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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. 13: Jackson Liberty

“Hope springs eternal” is the motto of any baseball preseason and the Jackson Liberty baseball team – particularly the returnees from last year’s team – could use some hope right now.

The Lions had their best team in the relatively brief history of the program last year and ran roughshod over the rest of the Shore Conference Class B South during the regular season, but came up short of winning their first ever tournament championship.

It might seem like if it wasn’t going to happen in 2019 for the senior-loaded Lions, it would be hard to see it happening for a less-experienced Jackson Liberty team in 2020. That, however, might be a hasty conclusion.

The COVID-19 pandemic has threatened every team’s season in 2020 but should baseball persevere in New Jersey between now and late June, Jackson Liberty still has the foundation to make some kind of run with the pieces that remain.

Jackson Liberty senior Shane Hickey. (Photo by Paula Lopez)

“We’re coming off probably the best season we have ever had as a program and we graduated the best senior class we have ever had,” Jackson Liberty coach Jim Rankin said. “We only had seven days together to get a feel for where we are at, but you could start to see where we were going to be strong.

“Obviously, people are going to look and see what we lost and maybe think we’ll take a step back, but the guys we have back are very good players for us and there is another group that is coming up and ready to make an impact.”

The Lions graduated a Shore Sports Network Player of the Year in catcher David Melfi, a First-Team All-Shore centerfielder in Connor Keenan, two Third-Team hitters in outfielder Charlie Rudderow and first baseman Kevin Ritz, and two more impact starting bats in right fielder Scott Wierciszewski and shortstop Alex Torres.

With that senior group serving as the core of the lineup, Jackson Liberty slugged its way to a Shore-Conference-best 231 runs scored, powering the Lions to a 23-4 overall record. Three of those losses, however, came in tournament play, with Jackson Liberty losing to Point Pleasant Boro in the Ocean County Tournament final, Wall in the Shore Conference Tournament quarterfinal and Northern Burlington in the Central Jersey Group III semifinal.

“As a program, you always want to be in those games and I think to get that deep into three different tournaments is an accomplishment,” Rankin said. “With that being said, yeah, it stings when you get that close three times and can’t get over the hump. But I’m of the belief that the more you keep playing in those games, the more motivated you are to keep working to get back there and if you keep getting there, eventually, the ball is going to bounce your way.”

Senior Shane Hickey, senior Brandon Kinsman and sophomore Dan Keenan all return to the starting nine from last year’s team and want their chance to finish what they and the seniors couldn’t quite do last year. While some teams leave their returning starters in their familiar spots and fill in the holes around them, Rankin is going the other way and moving his three best players to the three most important defensive positions on the field.

Jackson Liberty senior Brandon Kinsman (Photo courtesy: Paige Hickey)

Hickey is slated to be a four-year starter for Jackson Liberty and after manning third base each of the past three seasons, he heads into a potential 2020 season as the Lions’ shortstop. Hickey is a two-time All-Shore selection by Shore Sports Network and with a full senior season, would have had a chance to break multiple program records at the plate.

“Shane is sliding over to short he has been dying for that opportunity,” Rankin said. “He Could have done it earlier, but we had other guys to play the spot. It wasn’t because he wasn’t good enough, but him going to third just gave us the best left side of the infield possible. He always had the attributes to play short but he was so good at third too. I’m not sure I have had a kid who attacks slow-roller better than Shane does.”

Kinsman has been a legitimate utility player for Jackson Liberty over the past two seasons and if his prowess at second base, third base, shortstop and in the outfield did not demonstrate that enough, the versatile senior is all set to replace Melfi at catcher this season.

“Brandon has been dying to catch,” Rankin said. “With Melfi here the last four years, that wasn’t really a possibility but now that the spot is opened up, he is as deserving as anybody. The great thing about him is he knows every position inside and out and that’s a big advantage to have somebody like that as your catcher. He’s the ultimate team guy; whatever we need him to do, he can do it.”

Dan Keenan is the younger brother of Connor Keenan and made a significant contribution as a freshman last year, both as a hitter and a pitcher. He hit mostly as the team’s designated hitter but brings plenty of ability to the field and is slated to replace his older brother in centerfield.

With the returning trio playing up the middle, the Lions opened camp on the lookout for players who could handle the rest of the positions. Senior Jake Hickman was one of the first players off the bench in big games last year and would be a prime candidate to take over at second base if Kinsman sticks behind the plate. The Lions also have a capable senior catcher in Aaron Montgomery if Kinsman moved back to second or to use at another spot if Kinsman were to stay at catcher.

Junior Carl Barth and senior Tim Duffy were both varsity contributors last year – Barth as a part-time first baseman and Duffy as a pitcher. Both opened camp competing for corner outfield spots and had an inside track to win those jobs thanks to their experience. Senior Gavin Maarberg and junior Casey Braun are also making a push for time in the outfield.

Jackson Liberty senior Tim Duffy (Photo courtesy: Paige Hickey)

The corner infield positions were where Jackson Liberty was most aggressively evaluating new varsity players. Sophomore Garrett Drew was emerging as the favorite to start at third base and might have had more of a battle if fellow talented sophomore R.J. Vashey were not injured. Both Drew and Vashey will be players to watch going forward.

First base was the most open competition when camp was suspended. Senior Matt Milne and sophomore Chris Sasso are in that mix, as are Barth and Montgomery. A dark-horse candidate to win the job at some point in 2020 is freshman Zaine Toneske, who is another part of a potential underclass core for the reloading Lions.

It will be next to impossible for this year’s lineup to score anywhere near as many runs as last year’s Jackson Liberty juggernaut did but the pitching staff actually has a chance to be better. The year started with Nick DeCarlo and Kevin Ritz as the team’s top two pitchers but by the end of the season, Hickey, Wierciszewski and Dan Keenan had become go-to arms.

Hickey and Keenan would be at the top of the rotation this season, with Duffy and senior right-hander Ryan Gallacher both returning with a combined 50 innings of 2019 experience as well. If Duffy and Gallacher were to continue their reliable pitching as starters, Rankin would have the option to use either Hickey or Keenan in more of a closer role – saving their arms and giving the Lions a formula by which to finish off games. Barth and Sasso could also play a part in the rotation and would be unique options as left-handers.

Jackson Liberty senior Ryan Gallacher. (Photo courtesy: Paige Hickey)

Jackson Liberty is ready to move into the next phase of their championship pursuit and while there is talent coming up to take the torch from accomplished seniors like Hickey and Kinsman, a year to play alongside this group of seniors could aid in the transition to a new group of Lions in the program. Getting games in during 2020 would naturally be a priority from the perspective of those seniors but Rankin would also like to see what some of his new starters could do and give them a chance to learn from a quality group of seniors.

“With the career Shane has had for us and with what Brandon has done and sacrificed to help us the last couple of years, those guys deserve a chance to end their careers on their terms,” Rankin said. “The other seniors too: Hickman, Duffy, Gallacher, Maarberg, Aaron Montgomery, Matt Milne – they have all put time in as well and for a lot of those guys, this was going to be their biggest opportunity to play. You just hope something happens in these next few weeks where we can get them some kind of opportunity for a season so they can close out their careers with something positive.”

 

Jackson Liberty

Head Coach: Jim Rankin, 13th season
2019 Record: 23-4 (14-0, first in B South)

Top Returning Hitters (with 2019 Stats)

PlayerABH2BHRRRBIAVGOBPSLUG
Shane Hickey (Sr., SS)85301012022.353.471.506
Dan Keenan (So., CF)6922401716.319.380.377
Brandon Kinsman (Sr., UTIL)7923532321.291.410.468

 

Top Returning Pitchers (with 2019 Stats)

PlayerWLIPHERBBSOERAWHIP
Shane Hickey (Sr., RHP)4030.2341115232.511.60
Ryan Gallacher (Sr., RHP)2026.132158223.991.52
Tim Duffy (Sr., RHP)502421611121.751.33
Dan Keenan (So., RHP)302019914303.151.65

 

Big Shoes to Fill: Brandon Kinsman, C/2B

Whichever player got the assignment of playing catcher this season was going to have huge shoes to fill. David Melfi was a four-year starter behind the plate, the best hitter in program history and the Shore Sports Network Player of the Year in 2019 after leading the Shore in home runs (10) and RBI (46). Kinsman is a great candidate to try because of his versatility, athleticism and confidence as a senior.

Top Newcomer: Garrett Drew, 2B/3B

This year was going to give Rankin and the rest of the Shore a chance to see the next wave of players at Jackson Liberty. With Dan Keenan already entrenched as a sophomore starter, Drew looked like the next sophomore to mark his turf in the starting lineup for a team hungry to get itself a tournament championship.

X-Factor: Tim Duffy and Ryan Gallacher

Hickey and Keenan will be in the picture as pitchers in some capacity but their use would likely depend on how Duffy and Gallacher – two experienced seniors – pitched early on. If the two right-handers delivered early on against top competition, that could take significant pressure off of Hickey and Keenan – both of whom figure to have key roles to play on defense and in the lineup.