Baseball – Ken Frank Reaches 900 Wins At Toms River South
TOMS RIVER - As much as he should be remembered for winning more games than any coach in New Jersey high school baseball history and leading his team to more NJSIAA Group championships than any other Shore Conference program, Ken Frank's defining characteristic as the head coach at Toms River South for the better part of four decades - at least for those not wearing his team's uniform - has been his ability to turn a high school baseball game into an event.
From his chatter from the third-base coaches box when his team is hitting, to posturing outside the dugout while they are in the field, to the postgame awards ceremonies and the way his players follow suit, there are more layers to a Toms River South baseball game than there are at any other venue and nobody is more responsible for that than Frank.
On Saturday, on a sweltering, 90-degree afternoon on the field named for him, Frank led a 5-10 Toms River South team onto his field to face an 8-6 Group I team in Point Pleasant Beach. Those conditions might make for a slog of a game in other circumstances, but with Frank one win from another milestone - and perhaps his final milestone - Ken Frank Stadium, as is often the case, had a big-game feel.
Frank was in his element and his team followed suit. Toms River South clobbered Point Beach, 12-2, in five innings via the 10-run rule to give its coach his 900th career win. After the game, Frank braved the intense heat to give a heartfelt speech to the many former Toms River South players and coaches who made the journey from as far as away as Houston and include his current team in the festivities, as he always does.
"That says an awful lot to me and that's why I'm still coaching," Frank said of the turnout. "The two things that stood out to me were one, my family being here and two, the camaraderie of the guys from the past that came. Some guys flew in and there were a lot of guys I didn't introduce. I would say there were 25 to 30 of them. That says that we must have done something right over the years."
It was not an unfamiliar sight to those who have followed the Toms River South program for the last decade. In 2012, Frank became the state's all-time wins leader with his 755th win and conducted a similar ceremony, thanking players, coaches and administrators past and present, as well as the family that has been with him the entire way - including his late parents.
Two years later, it was Frank's 800th win that prompted the next postgame celebration of Frank's career, with more players and more grandchildren joining the list of people Frank has acknowledged.
Seven seasons later, after the COVID-19 pandemic forced the celebration to be delayed by a full year, the Toms River community had another chance to celebrate a baseball institution and with Frank now 74 years old, there is at least the reasonable possibility that Saturday will be the last milestone celebration in Frank's career.
"Everybody is talking about a thousand, but I'm getting up there," Frank said. "My grandkids are keeping me busy, my family is keeping me busy. Do I like being out here and talking to you guys? I do. I would miss that immensely. But 900 is today, enjoy this today and worry about tomorrow. That's always been my philosophy."
If any of the Toms River South faithful are hoping for a chance to celebrate Frank's last game as head coach, though, don't count on it. Frank insists his decision to call it a coaching career will come after his final season, not before it.
"I don't do anything in the heat of the battle," Frank said. "I always wait a week or two, and then decide where I'm at.
"Lately, we have been talking about (retirement) more. How long can you keep going?"
He also insists the team's record doesn't have much to do with how he feels about coaching it. With its win Saturday, Toms River South inched closer to a .500 winning percentage, but its current 6-10 mark is hardly the standard the program has set since Frank took over in 1978.
That's not how Frank sees his current team. By his estimation, it fits in perfectly in Toms River South's baseball lineage, especially considering where it is vs. where it started. After starting the season 2-8, Frank's Indians have won four of their last six, with the only two losses coming to Jackson Memorial - the No. 1 team in the Shore Sports Network Top 10. In one of those losses, Toms River South nearly matched the No. 1 Jaguars swing-for-swing in a 15-12 loss.
"From day one, I told these kids they're as good as any team we have ever had here, maybe better than some of the teams we've had here," Frank said. "We've had some tough breaks along the way and it took a little while for these guys to gel a little as far as learning the South Philosophy.
"We have six sophomores on the team and to make a long long story short, going from eighth grade to sophomores playing at Toms River South against these opponents that want to beat us, it's a big step up."
On Saturday, senior Joe Schifilitti did the job on the mound to improve to 4-2 and helped his cause by going 2-for-3 at the plate with a pair of RBI. With just one strikeout in the game, he also got plenty of help from his defense, which turned two double plays and committed two errors on 14 chances on an unpredictable infield.
"I'm more than grateful for this opportunity," Schifilitti said of getting the ball for the historic win. "Coach Frank has done more than enough for me. The fact that I came out with the win today shows how much the team cares. I'm speechless, I'm just so happy to be a part of it."
There were plenty of players who can claim offensive contributions for Frank's latest milestone, most notably sophomore Chris Clark, who went 2-for-3 with a double and three RBI. Junior Aiden Folsom also went 2-for-2 with a double and two RBI, senior Tyler Madeo was 2-for-3 with an RBI, and senior shortstop Ryan Mackle mashed a two-run, opposite-field home run to highlight the 12-run outburst.
With the team 2-8 back on May 11, Frank's most famous pupil helped him jumpstart this current team. Back in town after being designated for assignment and cut loose by the Pittsburgh Pirates, Todd Frazier stopped by his old stomping grounds to watch his former team - an opportunity he has not had since graduating from Toms River South in 2004.
Frazier visited with the team before the game and since that meeting, Toms River South has begun to look like a squad that could be a problem for the rest of Ocean County when the county tournament starts up on June 3.
"Todd Frazier comes back to support the program and that shows how much spirit this team has," Schifilitti said. "Without that, we wouldn't be what we are and we can thank coach Frank for that."
The energy that the Indians have shown over the last week-and-a-half is the sort of attitude that keeps Frank motivated to keep going into his mid-70's.
"I don't realize how old I am most of the time," Frank said. "These kids make it fun for you. Since I've been here, disregarding the record, they are as good as anybody I have ever had and they work as hard as anybody I have ever had and they are a lot of fun to be around."