43 in 48 1/3 innings. On top of the raw numbers, Schild shut down some of the state’s best lineups: Cranford (11 strikeouts, one run in four innings), Red Bank Catholic (8 1/3 shutout innings), Middletown North (9 strikeouts in five innings) and Wall (one unearned run, 11 strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings).
Last fall, Corbin Burnes of the Milwaukee Brewers won the National League Cy Young Award while throwing only 167 innings. If the emphasis is on the quality of the innings rather than the quantity, Schild may have just followed the Burnes Blueprint to a Pitcher of the Year award of his own.
Coach of the Year
Angelo Fiore, Point Pleasant Beach
As a Group I school that shares a division with one of the state’s most talented teams (Ranney) and an NJSIAA section with the most dominant program in Group I over the last decade (Middlesex), there is a very small window of opportunity that Point Beach works with year-to-year. After letting the door close on them last year in a heart-breaking sectional final loss at Middlesex – the fourth straight loss in four seasons to the Blue Jays for the Garnet Gulls in the state tournament – Point Beach finally kicked in the door this time.
Fiore’s long project of building a championship culture at Point Beach turned the corner in 2022, with the Garnet Gulls winning 20 games for the first time, grabbing a public division title in Class B Central and even winning three consecutive games against Toms River North, Toms River South and Toms River East – something that would have been unheard of just a few years ago. The pinnacle, though, came at Middlesex on June 10, when Point Beach ended a run of four straight titles by the Blue Jays by beating them, 6-4, for the first ever sectional title in Point Beach Baseball history.
He 2022 season was a year of firsts for several teams and a lot of them unexpected firsts. Despite reaching the sectional final in each of the last two seasons, Point Beach’s win still might have been the biggest surprise of them all and it highlights the job Fiore and his right-hand man Joe Mazza have done building a championship program at the Beach.
Eric Johnson, Howell
Howell entered the year with a solid reputation, picked to finish third in the Class A North division behind Middletown South and Christian Brothers Academy while grabbing the No. 10 spot in the Shore Sports Network Preseason rankings. That has been a high-end year for Howell since Eric Johnson took over as head coach in 2010 and not many years throughout its history look better than a top-three finish in a loaded division and bottom-half ranking in the Top 10.
This year, though, Howell punched through that ceiling on the way to the best season in program history. The Rebels led Class A North wire-to-wire and won it outright for the first time since 1990. After stumbling at home in the Monmouth County and Shore Conference Tournaments, Howell regrouped for the NJSIAA Tournament and went on a historic run. The Rebels won their first Central Jersey Group IV sectional title since 1994 and went on to beat Cherokee and Hunterdon Central to claim the program’s first ever Group IV championship.
Not only did Johnson lead his alma mater to its first ever title, but he did it without the services of his two best pitchers for the last two games of the state tournament. Both Nick Gomes and Dan Furlong suffered season-ending injuries in back-to-back games and it did not stop the Rebels. Howell banded together and would not be denied, finishing No. 1 in the Shore Conference and sewing up something resembling an ironclad case for Johnson as the Coach of the Year.
Ryan McCabe, Middletown North
While Howell’s state championship looked unlikely at the start of the season and, perhaps, the start of the playoffs, Middletown North’s looked unlikely every step of the way and even after the final game ended. The Lions started the season 5-8 and dropped to 9-10 with a loss to Red Bank to miss out on the Shore Conference Tournament.
McCabe kept his team’s sights on the state tournament and the Lions went on to win their last six games of the regular season, followed by a six-game march to the program’s first ever Group III championship – and first group championship of any kind. An offense that lacked personality and punch early on turned into a deep, dangerous parade of hitters that wore down pitcher after pitcher in the state tournament.
A pitch-count controversy put Middletown North’s win in some doubt when Cranford protested the result of the Group III final, but the protest was denied two days after the game and the Lions could again celebrate the most memorable finish to a season in program history.