Baseball Top 20 in 2020 – No. 9: Toms River North
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. 9: Toms River North
It is hard to understate the challenge that Toms River North coach Andy Pagano and, more importantly, his players faced heading into the 2019 season. A group that had spearheaded three straight Ocean County Tournament championships and back-to-back Shore Conference Tournament titles had graduated and outside of a few position players who hit down in the batting order, the Mariners had an entirely new roster.
With that in mind, pitching was the major unknown heading into last year and yet, it turned out to be a strength Toms River North’s team over the long haul of 2019.
Following that successful year as a deep, dependable pitching staff, the Mariners mound army was hoping for a chance to grow in 2020, perform even better as a group and get a little more offense to back them up – especially with some senior experience leading the lineup.
Robert Jeans, Jake Dawson and Phil Antoniotti return to the everyday lineup, senior Nick DeRose is back on the infield after an injury-plagued 2019, and Matt Ostroman and Jeans figured to be two key cogs in the pitching staff. If the COVID-19 pandemic wipes out the spring high-school sports season in New Jersey – as it has in Pa. and N.Y. – that core could miss out on a chance to start a new reign atop Ocean County.
“We are a junior-heavy group,” Pagano said. “That’s the class that has been laying the groundwork over the last couple years to hopefully do what that 2018 class did during their careers. We were hoping to see it this year, hopefully they still get a chance.
“But the seniors were going to be a big part of the team too. You feel for a kid like Jake Dawson, who has been a leader for us and really looked like he was going to have a big year and be one of the best catchers in the Shore. Jeans came back healthy and he was looking forward to having a big year. Antoniotti was a starter last year and DeRose was hurt and looking to get back and show what he can do. Then you’ve got Ostroman, who was a steady guy on the pitching staff last year. Ty Avallone was a pinch-runner and a good team guy off the bench. You want to get back out there for those seniors, more than anything.”
Toms River North’s entirely new pitching staff performed about as well as could have been excepted last year and most of those pieces are back on the roster this season. Jeans emerged as the No. 1 starter early in the year and over the course of the year, several pitchers took their turn near the top of the rotation and made a case as the frontline pitcher. Sam Angelo graduated after leading the team in innings and was second in ERA, while Ostroman was second in innings and third in ERA. In all, Toms River North had four pitchers post an ERA under 2.00 and three of them are back.
Juniors Brandon Feigin and Russ Thistle join Ostroman and Jeans as the four returning hurlers. Feigin joined the rotation in the middle of the year and was effectively the team’s ace heading into the NJSIAA Tournament. Thistle, meanwhile, worked as a reliever throughout the year and led the team with a 0.81 ERA in 17 1/3 innings. Thistle and Ostroman both work from the left side of the rubber, giving Toms River North multiple looks on the mound.
Antoniotti and DeRose could also factor into the pitching plans in a 2020 season, with juniors Brandon Valles and Jack Tava also providing depth on the rubber.
Toms River North also had a lot of offense to replace in 2019 but did have a few starting position players back in Angelo, Jeans, and 2019 graduates Dylan Feigin and Jon Giordano. The Mariners also added Antoniotti, who started two years at Point Pleasant Beach before transferring over to Toms River North for his junior season.
Despite the experience coming back and the recent history of putting runs on the board, Toms River North’s offense was inconsistent, finishing 20th in the Shore Conference with 4.96 runs per game. Among the returning starters, only Dylan Feigin improved on his 2018 OPS (on-base-plus-slugging percentage) so for the Mariners to get back into the Shore’s elite over the next two seasons, the bats will need the junior core to quickly acclimate to starting spots, whenever they assume them.
“We were definitely expecting to swing the bats better this year,” Pagano said. “We had a couple injuries that we had to work around last year and with this group of juniors coming back, I think we are going to be much deeper, especially this year when you also have some of the seniors like Jeans, Dawson, DeRose, Antoniotti – guys like that.”
Jeans did not fall off too far from 2018 (.368/.403/.421, three doubles, 15 runs) and was essentially on-par with the baseline he set as a sophomore when he hit .342/.369/.418 with six doubles and 17 RBI. Dawson was also a quality addition to the lineup, both offensively and defensively, and came to camp improved in both facets, according to Pagano.
“He was one of the most underrated catchers around last year, maybe the most underrated,” Pagano said of Dawson. “We felt pretty strongly like he was going to have a big year and really open a lot of people’s eyes.”
Antoniotti, meanwhile, had to adjust from facing pitching in Class B Central – which includes the smallest schools in the Shore Conference – to facing the traditionally-strong Class A South. DeRose played a lot of third base as a sophomore and hit .250 in 42 plate appearances, but was then limited to 18 plate appearances last year after entering the season as a projected starter on the left side of the infield.
Returning juniors Nick Mortellito and Lucas Malave each emerged as steady bats as sophomores, with Mortellito hitting .269 with three doubles in 30 plate appearances as a second baseman and Malave posting a .281 average with two doubles in 32 in several spots. Malave entered camp eyeing first base, the outfield and designated hitter as potential starting spots.
Juniors Zach Goodale, David Ventura, Sean Mindas and Jack Tava also came back poised to make bigger impacts after spot duty in 2019. Goodale is a standout football player and the son of Rutgers head wrestling coach Scott Goodale, bringing exceptional speed to centerfield. Ventura is a strong candidate to take over at shortstop, Mindas will occupy an outfield spot and Tava is also a possibility at first base and DH.
“The good thing is we have a lot of versatility,” Pagano said. “We have more than one guy who can play shortstop, we have guys who can slide to the outfield, they can play first or third base, a couple who can catch. It gives us a chance to play the hot hand a little bit and try to get some big bats in the lineup.”
Sophomore Dominick Saldida is also making a case to start in Toms River North’s crowded infield, with a spot at shortstop likely somewhere in his future as a Mariner.
The lineup had some questions to answer after struggling against good teams late in the year, but Toms River North entered March with a lot of options and the hope that the incoming juniors were ready to fully mature into dependable varsity players. Factor in a pitching staff that proved to be better than expected last year and is mostly back, and Toms River North can get back to eyeing those tournament titles – even with talented teams returning at Jackson Memorial and Point Pleasant Boro.
“It seems like people got down us a little bit after last year but I thought we handled ourselves pretty well,” Pagano said. “I don’t want to say we overachieved because we have high expectations every year, but I thought the guys battled and we came away with some pretty good wins. With the experience on the mound coming back and younger guys maturing, I really think we would have surprised a lot of people this year.”
Toms River North
Head Coach: Andy Pagano, seventh season
2019 Record: 15-11 (11-3, second in A North)
Top Returning Hitters (with 2019 Stats)
|Robert Jeans (Sr., OF/1B)
|Jake Dawson (Sr., C)
|Phil Antoniotti, (Sr., 2B/SS)
Top Returning Pitchers (with 2019 Stats)
|Matt Ostroman (Sr., LHP)
|Brandon Feigin (Jr., RHP)
|Robert Jeans (Sr., RHP)
|Russ Thistle (Jr., LHP)
Big Shoes to Fill: David Ventura, SS
Dylan Feigin might have been Toms River North’s steadiest position player last year, playing a quality shortstop while hitting .293 in the top of the order. It will be hard to find his all-around talent with one player, but the Mariners have lots to shortstop options in Ventura, Saldida, Antoniotti and DeRose. Ventura was the guy who made the early impression during the first week of practice.
Top Newcomer: Dominic Saldida, 2B/SS
Most of Toms River North’s projected lineup got at least a taste of varsity playing time last year, with the exception of Saldida. This is more than just process-of-elimination, though, as Saldida is poised to start his varsity career with a chance to get a lot of at-bats and reps on the infield while laying the groundwork to become one of the top players in A South by the second half of his high-school career.
X-Factor: Nick DeRose, 3B/RHP
Last year was a lost season for DeRose, who earned himself an important role on Toms River North’s OCT and SCT championship team in 2018. Toms River North has a lot of good infielders, so DeRose would have had to win his spot back, but he also returned hungry and with the talent to be one of the breakout players in the Shore Conference now that he is healthy.
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