Baseball – St. John Vianney Plays, Wins With Heavy Hearts After Death of School Counselor
TOMS RIVER - St. John Vianney senior Luciano Fabrizzi got to school Tuesday morning with a busy day ahead of him. He had two final exams scheduled and was to take his second one earlier than most of his classmates because he had to leave school at 1:15 p.m. to play in an NJSIAA Tournament baseball game in Toms River against Donovan Catholic.
One of his first stops was by the guidance office, where he wanted to pick up graduation tickets he was hoping would be waiting for him, courtesy of counselor and head cheerleading coach Jayne Shalkowski.
"Is Mrs. 'S' here?," Fabrizzi asked.
"No, she is on a field trip," Fabrizzi said he was told.
Fabrizzi carried on with his day, took his first exam, ate a quick lunch, then finished up his second exam before running to his car to get ready for the big state tournament game.
Then he got a text from head baseball coach Mike Morgan, telling him the news the rest of the school found out while he was taking his second final.
Shalkowski never came back from the field trip. She passed away after suffering a heart attack while at Brookdale Community College, according to the account that was told to Morgan and the rest of the St. John Vianney faculty. St. John Vianney High School announced her passing on social media.
"It was a tough day," Fabrizzi said. "They had a huge assembly. There was a lot of crying, I heard. No one knew what was happening but everyone knew something was wrong. Everyone was shocked that it happened just like that."
As Morgan described it, Shalkowski, 61, spent her final moments reading in the library while the rest of the group was taking a tour.
"The teachers found out around 10 o’clock," Morgan said. "I heard rumors that something was going on but I didn’t hear anything up until later in the day. They tried to keep it away from the kids for a while because they were still figuring out exactly what happened. It’s been emotional all the way through. For myself, the kids, everybody at the school."
With the news still raw, Morgan wanted input from one of his senior leaders: "Do you want to play this game today?"
"A lot of people were saying we weren’t going to play," said Fabrizzi, who like many of his teammates, wrote "Mrs. S" on his wristband and hat for the game. "We heard (Athletic director Richard) Lamberson was going to cancel it. We said, ‘No, let’s go play.’
"It hit hard at first, yeah, but we also knew if we went home, slept in our beds, had time to really think about it, it might have been even worse tomorrow."
The Vianney players carpooled to Toms River, turned their attention to baseball as best they could and turned in an impressive all-around effort to beat Donovan Catholic, 14-0, in six innings.
"The kids wanted to play today," Morgan said. "I called them together and said, ‘What do you want to do?’ They were like, ‘Coach, we’re playing for her today.’ That’s what they wanted to do and I left it up to them."
The Lancers hit three home runs, collected 14 hits and put the game away with an eight-run sixth inning. Fabrizzi had one of his best games at the plate this year, finishing 4-for-5 with a three-run home run that capped the scoring in the sixth.
With heavy hearts throughout his team's dugout, Fabrizzi helped get his team's mind off of the real world with a lead-off single and sophomore catcher Jacob Ramirez brought some joy to the dugout with a three-run home run to centerfield to quickly gave St. John Vianney a 3-0 lead.
"Before we even took our gloves out to the field, we had a 3-0 lead with Jake’s homer and I think that got our minds into the game," Fabrizzi said. "That felt good. Nothing too different about playing the actual game, just a lot of emotions."
Freshman Rocko Brzezniak also homered in the sixth inning, launching his seventh long ball of the year for a two-run shot. Sophomore John Higgins had a big game as well out of the No. 9 spot in the order, going 3-for-4 with a double and three runs scored, with all three of his hits hitting the top of the netting that extends over the outfield fence at the Donovan Sports Complex field.
As well as St. John Vianney's offense played under the circumstances on Tuesday, sophomore starting pitcher Ryan Sekman's performance stood out above the rest.
According to Morgan and Fabrizzi, Sekman struggled with the news of Shalkowski's passing as much as any player on the roster and the decision to play Tuesday meant as Vianney's No. 1 pitcher throughout the season, he would be asked to take the mound.
"Ryan was having a lot of trouble with it so I knew it was going to be tough for him," Fabrizzi said. "Then I looked at him and asked ‘Are you good?’ He was like ‘Yeah, I’ll be fine. Let’s go.’ Morgan made the call and we got in our cars and drove here."
While battling his emotion and fighting through some early command issues, Sekman dug deep and pitched a three-hit shutout over six innings. He struck out six and walked just two despite throwing only 24 of his first 47 pitches for strikes over the first three innings. Over the final three, he threw 28 of 42 for strikes.
"He broke down at the end of the game and you could see he was pitching with a lot of emotion. That was who I was worried about the most today – knowing how close he was with her and to throw him out on the mound for a state tournament game.
"He gutted it out – it wasn’t his best stuff, but he gutted it out. It’s a learning experience for him: if he can get through this today, he can get through anything."
Morgan himself was hit hard by the news and said he was still feeling numb to it. He has coached football and baseball at St. John Vianney for 24 years and taught there for 17 - which altogether covers more than half the time Shalkowski spent during her professional career there.
With Morgan on the football staff and Shalkowski directing the cheerleading squad, there was always overlap between the two. Shalkowski even attended Morgan's wedding.
"I coached football for years and the stuff she would do for the football players – decorating the locker room, getting the girls to bake cupcakes, taking care of my boys when we were in states," Morgan said. "Her girls always did a lot for the school and that was a result of her motivating people.
"I told the kids today, there are things she did behind the scenes you probably didn’t even know about. She would do whatever she had to for those kids at St. John’s and it’s a huge loss for the community and the kids at the school."
After Tuesday's win, the ninth-seeded Lancers will prepare for a trip Friday to play St. Augustine - the No. 1 seed in the South Jersey Non-Public A section, the three-time defending sectional champion and defending overall Non-Public A champion.
A win on Friday would be a significant accomplishment for a team that began the season 2-7 and lost a potential No. 1 starter in returning senior Brendan Martin to injury before the year even started.
"We have been playing through adversity all year," Morgan said. "We started off 2-7, won six in a row to make the Shore Conference Tournament. We were up-and-down all year and we just got another curveball thrown at us.
"They just reacted. They were high-energy today and hopefully we can keep that until Friday. It's going to be tough. She’s going to be in the back of our minds and it’s going to carry us for however far we go."
Morgan walked off the field Tuesday, scrolling through the messages on his phone from friends, other coaches in the area and former players offering thoughts about and condolences for Shalkowski, her family and the St. John Vianney community.
"She was probably the school mom to every athlete at St. John’s," Morgan said. "You name it: if something’s wrong, she was on it. Whether she was your counselor or not, she knew who you were, she knew about you, she would come to the games and support you. She made an impact on a lot of people."