Baseball Top 20 in 2020 – No. 5: Middletown South
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. 5: Middletown South
Ahead of his first season as head baseball coach at Middletown South, Chris LeMore did not have much time to get to know his new team, but he has a pretty good idea about the makeup of its core group of players.
LeMore is an eight-grade teacher at Thompson Middle School in Middletown and coached the Eagles freshman team in 2017, when the current group of seniors were in their first year at Middletown South.
That group has grown and accomplished a lot since 2017 and while LeMore was just getting to know the updated versions of those players and the ones that have since entered the program, he was excited about what he saw.
“This is the best situation I have landed in,” said LeMore, who has been previously been the head coach at Marlboro, Red Bank Regional and St. Rose. “We met for the first time back in October and these kids are fantastic. They have been aces from the start of workouts back in November until now and I couldn’t be more impressed with their attitude.
“They are just good people. I got to know a lot of them as students when they were at Thompson and the seniors who were on that 2017 freshman team, I got to work with them for a year. They are just awesome kids and that’s what I was most looking forward to about coaching them this year.”
If they never play another game, the Middletown South baseball players in the Class of 2020 are already collectively responsible for getting the Eagles program back to a championship level. They entered the program in 2017 with Middletown South coming off a Shore Conference Class A North championship and went through a pair of forgettable seasons at the varsity level before 2019 saw the Eagles soar again.
Even with their sterling reputation intact, the current seniors want a chance to take the next step. While last year saw the Eagles win the outright Class A North championship for the first time in three years, they lost in the round of 16 of the Monmouth County Tournament and in the quarterfinals of both the Shore Conference Tournament and NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV Tournament – all on their home field.
For a group that has already done so much, Middletown South’s seniors still hope they have more to do in their high-school baseball careers.
Five returning seniors, in particular, were integral parts of Middletown South’s lineup and rotation as juniors in 2019 and make up the heart of this year’s roster. Chris Lotito, Danny Minze and Chris O’Connor were each all-division players in 2019 while Jack Sheridan and Anthony Esposito are back for what would be their third year in a starting role at the varsity level.
Lotito and Minze were two of the Shore’s breakout players of 2019 and on top of being the team’s two best pitchers, they were also two of its top three hitters by OPS (on-base-plus slugging percentage). Both are two-sport standouts – with Lotito serving as a defensive back on the Eagles football team and Minze an All-Shore soccer player – whose athleticism translates across the board, particularly in the outfield where Lotito patrols centerfield and Minze occupies right.
“Lotito and Minze are two of the best all-around players in the Shore,” LeMore said. “They are just athletes. You see what Lotito does on a football field and it’s just incredible. You watch Danny Minze play soccer and you can see the athleticism and the competitiveness. You can envision what they can do on a baseball field – Lotito tracking balls in center, Minze causing havoc on the base paths – and you get excited.”
Minze’s noteworthy part of his season was his contact hitting, which got him a Class-A-North-leading average of .403 while hitting mostly out of the No. 2 spot in the lineup. Lotito – a Seton Hall commit – was also solid at the plate, but his pitching throughout the season (3-2, 1.56 ERA; 44 strikeouts and 10 walks in 36 innings) stole the headlines as he went from a lockdown reliever early in the season to the team’s No. 1 starter.
O’Connor is the other all-division player returning and he has the distinction of being a two-time all-division selection after a breakout sophomore year in 2018. Last year, he was second on the team in slugging percentage (.513) and extra-base hits (10) behind 2019 graduate Rob Zega. O’Connor has been the team’s third baseman in each of the past two seasons, but LeMore was seriously considering a move to shortstop for the third-year starter and middle-of-the-order slugger.
“He had a cannon for an arm in our practices,” LeMore said of O’Connor. “He had just a different arm than everybody else on our team. He was throwing clotheslines across the diamond. Plus he is just a blue-collar, hard-working kid who loves the game.”
A move to shortstop for O’Connor would mean a shift from shortstop to second base for Jack Sheridan, who is also a two-sport standout after starting on Middletown South’s basketball team that finished No. 3 in the Shore Sports Network Final Top 10 in 2019-20. Sheridan has been a steady contributor to the lineup over the last two seasons – at outfield and second base as a sophomore and shortstop as a junior – and a move to second would signal LeMore’s emphasis on fortifying the middle of his defense.
“I am a firm believer that you want the strength of your team to be up the middle of the field,” LeMore said. “If we can have a situation where we have a consistent starter at each of those positions – in center, shortstop and second base and catcher – that would be ideal, in my mind. If we have a chance to fill those spots with seniors who know how to handle the responsibilities and are going to be there, that’s something we would probably go with.”
The last step in shoring up the middle of the field is moving Esposito from first base to catcher, which he did in one of Middletown South’s biggest wins of 2019 – a road win over Red Bank Catholic. With Trevor Brey in the fold for the rest of the season, Esposito started at first but is capable of handling catcher and everything that comes with it.
Esposito’s move behind the plate opens up first base for junior Joe Stanzione, who was the team’s starter at designated hitter last year, when he finished third on the team with a .333 average and tied for first with seven doubles.
“When you see him swing the bat, it’s intimidating,” LeMore said of Stanzione.
The open spots in the starting lineup are left field, either third base or second base and possibly the DH slot. Seniors Mike Barbara and Mike Rauso are among the contenders for the left-field job while juniors Tom DeMarco and Pat Eagone are also in play for the spot. With both Lotito and Minze figuring prominently into the pitching rotation, Middletown South will need more than one of the candidates to be ready to play in the outfield.
Eagone is also among the candidates for the open spot on the infield and will serve as a versatile piece over the next two seasons, not unlike what Sheridan has been during his baseball career at Middletown South. Junior Matt Pontari is a strong candidate for the potential third base job, as is classmate Mike Cowell.
While Lotito and Minze emerged as the top two pitchers for Middletown South in 2019, the Class of 2021 had a significant hand in turning Middletown South’s pitching from a concern in 2017 and 2018 into a strength last season. Jack Shea and Mike Keenan emerged as a reliable starters as sophomores, with Keenan finishing second on the team in innings (34 2/3) and Shea posting a 1.68 ERA over 16 2/3.
Pontari also pitched important innings as a sophomore and Cowell and sophomore Evan Wood are up-and-coming pitchers within the staff as well. Rauso and fellow senior Jack Shangold also return with experience and are both hoping for one more chance to carve out a role on the staff.
Middletown South’s pitching depth and experience is apparent, but its best pitching option – even in a shortened 2020 season – could very well be freshman Ben Schild. The 6-3, 190-pound rookie is the younger brother of Monmouth University catcher and former Middletown South standout Zach Schild and comes to the high-school level more polished than most high-school upperclassmen, according to LeMore.
“We kept him with the freshmen for a couple of days just to make sure he knows he has to earn it, but by the time we got him out there with the older kids, it was clear he belongs right now,” LeMore said. “I was pretty familiar with his ability and I more or less knew what we were getting, but I wanted the other coaches on the staff to see him and draw their own conclusions. Once they saw he was legit, I knew we could start to push him a little bit more.”
LeMore was an assistant coach at Christian Brothers Academy for two stints, including during the 2013 and 2014 seasons. In those two years, he coached Shore Conference all-time wins leader Luca Dalatri during his freshman and sophomore seasons and after getting to know Schild, he sees some similarities.
“I definitely see similarities, just in the kind of player both kids were as young players,” LeMore said. “Obviously, Luca went on to have an incredible career and Ben is just starting out. But they are similar in body type, both came in as freshmen very advanced and with a great feel for pitching at such a young age.”
Schild has also made an impression with his swing at the plate and could find himself with a spot in the lineup as the DH or at first base. While LeMore laments the possibility of not getting to coach this senior class, he takes solace in returning a roster in 2021 that will include Schild.
Still, with five core seniors like Lotito, Minze, O’Connor, Sheridan and Esposito, as well as senior role players like Barbara, Rauso and Shangold, the Eagles want a chance to make noise in 2020.
“Their spirits are upbeat,” LeMore said. “I am never a guy who gives up on something before it’s over and I think that’s how the kids are taking it too. They are in a tough position because they want to get to know me better just like I want to get to know them, but they are staying ready for whatever happens and hopefully we can get together again at some point this year.”
Head Coach: Chris LeMore, first season
2019 Record: 17-7 (12-2, first in A North)
Top Returning Hitters (with 2019 Stats)
|Chris O'Connor (Sr., 3B)||78||25||7||1||2||18||18||.321||.398||.513||3|
|Chris Lotito (Sr., CF)||65||21||5||1||1||14||15||.323||.457||.477||7|
|Danny Minze (Sr., RF)||67||27||3||0||0||21||8||.403||.488||.448||4|
|Jack Sheridan (Sr., SS)||63||18||1||1||0||15||11||.286||.324||.333||3|
|Anthony Esposito (Sr., C)||64||17||5||0||0||11||14||.266||.382||.344||3|
Top Returning Pitchers (with 2019 Stats)
|Chris Lotito (Sr., RHP)||3||2||36||27||8||10||44||1.56||1.03|
|Danny Minze (Sr., RHP)||4||1||32.2||23||12||24||27||2.57||1.44|
|Mike Keenan (Jr., RHP)||4||3||34.2||50||23||12||21||4.64||1.79|
|Jack Shea (Jr., RHP)||4||0||16.2||13||4||10||5||1.68||1.38|
Big Shoes to Fill: Anthony Esposito, C
Losing a catcher like Trevor Brey means losing more than just the numbers he put up and the actual defensive work he did game-in and game-out. Brey led the resurgent pitching staff and set the tone for the team at the defense’s most important position. Esposito has shown he can do the same and is set for an opportunity to do it over a full season, or whatever a potential 2020 season might look like.
Top Newcomer: Ben Schild, RHP/INF
Schild is the type of freshman that makes an immediate impact, if not with the bat then certainly in the pitching staff. His fastball and curveball are already advanced enough to quiet varsity lineups and his changeup is on the way as well. The bat will be a factor at some point as well, perhaps even in an abbreviated 2020 season. Whatever happens this season, Schild will again be one of the Shore’s players to watch in 2021.
X-Factor: The Junior Arms
Lotito and Minze form a solid one-two punch in the rotation and Schild is an upside arm that could take over as staff ace as soon as this year. The juniors, however, could have a significant say in Middletown South’s season. Shea, Keenan, Pontari and Cowell are all on a path to help lead the staff as seniors and if they collectively perform well in a 2020 campaign, it would make Middletown South’s pitching staff even more relentless and perhaps even give LeMore a chance to manage the workloads of Minze and Lotito while easing Schild into the high-school game.