Baseball – Countdown 2020: Top Catchers in the Shore Conference
The 2020 spring sports season in New Jersey has officially been canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which means the top athletes in the state won't have a chance to show off their skills and compete for their schools at all this spring. Amateur sports is a big part of the culture in Monmouth and Ocean Counties and the current shutdown of competition represents a major change for the athletes who compete, the coaches who coach them and the people who follow them on a day-to-day basis.
Baseball is particularly big at the Shore and the 2020 season would have featured some big-time talent to boot. There will be no 2020 All-Shore team to recognize the top players, but we at Shore Sports Network want to take a tour through the conference to recognize the very best players at each position on the field. With that being said, SSN Baseball Editor Matt Manley has compiled lists of the top players at each position on the field with some input from coaches in the area. The goal is to recognize the players who have been the best during their careers and had some momentum coming into this year as well. There are also plenty of players who would have been debuting at the varsity level this season but this feature is designed for the players who have already established track records.
A significant portion of the baseball-loving world will tell you catcher is the most important day-to-day position on the field and I would consider myself part of that group. There is an undeniable, if not totally measurable, impact that a catcher has on every pitch of the game.
With that said, the list of top catchers in the Shore Conference comes with an emphasis on defense, although that makes the list as subjective as it does unique. A lot of defense at this stage of the game is based on reputation, with the occasional pop-time posted as a showcase of skill.
The offense, though, still matters. In the Shore Conference, catchers have been a major source of offense and while this season's group probably comes into the season with a little less offensive firepower than groups of recent vintage, it's still a capable group in the batter's box. What is also unique about it is the athleticism - the top seven listed catchers all scored more than 10 runs and stole multiple bases, which shows they are not smacking singles and trotting back to the dugout in favor of a courtesy runner. These guys can run.
Catcher is also a deep position, so be sure to read up on the guys outside the top 10. There are a bunch of good ones beyond the countdown, which as usual, starts at No. 10.
10. Griffin Falco, Sr., Matawan
Losing the 2020 season is a crushing blow to the Matawan program and its strong group of seniors. Falco is as instrumental as any player in the Huskies Class of 2020 group, which he proved with two strong seasons as Matawan’s starting catcher. After debuting by hitting .333 as a sophomore, Falco stepped up his defense and leadership while also ramping up his damage at the plate. His 10 doubles last year made him one of only nine players in the entire Shore Conference to log double-digit doubles.
Coach’s Insight: “He’s dependable, he’s reliable, and just an overall program kid. He is unselfish, he takes a beating behind the plate but he doesn’t miss any time and doesn’t make excuses. We were counting on him this year to be our No. 3 hitter in the lineup. You feel bad for kids like him – we named him our captain and he deserved his senior year. He was in his third year of development on the varsity team, which is an important one for a player and I think it was going to be a big one for him.” – Bobby Carnovsky, Matawan head coach
9. Cody Fleischer, Sr., Shore
Fleischer looked poised for a big sophomore breakout but a bout with mononucleosis knocked him out for most of the 2018 season. The Lackawana College commit came back strong in 2019 by turning in a season that landed him a spot on the coaches’ Class A Central All-Division team. Fleischer was one of eight catchers to belt more than one home run in 2019 and his .492 slugging percentage ranked seventh among Shore backstops.
Coach’s Insight: “He feels like he had a decent year last year but being around him, he felt like he still had a lot to prove. He really wanted to come out and end his career on high note. His focus and his leadership was just different during that first week of practice. He took control of the team and the other players were really responding. He got an opportunity to show his talent last year and this year, his maturity has come along with it.” – Jay Kuhlthau, Shore head coach
8. Ryan Jasaitis, Sr., Point Boro
Point Boro’s ascension to a Group II contender started during the tail-end of 2018 and it’s probably not an accident that it coincided with Jasaitis taking over as the starting catcher. Jasaitis hit .300 during his brief starting stint as a sophomore and was one of Point Boro’s most dependable hitters during the team’s 23-7 campaign in 2019 that included a trip to the state final and its first ever Ocean County Tournament title. His .358 batting average was second on the team behind All-Shore shortstop Sam Collins and his 17 RBI cracked the top 10 among catchers in 2019. Jasaitis also helped direct one of the Shore’s best pitching staffs and was effective against the running game.
Coach’s Insight: “He is definitely one of the best catchers in the 10 years I have coached. He is great at managing the pitching staff, which I think gets overlooked when you have the different kinds of pitchers that we have had. He is very quick, he has a great arm and controls the running game. He gives you a quality at-bat every time he gets in the box. He has been a .300 hitter for us pretty much from day one. More than anything, he is a great kid. He’s a leader and a great teammate and the kind of kid you want to have in your program.” – Dave Drew, Point Boro head coach
7. Max Cala, Jr., Brick Memorial
Cala doesn’t fit the prototype of a catcher but that is because of his exceptional speed and slender frame rather than any physical shortcoming. In his first two varsity seasons, Cala was a varsity outfielder and even played his way onto the coaches’ all-division team in Class A South as a sophomore last year. His coming-out-party was a two-homer, seven-RBI outburst in a loss to Jackson Liberty in the Ocean County Tournament. His 22 RBI would have ranked in the top-five among Shore Conference catchers last year and he was one of eight players in the entire conference to drive in at least 20 runs while stealing at least 10 bases.
Coach’s Insight: “He has the kind of arm that can shut down a running game as long as the pitcher gives us a chance. When it comes to his arm strength, there is no comparison with anybody I have seen at Brick Memorial. As a hitter, he really started listening to coaching last year and it made all the difference. I think for a while, he was so used to getting by on his talent and he learned that he can’t do it all by himself. The outside pitch had really started giving him problems and he really made a point to hit the ball to right field and that’s where he had a lot of success hitting the ball last year.” – Evan Rizzatello, Brick Memorial head coach
6. Ryan Goodall, Sr., Toms River East
As a multi-sport standout, Goodall has the consolation of finishing his football and basketball careers in the fall and winter to offset losing his senior season in baseball. It should also help that he will continue his baseball career at TCNJ after two stellar seasons as Toms River East’s catcher. Goodall took over as the full-time catcher as a sophomore and hit .365 for a Raiders team that reached the Ocean County Tournament final. Last year, he became a more complete player and athlete who caught fire at the end of the year, when Toms River East made a run to the South Jersey Group III final.
Coach’s Insight: “The best thing about Ryan is he’s one of the better leaders I’ve been around. He’s a great kid, he’s never in any trouble – not with the team, not in school, not at home. The kids have a lot of respect for him. He has come a long way as a catcher. He’s done a great job handling the pitching staff, especially as a young player. From freshman year to now, he has grown and added strength. He hit in the three-hole the last two years and we were expecting big things from him at the plate.” – Keith Smicklo, Toms River East head coach
5. Rob Mannino, Sr., Colts Neck
A shoulder injury prevented Mannino from playing catcher last season and, according to Colts Neck coach Mike Yorke, it would have kept him from putting on the gear in game action again this season. His inability to catch drops Mannino farther down on the list than he otherwise would be had he remained healthy, but when he was catching, he was impressive. Mannino got time as a freshman and was already one of the best defensive catchers in the Shore as a sophomore thanks to a strong arm and plus athleticism. Last year, he took his offensive game to the next level while serving as Colts Neck’s DH, finishing top-10 in the Shore in on-base percentage, top-25 in slugging percentage and cracking the Shore Sports Network All-Shore Third Team.
Coach’s Insight: “He has a plan and he was just taking it one day at a time. We feel pretty good that he’s eventually going to get back to 100 percent. Even if he has to move to another position, he has all the tools to play at the next level and be really good. It’s just a matter of him showing college coaches he is all the way back.” – Colts Neck coach Mike Yorke
4. John Gannon, Sr., Neptune
On offense alone, Gannon is in the conversation for the No. 1 catcher spot and has a pretty strong case based on what he did at the plate during his junior season. The St. Thomas Aquinas College commit finished second among Shore catchers in home runs, RBI and slugging percentage, trailing only Jackson Liberty catcher and SSN Player of the year David Melfi in each category. He also played last year coming off a left-shoulder injury that cost him his planned offseason and preseason routine and still managed to put up monster numbers for the Scarlet Fliers. The three catchers ahead of Gannon on this list are a level or two up defensively, but Gannon’s offense takes a backseat to no other Shore catcher and his leadership behind the plate has been invaluable for Neptune.
Coach’s Insight: “He could hit from day one. As a freshman, we sent him down to jayvee and after a couple days, it was clear he didn’t belong there. Not only his raw talent, but he had such a great understanding of hitting as a young player. The skill was always there and he has since put that extra weight on, which has really helped the power development. He has the quickest hands I have ever seen. Even as a young player, he was out in front of guys throwing 90 (miles-per-hour) and we had to tell him to wait back on guys who were Division I prospects.” – Kevin Frederick, Neptune head coach
3. Mason Wolf, Sr., CBA
Brandon Martorano graduated as likely the best catcher in CBA history and Wolf came in as both the catcher of the future and the eventual replacement of the best catcher ever. Wolf did not put up the offensive career as Martorano, but he has a similar athleticism to his game, especially considering the position on the field. The Monmouth University commit played some outfield in the past two seasons before entrenching himself behind the plate in 2019. Only Melfi, Falco and Ocean’s Max Winters had more doubles as catchers last year at the catcher position and Wolf is also in the conversation for best defensive catcher in the conference.
Coach’s Insight: “He’s really strong-armed, which has always been the first thing you notice when you watch him behind the plate. He has improved on receiving, blocking the ball and just looking to be more consistent overall. At the plate, he is a contact guy who can split a gap when he gets his pitch. He runs really well, especially for a catcher. He hit third for us because he puts the ball in pay but he has the kind of offensive game that would work well as a leadoff hitter. He’s just a good athlete.” – Marty Kenney Jr., CBA head coach
2. Tom Cartnick, Sr., Jackson Memorial
Keeping up with the theme of athletic catchers, Cartnick is one of the better all-around athletes on Jackson Memorial’s roster and he just so happens to be one of its many talented backstops as well. The Rhode Island commit started the season as the DH but quickly carved out his spot behind the plate thanks to a bat that the Jaguars had to have in their lineup. As a junior in 2019, Cartnick ranked in the top-10 among Shore Conference catchers in hits (eighth), batting average (seventh), on-base percentage (ninth), slugging percentage (sixth), home runs (tied third), RBI (tied fifth), walks (tied sixth) and stolen bases (tied fifth).
Coach’s Insight: “He’s made it a point to work hard on every part of his game. He is a big weight room guy and you look at him and the way he hits – he’s a beast. He is so strong and it’s a result of him putting in the work.” – Frank Malta, Jackson Memorial head coach
1. Chris Sparber, Sr., Red Bank Catholic
Sparber missed the start of his sophomore year due to injury and made a major impact once he joined the Caseys lineup in 2018, including his lone career home run in a Monmouth County Tournament win over rival CBA. After finishing in the top 10 in slugging percentage among Shore Conference catchers as a sophomore, the Miami-bound backstop did not tap into his power as much last year, although he was still a reliable at-bat in the middle of the RBC order. Moreover, Sparber’s defensive prowess gives him an edge over some of the more offense-centric names on the Shore’s list of catchers in 2020 and his senior season represented a chance to show that the pop he showed in his first season was no aberration.
Teammate’s Insight: “I’m almost more upset that I don’t get to watch him play this year. I really think he was going to have a monster season. He wasn’t happy with the way he hit last year and he just worked like a machine all offseason. It seemed like any time we were hanging out and we wanted to see what Sparber was up to, he was in the cage. It could be midnight, one in the morning and he would be hitting.” – Shane Panzini, Red Bank Catholic pitcher
Other Notable Seniors
Andrew Sefick, Sr., C, Jackson Memorial – With starting catching experience at the varsity level in each of his first three years of high school, Sefick has one of the lengthiest bodies of work of any Shore Conference catcher. Sefick has more than 200 high-school plate appearances and more as a catcher than any other backstop in the Shore Conference. He hit .341 with five doubles, a homer and 14 RBI as a sophomore on Jackson Memorial’s 25-win squad in 2018.
Jake Dawson, Sr., C, Toms River North – Coming off some heavy graduation losses in the spring of 2018, Toms River North badly needed leadership and Dawson helped provide it as a first-year starting catcher. He was a reliable on-base threat (.407 OBP) and filled up the stat sheet with two doubles, a triple, a homer and 10 RBI to go with solid defense.
Anthony Esposito, Sr., Middletown South – Following two years at first base, Esposito was poised to make the move to catcher for his senior season on one of the Shore’s top teams. He handled the catching duties in a big win over Red Bank Catholic last season and also delivered the game-winning RBI in that one as well – part of a five-double, 14-RBI junior campaign.
Mike Montenegro, Sr., Toms River South – In his first season as a starter behind the dish, Montenegro – who is headed to NYU in the fall – hit .254 with six doubles and 10 RBI while providing some athleticism at his position.
Chris Acampora, Sr., Howell – The Rebels pitching staff made great strides in 2019 and Acampora settling in at catcher certainly helped. In addition to leading an improved staff, Acampora hit six doubles to lead the team.
Dylan Hode, Sr., Manalapan – Hode’s defense earned him a starting spot for the 24-win, Central Jersey Group IV championship-winning Braves. He hit only .194 in 31 at-bats, but walked more than he struck out (eight-to-six) and picked up one of his hits in a 1-0 loss to Eastern in the Group IV semifinal.
Jason Lind, Sr., Raritan – A versatile player for the Rockets, Lind contributed a .288 batting average with three doubles and nine RBI as a junior and was part of a solid senior group hoping to return Raritan to the ranks of contenders for the Group II title after the Rockets fell in the 2018 championship game.
Kyle Moore, Sr., Barnegat – The Bengals had a chance to sneak up on B South this season with a solid pitching staff and a number of key pieces. Moore helped tie it all together at catcher in 2019, hitting .250 with three doubles.
2021 Watch List
Mike Gallaro, Jr., Southern – A concussion cost Gallaro a chunk of his sophomore season but the Rams backstop still managed to turn in a sparkling varsity debut that saw him hit .390. He is one of A South’s best returning hitters and was poised to be in the conversation with the Shore’s top catchers in 2020.
Jacob Ramirez, Jr., St. John Vianney – Ramirez landed the starting catcher job in the middle of 2019 and did not give it up. He did a commendable job behind the plate as a sophomore and posted a solid .305/.438/.458 batting line with six doubles, a homer and 13 RBI in his varsity debut.
David Terra-Nova, Jr., Point Beach – Upon taking over the starting catching duties as a sophomore, Terra-Nova became one of B Central’s better power threats. He led Point Beach with eight extra-base hits and was the only player on the Garnet Gulls’ Central Jersey Group I runner-up squad to go yard during the 2019 season.
Andrew Lombardi, So., Middletown North – Lombardi belted a team-high three home runs as a freshman last season and still has a chance to make major waves in the Shore Conference if baseball returns in its full-season form in 2021.
Lou Spadafora, So., Ranney – Spadafora showed a knack for throwing out baserunners as a freshman catcher and also brought plenty of offense, hitting .333 with five doubles and 12 RBI for the Panthers.