At this point in the season, the Middletown South players love the comparisons with last year’s team. This year’s Eagles squad enters play Tuesday on a 10-game winning streak – four shy of matching last season’s 14-game surge that help Middletown South overcome a 0-4 start and win a share of the Shore Conference Class A North championship.

Once Saturday hits, however, this year’s team would like to begin to distinguish themselves.

“We have a great group of guys with a lot of experience,” said junior Ben Porpora after playing hero with a walk-off single in the eighth inning to beat Middletown North on Friday. “Most of us were on the team last year when we went on that run and we’re trying to take it a step further this year.”

Middletown South won three games in two days to cap their week, walking off with an eight-inning win over Middletown North on Friday, then sweeping Monmouth County Tournament games against Mater Dei Prep and Marlboro by a combined score of 16-0. Porpora went 3-for-3 with three RBI – including the game-winner in the eighth – in the win over Middletown North, Johnny Zega blasted two homers and pitched a two hitters in the win over Mater Dei, and Ian Scheuer fired a three-hitter to beat Marlboro.

Middletown South junior right-hander Jon Martin has emerged as an ace for the Eagles. (Photo by Matt Manley)

This week, the Eagles will clash twice with the last team to beat them: Christian Brothers Academy. The top seed in the Monmouth County Tournament beat Middletown South behind a 19-strikeout performance by Luca Dalatri and a tie-breaking home run by battery-mate and fellow North Carolina recruit Brandon Martorano. Dalatri is unlikely to pitch Tuesday against Middletown South due to a hamstring injury, but could be ready by Saturday, when the two rivals meet in the Monmouth County Tournament semifinals.

Middletown South has junior right-hander Jon Martin ready for Tuesday’s matchup, which was rained out on Monday. The postponement could mean that Martin does not pitch the Saturday game since it would mean the junior would pitch on three days rest, but the Eagles’ pitching depth has been one of its greatest strengths. With Martin, Scheuer, Zega and Austin Markmann all on top of their respective games recently, the Eagles are set up to handle this week’s run of opponents – CBA on Tuesday, Freehold Boro on Wednesday, Howell on Friday and CBA again on Saturday.

The Eagles currently hold a game-and-a-half lead on CBA in the race for the A North title and can clinch the outright title by beating CBA and beating either Freehold Boro or Howell.


Fellow streak-busters

While Middletown South extended Monmouth County’s longest winning streak, Barnegat just ended Ocean County’s. The Bengals edged Point Pleasant Boro Monday in the Ocean County Tournament quarterfinals, 4-3, to snap the Panthers’ 14-game winning streak to open the season.

Jared Kacso pitched a complete game on 91 pitches to lead the Bengals and struck out the final two batters of the game to strand the bases loaded. Barnegat benefitted from three Point Boro errors in the top of the fourth inning and junior shortstop Aaron McLaughlin singled home a run in the fourth.

Jared Kacso pitched a complete game Monday to help Barnegat hand Point Boro its first official loss of the season. (Photo by Matt Manley)

“It I can spot the ball, I feel confident in my pitching ability to win games,” Kacso said. “I’ve faced some of the best lineups in the Shore this year and going back to the past couple of years. I know I don’t have an overpowering fastball, but I think my offspeed stuff has been really good and I’ll find ways to get guys out, no matter what.”

While Jason Groome is Barnegat’s unquestioned ace and the top pitcher in the country, it has been Kacso who has delivered for Barnegat in the team’s biggest wins of the season. He has now defeated two teams currently ranked in the Shore Sports Network Top 10 – No. 4 Point Boro and No. 3 Red Bank Catholic, the latter of which has not lost to any team other than Barnegat.

“I’ll throw him against anybody,” Barnegat coach Dan McCoy said of Kacso. “He beat the No. 1 team in the Shore or wherever (Red Bank Catholic) is ranked, and he just beat the No. 1 team in our tournament. And now we come back with Jay, so I like our chances.”


Winning when it counts

To different degrees, Christian Brothers Academy, Howell, Point Pleasant Beach and Brick Memorial were all scuffling heading into their first county tournament game, but all came up big over the weekend.

CBA entered the weekend on a three-game losing streak and the two teams that dealt the Colts the more recent of those two losses stood in CBA’s way on Saturday in the Monmouth County Tournament. CBA avenged both of those mid-week losses, beating Middletown North, 3-0, and Freehold Boro, 4-2. In the round-of-16 win over Middletown North, senior right-hander Kenny Campbell threw the eighth no-hitter in CBA history.

Howell began the season with five straight wins and was 6-1 after a win over Manchester on April 16. He Rebels then lost five straight and entered the MCT with an even .500 record. The win-or-go-home proposition straightened the Rebels out, as they beat both St. Rose and Freehold Township 5-4. Howell lost to Freehold Township, 4-2, in its final game before the tournament, but beat the Patriots on Saturday after Freehold Township survived a 13-inning battle with Colts Neck earlier in the day.

Back in division play on Monday, the Rebels fell to Marlboro, 1-0, but can continue their postseason march on Saturday against No. 2 seed Red Bank Catholic.

Point Beach spent last week slipping out of the Class B Central division race with losses to Keyport, St. Rose and Mater Dei Prep in succession. Against defending Ocean County Tournament champion on Saturday, Point Beach figured to be facing a fourth straight loss against a Jaguars team that was also struggling but has a history of performing in key moments over the last several years.

Instead, Point Beach rallied for two runs in the seventh inning and senior John Vanschoick closed out a complete game to score the upset for the Garnet Gulls and bury Jackson Memorial further into its recent malaise – which is now eight losses in the team’s last nine games. Josh Yates, Joe DelGrippo and Kevin Donnelly all had key hits in the inning, with Donnelly delivering the game-tying RBI single.

Win or lose, Brick Memorial senior Brian Markoski has hit for the Mustangs. (Photo by Matt Manley)

Like CBA and Point Beach, Brick Memorial also entered its county tournament game on Saturday on a three-game skid and the Mustangs’ slump came right after a huge 13-12 win over Toms River North. Not only did the Mustangs lose three straight but all three were to teams below .500: they lost a 5-4, extra-inning game against Freehold Township one weekend prior, were shutout by Lacey and lost 11-8 to Toms River East.

The Mustangs, however, bounced back thanks to senior right-hander Alec Merritt, who shut out Southern Regional for the second time this season in his team’s 3-0 OCT victory over the Rams. Merritt was also a hard-luck loser on the mound in the 2-0 loss to Lacey earlier in the week. Brick Memorial played the week without shortstop Matt Cuppari, who hurt his hand in the loss to Freehold Township. He is likely to return to help Brick Memorial’s push for the Class A South and OCT titles.


Under the radar

Manasquan did not enter the Monmouth County Tournament and with the way the Warriors are beginning to score in support of the sibling pitching tandem of Jack and Tommy Sheehan, the rest of the tournament field should count themselves lucky.

The Warriors started the season slow at the plate, but have since picked up as sophomores Ethan Thompson and Tommy Antonucci have settled in as varsity regulars and productive ones at that. After averaging 3.2 runs per game during a 2-4 start – 10 of which came in one game – Manasquan has won five straight while posting 8.8 runs per game. On days in which either Sheehan pitches, the runs have been more a luxury than a necessity, as both brothers have been dominant on the mound.

Jack Sheehan is the elder and the right-handed of the two brothers – both of whom are committed to play at Notre Dame – and is currently 4-1 with a 0.75 ERA and 30 strikeouts and five walks in 28 innings.

Manasquan senior Jack Sheehan is half of a one-two punch on the mound for Manasquan. Photo by SPORT SHOTS WLB)

Tommy Sheehan, meanwhile, has been among the most dominant pitchers in a Shore Conference that houses arguably the two best pitchers in the state in Jason Groome and Luca Dalatri. Sheehan - a junior left-hander - is making a strong case to be in that conversation as well and the proof is in the numbers: in 25 innings, he is 3-0 with a 0.56 ERA and a 0.52 WHIP to go with 39 strikeouts and just three walks.

The control of the zone has taken Sheehan to the next level, as he has cut his walk rate from 3.18 walks per seven innings to 0.84. In the process, his strikeout rate has also climbed from 9.54 to 10.92 and he has been pitching deeper into games as well. He pitched seven innings in two of his four starts, pitched a five-inning complete game one-hitter in another and was pulled after six with Manasquan leading by eight runs in the fourth.

Manasquan is in currently in the catbird’s seat in the Class A Central race and figures to be a dangerous team in both the Shore Conference and NJSIAA Central Jersey Group II Tournaments with the two Sheehan’s firing on all cylinders.


Last Stand

CBA, Red Bank Catholic and Middletown South were the top three teams in the Shore Sports Network Preseason Top 10 and while reasonable people can disagree on the current order, those three remain the top tier of the Shore Conference. Beyond that trio, there is a large portion of the top 10 that is far from safe in assuming it will be competing in the Shore Conference Tournament and perhaps even the NJSIAA Tournament.

Aforementioned Barnegat is safe when it comes to the state tournament, but the preseason No. 4 team still has some work to do to qualify for the SCT at 8-8 overall. The Bengals had to forfeit two wins after Groome was ruled ineligible by the NJSIAA and now that they are back to .500 and Groome is back on the mound, the Bengals appear poised to sneak into the SCT.

They will face Donovan Catholic and Lakewood in divisional play this week and Jackson Liberty on Monday to wrap up the B South schedule. They also face Toms River North Saturday in the Ocean County Tournament semifinals with Groome on the mound and have non-divisional games scheduled against Marlboro and Long Branch next week. If Groome can beat the Mariners on Saturday, that means Barnegat would have to go 3-3 in the other six to qualify for the SCT, barring any cancellations on or addition to the schedule.

Manalapan entered the season as the No. 5 team and is currently on the outside looking in with respect to the SCT. The Braves are the No. 11 seed in the latest power-point standings in Central Jersey Group IV and a sub-.500 record on May 12 could put them in jeopardy of missing the tournament if at least 16 classified teams are .500 or better.

At one point, Manalapan was 2-7 and facing a CBA team that had won 21 straight games against N.J. competition and the Braves saved their season by ending CBA’s streak in a 4-0 win. Including that win, Manalapan is 5-2 over its last seven, with a 10-4 win over Freehold Boro Monday its latest triumph. Manalapan has six games scheduled prior to the SCT cutoff, including a suspended game against Marlboro that the two will pick up in the top of the seventh inning tied at 6.

Jackson Memorial began the season 5-0 and might have been 6-0 had the Jaguars been able to complete a suspended game after nine innings against Toms River North, which they eventually won in 10 innings when the game was resumed. That one-inning win is the only time Jackson Memorial has won in its last nine games, and the losses have been as close as they have been confounding for a program so consistently good and a team that started so well. During this stretch of eight losses in nine game and excluding a 12-0 loss to powerhouse St. Joseph of Montvale, the average margin of defeat has been three runs or fewer.

The Jaguars will look to get back on track this week against Brick, Brick Memorial and Freehold Township. They are also due to face Toms River East and Bayonne next week with plenty of open dates to add games if need be.

Both Colts Neck (preseason No. 6) and Freehold Boro (No. 9) have hovered around .500 as well, but both appear positioned to make the NJSIAA Tournament. Colts Neck, in particular, appears to be on the verge of locking up postseason berths across the board after improving to 9-6 with a win over Matawan on Monday, but making the most of the opportunities is a different challenge for the Cougars altogether. Last season, Colts Neck went 20-1 in regular-season games and 1-3 in postseason games and will hope to turn that around after losing to No. 22 seed Freehold Township as a No. 6 in the Monmouth County Tournament this past weekend.

Freehold Boro entered the week No. 4 in power points in Central Jersey Group IV, so if there are fewer than 16 teams in CJ IV that are .500 or better, Freehold would likely not even need the .500 mark to get into the NJSIAA Tournament. Considering how many teams could potentially be .500 in CJ IV, and also that they would like to qualify for the SCT as well, the Colonials will have their sights set on a winning record.

Freehold dropped a 10-4 decision to Manalapan on Monday to fall to 9-8 and will close out its A North schedule by playing Middletown South and Freehold Township. If the Colonials are up against the wall next week when it comes to qualifying for the SCT, they have games scheduled against Long Branch and Toms River East.


Milestone Men

Red Bank Catholic senior shortstop Evan Madigan and Christian Brothers Academy senior catcher Brandon Martorano were both First-Team All-Shore picks a year ago and both shared a similar accomplishment last week. On Thursday, Brandon Martorano notched his 100th career hit as a varsity player and two days later, Madigan joined Martorano in the 100-hit club.

Martorano hit a double in the first inning of a 2-1 loss to Freehold Boro to reach the milestone, while Madigan singled in the third inning of a 6-3 Monmouth County Tournament win over Ocean to join the club.

Both Martorano and Madigan are once again enjoying excellent seasons. Martorano currently has four home runs and 16 RBI for CBA, while Madigan is hitting .509 with two homers, two doubles 17 runs scored and 10 RBI as the Caseys leadoff hitter.