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Frank Malta took over a Jackson Memorial baseball program in 2005 that had its moments and its stars, but was a second-tier program compared to other Ocean County and Shore Conference powers – particularly in Toms River.

On Thursday night, Malta officially leaves Jackson Memorial as team and a program positioned as well or better than any in the Shore Conference and, perhaps, the state.

Malta stepped down as head coach at Jackson Memorial after 15 seasons to accept the position of supervisor of athletics at East Brunswick High School – a position for which he was approved by the East Brunswick Board of Education at Thursday’s board meeting.

“It’s bittersweet,” Malta said. “I love Jackson Memorial. I love the people, I love the work I got to do every day. Coaching the kids I got to coach for 15 years – I was incredibly lucky and I never lost sight of that. There is a different kind of kid in Jackson: it’s a smart, tough, blue-collar kid who just wants to compete. Obviously, there have been some great players but even those lesser-known, role guys – the program guys – they had that edge about them and it was so much fun to coach.”

Photo by Richard O'Donnell

Malta made his decision on Tuesday and informed his team the same day with a Zoom meeting that he said left him feeling good enough about the decision to take his new job and even better about the job he was leaving.

“I think they were shocked,” Malta said. “Some of them, I think, were a little hurt but I explained to them exactly what my rationale was, why it made sense for my family and they got it. They handled it like our guys have handled any tough situations: they might be a little mad at first but they absorb it, process it and figure out how they are going to deal with it. A lot of guys spot up, spoke from the heart, we talked it out and I think we all came away feeling pretty good about where this program is and where it’s going.”

The move came as a surprise to not only Malta’s players and coaching peers around the Shore Conference but also to Malta himself. He said he has been certified to become an administrator for a long time but never saw an opportunity attractive enough to give up his position as baseball coach and a physical education teacher at Jackson Memorial. Malta and his family live in East Brunswick and when he found out about the opening, he found his match.

“It’s not something I was expecting,” Malta said. “I was happy at Jackson Memorial, coaching and teaching there and when I would see potential opportunities and openings, they just didn’t make sense to me, personally. When (the position at East Brunswick) came up, it just made sense when I thought about it.”

Malta leaves behind a Jackson Memorial program that went 282-109 under his watch with two Ocean County Tournament Championships (2012 and 2015), two Shore Conference Tournament titles (2009 and 2012), three NJSIAA sectional championships (2010, 2014 and 2018) and an overall Group IV championship in 2014.

In what would have been his 16th season, Malta did not get to lead his team out for an official high school game because the entire NJSIAA spring season was canceled due to COVID-19. In the summer, however, he got one more chance to coach his team with the Last Dance Baseball Tournament – a statewide tournament that gave high-school teams a chance to reconvene for meaningful games in July. Malta and his Jaguars players took advantage of the chance to compete against the rest of the state, advancing all the way to the final game with seven consecutive wins before losing to a red-hot Cranford team that captured the championship.

“If that’s the last group I coach, that was an awesome group to go out on,” Malta said. “Not just because of how good they were but how much it meant to them. They just wanted to be around each other. When we got the word that the Last Dance was going to happen, they talked about just getting a chance to keep playing. Every game became about getting another day of practice and another game to play and that carried us through the whole tournament. It was a special thing to be a part of.”

(Photo by Richard E. O'Donnell)

Malta leaves behind a program that continues to import young talent and churn out Division I caliber players. Jackson Memorial’s most notable baseball alum is Los Angeles Angels first baseman Matt Thaiss, who graduated from Jackson Memorial in 2013, won the College World Series at the University of Virginia as the Cavaliers’ starting catcher and was then drafted No. 16 overall in the 2016 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft.

The team Malta left is set to boast two Division I aces headlining its pitching rotation in senior right-hander and Coastal Carolina commit Matt Potok and junior left-hander and Auburn commit Zach Crotchfelt. The lineup will not have as much experience but senior Ty Beck and junior Chris Cartnick have proven themselves in high-school games and in the Last Dance. Senior Zach Rogacki and sophomore Charlie Meglio don’t have the high-school resume but have impressed in the summer.

Factor one of the best feeder systems in the area and the Jackson Memorial job will be an especially attractive one for baseball coaches from around the state.

“I always tried to keep my guys connected to the history of the program, particularly the guys I coached in my earlier years in Jackson,” Malta said. “I’ll tell them about what it was like when Matt Thaiss was here and about the kinds of things Brandon Janofsky used to do. It’s a coaching tool but it’s also just giving them that connection to the guys who came before them in the program and it shows them that they shared really similar experiences as guys who have been successful.”

Malta was once one of those coaches from outside the area who saw something in Jackson, having played at Elizabeth High School and coached five seasons at Arthur L. Johnson. Now, he will take what he has learned in 20 years as a head baseball coach and apply it to running an athletic program.

East Brunswick baseball already has strong Shore Conference ties with head coach Chris Kenney – the son of 800-win Christian Brothers Academy coach Marty Kenney.

“I don’t know Chris too well but obviously I have a great respect for his father and his family and what they accomplished at CBA,” Malta said. “It’s kind of funny that I’m leaving the Shore Conference and the baseball coach is going to be another Shore Conference guy, so that should be interesting. I’m looking forward to getting to know Chris and all the other coaches and staff there.”

Jackson Memorial’s baseball accomplishments were a significant part of Malta’s tenure but he made his presence felt away from the field as well. In 2011, one of his players, James Volpe, died in a tragic car accident the night before an Ocean County Tournament game. Volpe’s death shook the players on that team but the following year, the remaining Jaguars dedicated the season to Volpe and won both the Ocean County and Shore Conference Tournaments. The school later erected a new full scoreboard with Volpe’s name on it and Malta made it a point to tell his players about Volpe every season on the anniversary of his passing.

“Every May 13th, I get the guys together and tell them about James,” Malta said. “Not so much about what he was as a player but just the kind of special human being he was and what the community lost when he died. It’s not something I like to talk too much about out of respect to the family but within our team, I always felt like it was important to keep James’s memory alive and strong.”

Malta also dealt with his own challenges in his family with his oldest daughter, Marisa, being diagnosed with retinoblastoma at a young age. Malta has been involved in fundraising efforts and raising awareness for the disease and other forms of childhood cancer, offering his experience and energy. Marisa has since overcome the disease and plays field hockey at East Brunswick, where she is currently a junior.

“It’s a really unique opportunity for my family,” Malta said. “They were surprised when I took the job and I was kind of surprised that they were surprised because it meant I was going to be able to spend more time at home. My daughters were just like, ‘Aren’t you going to miss coaching baseball?’ I think they saw how much I loved doing it and it made them curious about the things I was doing, like drawing up a practice plan. They would look at some of the stuff I was doing and ask, ‘Why does this drill end at 3:14? Why not 3:15?’ My assistant coaches would ask me the same thing, so it got me ready.

“Those are the things I’ll miss, but I’m looking forward to creating a new routine and making a new plan.”