Baseball Top 20 in 2020 – No. 7: Wall
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. 7: Wall
New Wall head baseball coach Jim Rochford has already opened up the first day of practice as the acting head coach for two seasons in a row and still has yet to play the role during an actual game.
Last year, it was for a very encouraging reason: head coach Todd Schmitt returned from a disability absence in time to resume his normal post by the first regular-season game.
Now that Rochford is officially the head coach, it’s harder to put a positive spin on this particular wait for him and his team.
When last we saw the Wall baseball team, the Crimson Knights were piled on top of one another in the middle of the infield at Veterans Park in Hamilton, celebrating the program’s first overall NJSIAA Group III championship in 15 years.
The 2020 season was already set to be a year of change for the program: eight senior starters graduated from the 2019 team and Schmitt retired after 22 years on the job. Rochford was hoping for a relatively seamless transition thanks to some key pieces that did come back from last year, as well as the experience Rochford gained in running the 2019 preseason while Schmitt finished recovering from a fall he took while teaching in a physical education class at the high school in the fall of 2018.
The difference between the two preseason coaching experiences, of course, was the personnel. In addition to the eight senior starters entering the season, Wall had another returning senior in John Iradi that eventually won a starting job, a talented junior in Teddy Sharkey and another experienced junior in Sean Nocera, and – most importantly – the deepest, most dominant pitching staff in the Shore Conference.
“I have already had two offseasons and two preseasons in March running the program, so I am pretty much used to that part,” Rochford said. “Last year was probably tougher only because there were a lot of responsibilities I wasn’t used to having to handle as the assistant: administrative stuff, dealing with the equipment, practice plans. I had to make cuts and assign to jayvee and freshman (teams).
“The toughest thing with last year, though, was we had such a good team, I just didn’t want to screw it up. I just wanted them to get to the season healthy and feeling good. With as good as those guys were, as a coach, you just want to make sure you’re not getting in the way.”
This year, Sharkey, Nocera and current junior Jay Bant represent the lone returning starters from 2019 and only Sharkey returns to the pitching staff. For such a small collection of returning starters, each member of the trio was productive in every role they played last year and that gives Rochford confidence that Wall could keep contending for titles if given a chance this spring.
“I started getting excited when I was looking at what we had,” Rochford said. “At first, I didn’t know how were going to replace that group of seniors, but as things started to come together, guys started getting into swing of things and competing at practice, you really started to see some talent come to the surface, to the point where I thought we were going to be better than a lot people might have thought given what we lost.”
Sharkey will be the Wall centerpiece in his fourth year as a starter, serving as the team’s top returning hitter and pitcher. The Coastal Carolina commit led the Crimson Knights in on-base percentage (.542), slugging percentage (.598) and extra-base hits (14) at the plate and was the No. 2 starter behind Trey Dombroski.
Bant is projected as the No. 2 pitcher in this year’s rotation after serving, primarily, as the designated hitter as a sophomore. He played some third base throughout the year as well and will man the position on a more full-time basis going forward.
“Jay would have pitched last year if we needed him but with the five guys we had, it just never came to the point that we had to put him on the mound,” Rochford said. “It was a good situation for him last year, being a sophomore on a senior-led team where he could really just focus on hitting. He was one of out best hitters so it worked out well for us.”
Nocera came up to the varsity team as a catcher during his sophomore season and ascended to a starting job in right field last year.
Bant and Nocera were more than just supporting-cast members within the offense as well. They were the Nos. 4 and 5 hitters during the state-tournament run, with Bant leading the team in RBI (27) and Nocera finishing third on the team in batting average (.365). Including Sharkey, Wall is set up with three of the top five hitters from last year’s lineup.
In order to plug the many remaining holes left by the memorable 2019 class, Wall will rely on a pipeline that has been a reliable source for talent over the years – certainly during Scmitt’s two-plus decades at the helm. This year, that reserve of talent will have to yield at least one outfielder, a double-play combination, a catcher and pitching depth beyond Sharkey and Bant.
“We had a very successful freshman and jayvee team last year,” Rochford said. They won about 16, 18 games – in that area. The talent is coming up, and we knew we had a shot with Sharkey pitching against the top teams.”
The outfield is where Wall is best set-up to be whole, with senior Fredo DiPaola and sophomore Nick Lovarco both in position to step right in and provide significant contribution. Lovarco has the upside as an all-around talent while DiPaola saw varsity time last year and his speed would be a major plus defensively and within the lineup.
Rochford also expects catcher to be a settled position, with junior Max Harrell taking over as the starter and Nocera capable of strapping on the tools if needed.
On the position-player side, the infield is the most up-for-grabs area of the field for Wall heading into the immediate future. Bant will be at one corner of the infield and the rest of the infielders are still engaged in positional battles. Sean Brannon and Matt Croson are the seniors in the competition at second base and shortstop, while juniors Justin Cufone and Chris Cosenza make their bid as well.
Senior Brett Palmer and junior Ryan Lagere are in the mix to play first base and sophomore Andrew Fischer is emerging as a top underclassman in the program who could force his way into a spot somewhere on the field. Fischer’s primary position is third base and he could either land at one of the open spots or move Bant across the field to first, which could serve to reduce the tax on Bant’s arm if he becomes a major innings-eater for the Knights.
“There is definitely competition in the infield,” Rochford said. “The coaches were looking at middle infield and we thought we were legitimately two deep everywhere.”
The pitching staff beyond Sharkey and Bant was Rochford’s foremost focus as camp opened and some candidates started to make themselves knock. Junior Jack Campi and sophomore Jerry Winchester will be rotation hopefuls going forward and both could also make a move for time in the outfield as well.
“The pitching is where we really had to figure things out,” Rochford said. “The good thing is we have Sharkey at the top and we have the arms to fill in after him. It was just a matter of figuring out which guys fit best in which spots and getting them the reps they need to be successful when the games count.”
It would be one thing if Wall was starting completely from scratch after graduating a decorated senior class, but the return of Sharkey, Bant and Nocera, Rochford’s familiarity with the program and the players with him, and Wall’s history of producing baseball talent suggest that if there is a Shore Conference season, the Crimson Knights will remain a major factor.
“We were excited,” Rochford said. “A lot of guys were waiting for an opportunity last year behind that group of seniors and there was a lot of opportunity when practices started. I was looking forward to seeing guys compete for spots because that wasn’t really a possibility last year. You feel bad for the seniors who were in the mix for starting jobs and you just hope there is something we can do to give them a chance at a season.”
Head Coach: Jim Rochford, first season
2019 Record: 27-4 (12-2, first in B North)
Top Returning Hitters (with 2019 Stats)
|Teddy Sharkey (Sr., CF)
|Sean Nocera (Sr., LF)
|Jay Bant (Jr., 3B)
Top Returning Pitchers (with 2019 Stats)
|Teddy Sharkey (Sr., RHP)
Big Shoes to Fill: Jay Bant, 3B/RHP
Bant was already one of Wall’s best hitters last year but as a junior, he will be asked to be more than that. He replaces First Team All-Shore third baseman Grant Shulman, who also served as the team’s closer, and will also have to fill one of the top spots in the rotation along with Sharkey. While Sharkey has to replace Dombroski as the ace of the staff, his body of work suggests he can pitch like a high-school ace – even if it’s not the historic level that Dombroski did. Bant, meanwhile, has yet to throw meaningful innings at the high-school level, so he is at once both experienced and inexperienced.
Top Newcomers: Nick Lovarco (So., OF) and Andrew Fischer (So., 3B)
With Fischer getting over an injury as camp opened up and Bant occupying his primary position of third base, Lovarco has the quicker path to a starting job in the outfield and was making a convincing case for it early in camp. Fischer, though, will be an important player in the program in short order and if the season does get going sometime in 2020, he would be ready to contribute.
X-Factor: Pitching Depth
If Sharkey is making all of his starts like he did last year and could give Wall a usual workload for a No. 1 pitcher, the Crimson Knights would have themselves one of the Shore’s top hurlers – right up there with the rest of the Shore’s returning crop of pitchers according to last year’s numbers. Beyond that, however, pitching is the great unknown for the Crimson Knights, which is the exact opposite of what the pitching staff has been over the last three years.
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