Baseball – 2023 Ocean County Tournament Final Preview: Donovan Catholic, Southern Aim for Historic Titles
Al Kunzman Ocean County Tournament Championship
Tuesday, May 16, 2023
At Central Regional High School, 4 p.m.
No. 2 Donovan Catholic vs. No. 4 Southern
Donovan Catholic (19-2, 12-0 in Class B South)
Head Coach: Corey Hamman
OCT Championships: None
Last OCT Final Appearance: None
Road to the Final: Defeated No. 15 Barnegat, 10-0; No. 7 Central, 5-3; No. 3 Brick Memorial, 14-4
Joe Maier, Jr., SS
Anthony Mursko, Fifth-Year Sr., 2B
Gavin Degnan, Sr., CF
Ryan Butchko, Sr., LF
Tyler Levine, Jr., DH
Rocco Scarpitti, Sr., 1B
Dave Yorke, Jr., 3B
Hunter Johnson, Jr., C
John Busco, So., RF
Projected Starting Pitcher (With 2023 Stats)
Jake Marciano, Jr., LHP (2-1, 2.27 ERA, 17 H, 11 BB, 41 K)
Available Pitchers (With available pitch count)
Brian Padilla, Sr., RHP (110)
Nick Lovacco, So., RHP (110)
John Grano, Sr., RHP (110)
Kade Kulpinski, Jr., RHP (110)
Shaun O’Keefe, Fifth-Year Sr., LHP
Jason Basilicata, Sr., RHP
More on Donovan Catholic
With a loss to Christian Brothers Academy Monday in the Shore Conference Tournament quarterfinals, Donovan Catholic will not enter Tuesday’s championship game on a long winning streak – which climbed to 14 games – nor are the Griffins still in play to win every championship in front of them in 2023.
They are, however, still in the midst of a historic season for the program and a win on Tuesday night could safely be called the biggest in program history. Should the Griffins prevail, they would capture the Ocean County Tournament championship for the first time ever while also reaching 20 wins for the first time.
Like Ranney in Monmouth County, Donovan Catholic entered the 2023 season with lofty expectations stemming from a highly-talented roster deep on pitching, but with little-to-no championship history to speak of prior to this season. Ranney finished off its first count title last week with its 20th win of the season, and Donovan Catholic will try to do the same on Tuesday.
The Griffins will send junior left-hander Jake Marciano to the mound to try to clinch the championship. Of the eight earned runs allowed by Marciano this season, six came in one loss to Red Bank Catholic – including five in the first inning of that game. Except for that one inning, Marciano has been lights-out, using a high-80’s fastball with two-seam movement to go with a sweeping breaking ball to rack up 40 strikeouts in only 24 2/3 innings.
Donovan Catholic’s other two starters – Shaun O’Keefe and Jason Basilicata – are not eligible to pitch, so Tuesday’s game will belong to Marciano and, if needed, the bullpen. Junior Kade Kulpinski (1.97 ERA in nine relief apperances) stayed just under the required pitch total Monday in order to be eligible for Tuesday and he has been a go-to reliever for coach Corey Hamman throughout the season. Senior Brian Padilla has allowed just one earned run in 12 1/3 innings and sophomore Nick Lovacco boasts a 1.31 ERA in 16 innings.
While the pitching has been reliable all season long for Donovan Catholic, the lineup has been slightly less predictable. Ultimately, though, the Griffins score runs with the top teams in the Shore Conference and have also been proficient in stringing late-game rallies together.
One constant at the plate for Donovan Catholic has been Gavin Degnan, who is now hitting .517/.643/1.017 with five doubles, two triples, seven home runs and 30 stolen bases in 31 attempts. Last week, Degnan hit two game-winning, walk-off home runs in two different tournaments, ending a 5-3 OCT quarterfinal win with a walk-off three-run home run in the seventh and clubbing a two-run homer to beat Manasquan, 5-4. Donovan Catholic was losing when Degnan stepped to the plate in both games and each time, his swing changed Donovan Catholic’s fortunes.
Shortstop Joe Maier and second baseman Anthony Mursko hit in front of Degnan, with Maier now heating up after a slow start and Mursko approaching the 100th hit of his high-school career. Leftfielder Ryan Butchko leads Donovan Catholic with 29 RBI hitting behind those three standouts in front of him, with junior Tyler Levine and senior first baseman Rocco Scarpitti also hitting in prime RBI spots at Nos. 5 and 6 in the order.
Junior third baseman Dave Yorke boasts big power and patience – he is second on the team behind Degnan with 21 walks – and catcher Hunter Johnson is a threat in the No. 8 spot. Sophomore John Busco has moved into the starting rightfield job and No. 9 spot in the order and is 1-for-3 with a double and three walks during the OCT.
Donovan Catholic does not boast a deep bench, but the pitching has made navigating through tournament season much easier for the Griffins than it is for most teams. A rested Marciano and capable collection of relievers give Donovan Catholic a great chance to claim their first ever county title.
Southern (13-5, 9-3 in Class A South)
Head Coach: Ed Truitt
OCT Championships: 1 (1977)
Last OCT Final Appearance: 2017
Road to the Final: Defeated No. 13 Jackson Liberty, 7-0; No. 5 Point Beach, 2-1; No. 1 Jackson Memorial, 6-3 (8 Innings)
Ray Mulhern, Jr., LF
Brandon Brown, Sr., CF
Brady Lesiak, Jr., 3B
Dom Miranda, Sr., DH
Brian Harper, Jr., SS
Gabe Tomei, Jr., C
Niko Diamantopoulos, Sr., 1B
Mike Nasti, Sr., RF
Kyle Serino, Sr., 2B
Projected Starting Pitcher (With 2023 Stats; available pitch count)
Roger Dreher, Jr., RHP (3-2, 2.88 ERA, 24.1 IP, 17 H, 22 BB, 41 K; 102 pitches available)
Available Pitchers (With available pitch count)
Tyler McLeod, So., RHP (110)
Steve Miller, Sr., LHP (99)
Mike Nasti, Sr., RHP (110)
Owen Durnien, Sr., LHP (99)
Joe Nascimento, Jr., RHP (110)
Brady Lesiak, Jr., RHP
More on Southern
Seeking its first Ocean County Tournament championship since 1977 and its first Class A South championship since 1986, Southern has been battling its way out of the shadows in Ocean County, where the Rams have long been overshadowed by decorated programs from Toms River and Jackson.
This Rams team, however, is not exactly some plucky underdog, however much they may embrace that role. Southern is deep in pitching and its lineup is dangerous from top-to-bottom – both major reasons why the Rams are in the running for both the A South and Ocean County Tournament championships.
Southern will not have its top pitching performer available, with junior right-hander Brady Lesiak throwing 102 pitches in Friday’s semifinal win over Jackson Memorial. The rest of the staff, however, is eligible and that gives coach Ed Truitt some options heading into the first pitch Tuesday night.
Junior right-hander Roger Dreher has pitched in relief in eight of his nine appearances this season, but will get the ball to start his second game of the season on Tuesday. Although he has not started much , coach Truitt has managed games around unleashing Dreher and his quality arsenal out of the bullpen. The hard-throwing right-hander does have a tendency to issue free passes, but his low-90’s fastball and hard breaking ball make him difficult to hit.
Senior Steve Miller is coming off a loss to Jackson Memorial on Saturday, but Truitt got him out of there early enough to keep him eligible to pitch in the OCT final. The southpaw is Southern’s most experienced arm and he is a reliable option to stabilize the game or get some big outs in the late innings.
Sophomore Tyler McLeod is also a wild card as both a bullpen arm on Tuesday. The right-hander has struck out 11 in 9 1/3 innings this season and pitched six strong innings in Thursday’s 8-1 win over Manchester in the SCT opening round. McLeod is going to be a key figure in the Southern rotation of the next two seasons and he may very well be in the midst of his breakout right now.
Mike Nasti and Owen Durnien are experienced seniors who can also get outs against a dangerous Donovan Catholic lineup. With Lesiak eligible to pitch beginning on Wednesday, Southern can be aggressive about using its available pitchers, even though the Rams still have to play two division games against Toms River East (Friday) and Jackson Memorial (to be determined).
The pitching will have to be sharp, but with a capable offense backing it up, it does not have to be perfect. Southern has two capable table-setters at the top of the order in Ray Mulhern (.462 on-base percentage) and Brandon Brown (.361 average, seven doubles and a triple) and a smattering of dangerous hitters behind them. Lesiak and his .383 average with 17 RBI will hit in the No. 3 spot, while the team leader in RBI – Niko Diamantopoulos with 18 – hits seventh while boasting .379/.452/.552 slash line.
Southern has two slugging catchers, one of whom is limited to DH duties while recovering from a shoulder injury but still crushing the ball for the Rams. Dom Miranda missed a chunk of April with the shoulder ailment but has since returned as the DH and cleanup hitter, providing a major boost to the top of the order. He hit a clutch, go-ahead homer and drove in two runs in Friday’s win over Jackson Memorial.
Gabe Tomei, meanwhile, is the current catcher and is having a huge offensive season. The lefty-swinging backstop leads Southern’s lineup in average (.400), on-base percentage (.542), slugging percentage (.800) and triples (four) and his two homers are tied with Nasti for the team lead. Nasti is likely to get the nod in rightfield and he will hit No. 8 while boasting the second-highest slugging percentage (.727) on the team outside of Tomei.
The double-play combination of shortstop Brian Harper and second baseman Kyle Serino round out the lineup, with Harper providing a quality contact hitter to the No. 5 spot and Serino doing damage at the bottom of the order.
Tomei is the only left-hander in the lineup, so the Rams should match up fairly well against Marciano and his two-seam fastball. With some major arms unavailable to pitch, two deep lineups and a short fence, expect some offensive fireworks and an entertaining game.
Prediction: Donovan Catholic, 7-6