Baseball Top 20 in 2020 – No. 10: St. John Vianney
Shore Sports Network is counting down its top 20 baseball teams heading into the would-be 2020 season by profiling each one. You can read the division-by-division previews and the other top-20 profiles here.
Shore Sports Network Baseball 20 in 2020 – No. 10: St. John Vianney
Six years ago, St. John Vianney finished the high-school baseball season as the No. 1 team in New Jersey by completing a Cinderella run to the NJSIAA Non-Public A championship. Since the graduation of that senior class, the Lancers have gone a combined 49-54 in five seasons with three losing campaigns while trying to regain their championship form – including a 10-12 mark a year ago.
Despite the sub-.500 record last year, St. John Vianney showed signs of a coming resurgence thanks to a roster littered with underclass talent that remains young heading into a potential 2020 season.
The Lancers are in prime position to be a force once again in 2021 and likely 2022, but they also have some experienced seniors who have paid their dues and have earned a chance to be a part of the return to glory – even if the COVID-19 pandemic ultimately takes it away from them.
“We’re a young team so not much changes next year for us,” Lancers coach Mike Morgan said. “Obviously, you feel bad for the seniors. As a program, we are in good shape because we have so many guys who will be back next year but as a coach, you always want to see your seniors get rewarded for their hard work and here we are in April and they might not get a chance to play this year. It sucks, but all you can do is try to keep them focused and positive.”
The outfield was shaping up to potentially be an all-senior trio, with Domenic Cerniglia and John Higgins returning as starters after manning the corners last season. Ryan DiPede, meanwhile, came into camp seeking the third spot after playing a part-time role as a junior in 2019.
St. John Vianney also returns a pair of right-handed seniors in the pitching staff in Ryan Chin and Robert Lehan. Chin has been a dependable pitcher in each of the last two seasons and was looking at his most prominent role yet as a leader on the staff and potential No. 1 or No. 2 in the rotation.
Lehan finished second on the 2019 staff in innings as a junior and did a commendable job picking up the slack for a pitching staff that performed the entire season without returning ace Brendan Martin because of injury.
Chin and Lehan are the seniors on what would be a very experienced and promising pitching staff for the Lancers – perhaps their best since winning the 2014 state title. Junior left-hander Ryan Sekman was the workhorse of the rotation last year as a sophomore and was voted by the Shore Sports Network readers as one of the final five All-Shore Team members.
“He got a lot stronger over the offseason and from what we saw in the bullpen, he had more velocity and more life on everything,” Morgan said of Sekman. “He looks like he is ready for that next level where he is more dominant and more durable. He started to show it at the end of last year and I think that was mainly confidence. Now he has the confidence, he has the strength and it’s just time to put it together.”
Classmate Evan Pollack also stepped up as a sophomore, posting a 2.30 ERA as St. John Vianney’s go-to reliever and closer.
“He was kind of our go-to guy when we needed to get those big outs late in the game or even in the middle of the game sometimes,” Morgan said of Pollack. “He did a nice job in that role and we could probably use him in a similar role this year or if we need him to start, he can do that.”
As promising as Vianney’s experienced rotation is for a potential 2020 season, its lineup is even more exciting. Sophomore shortstop Rocko Brzezniak is a big reason for that and he showed why during an eye-opening freshman season.
“He is obviously talented and I think he has really matured,” Morgan said of Brzezniak. “You started to see some teams start to pitch around him by the end of the year and he had to get used to what they were doing. I think with the lineup we had going into this year, we could have put him in better positions to get pitches to hit and do some more damage.”
Already committed to play at Louisville heading into his freshman season last year, Brzezniak finished second in the Shore Conference in average (.508) and on-base percentage (.608), second in slugging percentage (.952) and fourth in home runs (seven) during his first year of high-school baseball. The Shore Conference record for career home runs is 30, set by 2007 Ocean graduate Keith Weinkofsky and were it not for the current pandemic that is likely to take at least a large chunk of his sophomore season away, Brzezniak would likely be barreling toward that number heading into his senior season.
“I wouldn’t count him out when it comes to those records,” Morgan said. “Most guys don’t do what he did as a freshman so he already had a pretty big head start. I expect him to just keep getting better.”
The Lancers also had competitions burning at first base and catcher, with the odd-man out in each still likely to find a spot in the lineup on most days. At first, Sekman was set play the position when not pitching, but classmate John Furch has also made a case to play there or as designated hitter thanks to his powerful bat.
Junior Jacob Ramirez was one of the conference’s better catchers last season but finds himself getting pushed by promising sophomore Kyle Pollack – the younger brother of Evan. Ramirez’s offensive season as a sophomore (.438 on-base percentage, six doubles, a homer and 13 RBI) is sure to find him a spot in the lineup somewhere but Pollack has impressed Morgan and the coaching staff enough to move pieces around to get him behind the plate.
“I would say they are pretty neck-and-neck,” Morgan said. “Jake came on at the end of last year when he started listening to what the coaches were telling him and he probably has the edge as the more experienced guy. But Pollack is advanced for a sophomore and he looks like a varsity player. If he’s not starting on opening day this year, I wouldn’t be surprised if he made the lineup sometime later in the year.”
St. John Vianney also welcomes in a pair of junior transfers that are set to make a major impact in the lineup – if not this season then next year as seniors. Matteo Pasculli came over from Manalapan and is in line to fill the open spot at third base while Monroe transfer Antonio Antoniades projects to do the same at second base.
“With those guys coming in, I don’t think our lineup falls off much from last year,” Morgan said. “I like our depth one-through-nine. Guys are coming in better than they were last year, plus you add two very good hitters to replace two of the good hitters we lost.”
All signs point to St. John Vianney re-emerging as one of the top teams in the conference by 2021 and should the Lancers and the rest of New Jersey get a chance to button up in 2020, it could be an even earlier arrival for one of the Shore’s more promising rosters.
“There is definitely talent here, probably the most since the state championship team,” Morgan said. “But you’ve got to put it together. That team didn’t do it until the state tournament that year. Hopefully this group is ready this year and we’ll get a chance to find out. If not, we should have a good opportunity next year.”
St. John Vianney
Head Coach: Mike Morgan, 14th season
2019 Record: 10-12 (7-7, tied fourth in B North)
Top Returning Hitters (with 2019 Stats)
|Rocko Brzezniak (So., SS)||63||32||5||1||7||20||26||.508||.593||.952||6|
|Domenic Cerniglia (Sr., OF)||35||11||0||0||0||7||5||.314||.429||.314||5|
|Jacob Ramirez, (Jr., C)||59||18||6||0||1||11||13||.305||.438||.458||3|
|John Higgins (Sr., OF)||51||14||5||0||0||8||7||.275||.302||.373||2|
|Ryan Sekman (Jr., 1B)||38||10||2||0||0||6||6||.263||.317||.316||4|
Top Returning Pitchers (with 2019 Stats)
|Ryan Sekman (Jr., LHP)||3||3||44.1||37||18||25||49||2.84||1.40|
|Robert Lehan (Sr., RHP)||3||1||30.1||33||16||18||26||3.69||1.68|
|Ryan Chin (Sr., RHP)||3||1||21.1||18||7||9||14||2.30||1.27|
|Evan Pollack (Jr., RHP)||0||3||21.1||22||7||9||21||2.30||1.45|
Big Shoes to Fill: Matt Pasculli (Jr., 3B) and Antonio Antoniades (Jr., 2B)
Luciano Fabrizzi and John Skinner were St. John Vianney’s two best hitters after Brzezniak last year and leave holes at third and second base. Conveniently enough, Pasculli and Antoniades arrive to St. John Vianney capable of plugging those defensive holes and jumping into the top two-thirds of a potentially-imposing batting order.
Newcomer to Watch: Kyle Pollack, C
Jacob Ramirez is a strong incumbent but Pollack’s fast development behind the plate gives Morgan and his staff some options. Pollack’s offense might not be where Ramirez’s is now ore even what it was when Ramirez was a sophomore in 2019, but Morgan expects that to come eventually – perhaps even sooner rather than later.
X-Factor: Ryan Chin, RHP
Sekman enters the season as St. John Vianney’s ace and Lehan and Pollack are coming off very strong varsity debuts in 2019. Chin is the pitcher who has the chance to elevate St. John Vianney’s staff to the next level and give the Lancers a No. 2 arm that pitchers like a second No. 1 following the fast-improving Sekman.