POINT PLEASANT BORO - Toms River East ace pitcher Nick DeGennaro found out just days before the start of his senior season that a health scare would cost him an undetermined amount of time. The Raiders senior right-hander did not know when exactly he'd be healthy enough to get back on the mound, he knew that whenever he made his season debut, he would be at the top of his game.

On Sunday against Point Pleasant Boro in the Ocean County Tournament, making just his second start of the season, DeGennaro once again pitched a dominant seven innings and looked like he never left.

DeGennaro struck out 13 against two walks in a 105-pitch, four-hitter to lead the fifth-seeded Raiders past the No. 4 Panthers, 2-1, and into the OCT semifinals next Saturday at top-seeded Jackson Liberty.

Just days before the start of the season, DeGennaro was diagnosed with appendicitis and underwent surgery that knocked him out of action for two weeks. According to DeGennaro, he also had a "small hernia" and his doctor was most concerned with a re-occurrence if he over-exerted himself.

DeGennaro began throwing bullpens again two weeks after the surgery and two weeks later, he was making his season debut on April 23 in an extra-inning win over Brick. He went 1-for-2 at the plate in the game and threw 2 2/3 innings on 42 pitches to officially insert himself into his team's turnaround season.

Toms River East senior Nick DeGennaro. (Photo by Matt Manley)
Toms River East senior Nick DeGennaro. (Photo by Matt Manley)

"I felt ready to do this for a long time," DeGennaro said. "It sucks being on the bench. I'm a competitor and I when I go into a game, I don't like to come out."

After two relief appearances, DeGennaro debuted as a start on May 1 against rival Toms River South and immediately returned to form. He held the Indians to one run on five hits with three walks and seven strikeouts in a complete-game win - a precursor to an even better outing on Sunday.

"The good thing is he was able to do some throwing, so even though he couldn't play, he could keep his arm close to ready to go," Toms River East coach Keith Smicklo said. "He got in close a full preseason and he's so sound fundamentally that he can go out there after not throwing for a few weeks or a month and look like he never left. For us, as coaches, we just had to be careful to make sure he wasn't pushing too hard or doing more than he was ready, because Nick is always going to tell you he is good to pitch."

DeGennaro fell behind the first three hitters he faced on Sunday and went on to throw first-pitch strikes to 22 of the 24 hitters he faced the rest of the way. He gave up a long double to Point Boro catcher Trent Livolsi in the second inning, then retired the next three batters on two strikeouts and a ground out to get out of the inning.

In the third, DeGennaro just missed tossing an immaculate inning, striking out the side on 10 pitches - one under the minimum. He threw an 0-2 fastball off the plate to Dylan Kleinfeldt, then struck out the Panthers No. 9 hitter before striking out Sam Collins and Christian Aurin on three pitches apiece.

"Coming into today, I expected him to maybe struggle a little bit just because he is coming off seven innings against Toms River South and only pitched four days ago," Smicklo. "No matter what he has out there, though, he always battles. His pitches today were good, but the big thing today was him making big pitches to get himself out of innings."

Point Boro scored its lone run off DeGennaro in the fourth, when Livolsi hit another double to deep left on a 0-2 count and scored on an RBI single by first baseman Andrew Laspina with two-out. DeGennaro had a rare lapse of command in the inning, when he jumped in front of shortstop Nick Zbikowski, 0-2, before walking him to bring up Laspina.

"(Livolsi) is a great fastball hitter and he got me twice - the second time on 0-2," DeGennaro said. "I just know I had to get him out with my offspeed stuff and for the most part, my secondary stuff was working pretty well and I was able to locate it."

During his Shore Sports Network All-Shore junior season, DeGennaro issued just four walks in 39 innings to run a Shore-best 54-to-4 strikeout to walk ratio - which reduces to 13.5-to-1. With seven walks in 17 2/3 innings, he has not had the same spot-on command to this point, but his work after the first three batters Sunday looked a lot like last year's version.

Protecting a one-run lead in the sixth inning, DeGennaro gave up a leadoff single to sophomore standout Nick Guzzi. DeGennaro then came  back with three straight strikeouts to strand Guzzi at second base and also struck out the first two batters of the seventh for five consecutive strikeouts. He finished off the complete-game win by inducing a ground out to second by Kleinfeldt.

"I've always felt like I'm one of those pitchers that as the game goes on, I get stronger," DeGennaro said.

Toms River East gave its ace an early lead behind some small-ball and a clutch hit with two out. Sophomore Matt Santos led off the inning with an infield single and moved to second on a sacrifice bunt by senior right fielder Jay Longo. Collins came up with a big strikeout for the second out, but catcher Brian Smith delivered a single to right on a 1-2 count to chase home Santos with the first run of the game.

The Raiders added a run in the third on a one-out double by freshman third baseman Aidan Meola that split the gap in right-center field and scored senior shortstop Ahmir Cournier. During his first varsity season, Meola is hitting .360 with four doubles and is tied for second on the team with 12 RBI since winning the starting third-based job heading into opening day.

"We heard good things about him and we thought he would help us this year," Smicklo said of Meola, who is the son of Tony Meola, the former U.S. Soccer goalkeeper who played in three World Cups. "He has an older brother (Jon) who played here and he is very mature. He is a freshman in age, but not between the ears."

Collins nearly matched DeGennaro, allowing two runs on nine hits and no walks while striking out six and throwing 104 pitches. Like Guzzi did during Point Boro's 2-1, walk-off win over Brick Memorial in Saturday's first round, Collins kept his team in the game and gave the offense a chance to tie the game with one run in the bottom of the seventh or win it with two.

Toms River East began the season 5-0 with DeGennaro on the shelf, but lost the next three. DeGennaro's return came in the win over Brick that snapped the losing skid and now the team has won each of his starts. While the Raiders showed they can win without their All-Shore senior on the mound, they are also happy to have him back and certainly better off with him taking his turns in the rotation, the next of which could very well be in Saturday's OCT semifinal against top-seeded Jackson Liberty.

"It's hard not to be surprised by the hot start we had, but we have such a tight-knit group," DeGennaro said. "Everyone loves each other and helps each other out."

The showdown with Jackson Liberty makes for an interesting week for Smicklo, who works at Jackson Liberty and was a varsity assistant under Jim Rankin prior to taking over at Toms River East before the 2017 season.

"I have nothing but respect for coach Rankin and the program that he has built there," Smicklo said. "I was with him for a lot of years and I worked with a lot of those guys when most of them were freshmen and a few of them sophomores. I talk to them in school all the time, so I'm sure the game will come up at some point this week."


Box Score

(5) Toms River East 2, (4) Point Boro 1

Toms River East (9-6)0110000290
Point Boro (11-5)0001000142


Nick DeGennaro (W, 2-0)7411213105
Sam Collins (L, 2-2)792206104

Top Hitters

Toms River EastStats
Aidan Meola3-4, 2B, RBI
Brian Smith1-3, RBI
Matt Santos2-3
Point BoroStats
Trent Livolsi2-3, 2 2B
Andrew Laspina1-3, RBI
Nick Guzzi1-2, BB



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