Expectations have always been high for Toms River South during head coach Ken Frank’s 35 years in the dugout, but as much as those expectations are born out of a winning culture, they are also attributable to exceptional talent that pours into the program.

“Overachiever” was never label that came to mind when senior pitchers Tyler Gebler, Andrew McGee, Conor Kaden and Kyle Driscoll mowed through Shore Conference Class A South lineups in consecutive years from 2009 to 2012 before pitching for Division I programs. But that is precisely the word Frank uses to describe this year’s team, which has nary a Division I senior in sight – at least not an obvious one.

Frank’s expectation for sophomore pitcher Vinny Scrudato on April 16 against Brick Memorial were for the right-hander to pitcher three, maybe four innings before handing the ball off to the next pitcher in line. Falling in line with many pitchers before him, Scrudato both exceeded and met his coach’s expectations, pitching above and beyond his target four innings while living up to the overachiever billing.

All-Shore outfielder Russell Messler and his Toms River South team have steadily improved with a host of newcomers stepping up at one of the Shore's perennial powers.

In his first career start, Scrudato pitched a complete-game shutout in a 5-0 win over the Mustangs, who were ranked No. 9 in the All Shore Media top 10 this past week. Scrudato allowed six hits and two walks while striking out six batters thanks to his fastball command and an effective curveball that he used as an out-pitch.

“We lost a lot of starters from last year’s team and I came into this year knowing I could help the team on the mound,” Scrudato said. “I was looking forward to a chance to start and my focus was just on throwing my pitches for strikes and keeping the hitters off balance. We have a great defense and I wanted to make sure I at least gave them a chance to make the plays and they did a great job.”

Not only did Scrudato make the most of his repertoire, but his lineup made the most of only four hits. Ryan Sweeney got the Indians off to a fast start with a two-run homer in the first inning to plate junior Russell Messler. The long ball by Sweeney and preceding single by Messler were two of the four hits recorded by the Indians and yet Toms River South added three more runs through an assortment of walks, hit-by-pitches, stolen bases, bunts and two more timely hits.

“We haven’t hit the ball a whole lot to this point, but we’re doing the little things you have to do to win games,” Frank said. “We’re running the bases, manufacturing runs and probably the biggest thing is we’re catching the ball. Our pitchers have been pretty good, and we’re not making many errors.”

A 7-2 loss to Jackson Memorial two days later cooled the Indians down after wins over Toms River North and Brick Memorial bumped their record to 6-2, but the emergence of Scrudato and overall solid defense appear as though they will keep Toms River South relevant in Ocean County and beyond for yet another season.

“I think we’re just starting to come together and establish our identity,” said Messler, who was an All-Shore first-teamer as a sophomore in 2012 and is off to another torrid start to this season. “The younger guys are showing they can play and our confidence is growing with every game. The second time through the A South schedule, I think we’re going to surprise some teams.”

Full Speed Ahead for Mariners

Toms River North has been through slow starts over the past few years, which is why 20-year head coach Ted Schelmay was not panicked when his team full of experienced players dropped to 3-3 with a loss to Toms River South on April 15.

The Mariners responded with a three-game surge to end the week, capped by a come-from-behind win on the road against previously unbeaten Wall on Friday. Toms River North fell behind 7-3 due to a sloppy third inning in the field, but chipped away at the deficit before junior third baseman Julian Feliz broke a 7-7 tie with a two-out, RBI single in the top of the seventh. Senior right-hander and University of Delaware recruit Ron Marinaccio came in to strike out the side on 13 pitches to nail down the save and the Mariners’ biggest win of the season.

“Coming off the loss to South, we knew we had to turn things around,” Marinaccio said. “We’ve been swinging the bats well this week and being down early wasn’t a big deal for us because we knew we could hit our way back in the game.”

Like their neighbors to the south of town, the Mariners got a big performance from a sophomore on the mound, although it was not as obvious in the box score. Brett Hyers made his first varsity start on Friday and although he allowed seven runs on nine hits in 4 1/3 innings, only three of those runs were earned and Hyers also struck out five batters while walking none.

“He’s a talented pitcher and his defense let him down during that big inning,” Schelmay said of Hyers, who earned a win in relief against Jackson Liberty in his only other appearance this season. “The good thing was he kept his composure and kept making his pitches and that’s why we left him out there. Young pitchers have to learn how to deal with adversity and he handled it well today.”

Senior Jordan Silvestri also pitched 1 2/3 scoreless innings of relief for Toms River North in the win.

Junior first baseman/designated hitter Anthony Ferlise has been on fire during the three-game winning streak. After a 3-for-3 game with a long double and two RBI against Wall, Ferlise is 8-for-11 over the last three games with two doubles and six RBI.

“We’re lineup that hits one-through-nine and if you pitch around one guy, you have to deal with another good hitter,” Ferlise said. “Lately, I’ve been getting good pitches to hit and putting good swings on the ball.”

Donovan Dominance

Monsignor Donovan won its first game of the season by beating the alma mater of Justin Verlander in Orlando. Since then, the Griffins’ pitchers have been pitching like Verlander.

Through seven games, Monsignor Donovan has allowed only eight runs, the second-best mark in the Shore Conference behind St. Rose, which has allowed eight runs in eight games, and has not surrendered more than three runs in a game. Unlike the Purple Roses, the Griffins have needed every scoreless inning because they have scored four runs or fewer in five of the seven games.

Four senior pitchers have accounted for all 49 of the innings this year and the highest ERA among them in 1.42. That number belongs to senior Aidan Ryan, who also happens to be the only 3-0 pitcher on the staff and has struck out 21 batters in 19 innings. Rich Power has not allowed a run and has 12 strikeouts in nine innings, Adam Holowienka sports a 0.64 ERA and 12 strikeouts in 14 innings, and Brad Lee allowed one run in seven innings in his lone start.

Cardiac Caseys

Since an impressive 5-1 win over Christian Brothers Academy on April 13, Red Bank Catholic has taken firm hold of the No. 1 ranking in the Shore Conference not with dominant victories but with thrilling, late-game heroics.

Since the win over the rival Colts, RBC has overcome a five-run, first-inning deficit against Manasquan (10-9 win), scored five runs in the top of the seventh inning to beat Holmdel (7-2 win) and stunned Monmouth Regional with a two-out, two-strike, two-run home run by Anthony Yaccarine in the bottom of the seventh to beat the Falcons 5-4.

With every team in Class A Central giving RBC its best shot, the target is clearly on the Caseys’ backs. Based on the results of the last week, they seem to like it that way.

Let me hit!

That is the plea coming from Jackson Memorial senior Matt Thaiss, a University of Virginia recruit who hasn’t seen many good pitches to hit in the early part of the season.

Through Thursday’s games, Thaiss has walked in 33 percent of his plate appearances, which does not include two hit-by-pitches. To put that into perspective, Barry Bonds only reached that mark in one of his 22 seasons in the majors.

"It's been pretty ridiculous," said Thaiss, who has hit in the No. 2 hole all season. "I probably see one or two pitches to hit per game and today I saw one, and it was the ball I hit out to right to drive in the run. It's frustrating. Enough is enough. It's my senior year. Let me hit."

Thaiss has been productive on top of the walks, going 6-for-15 (.400) with two doubles, two home runs and seven RBI while hitting out of the No. 2 spot in the order. With that sort of production, Thaiss’ request will likely remain unanswered.

Red Bank Catholic senior Mike Rescigno, a Maryland recruit, knows just how Thaiss feels. Rescigno’s batting average is under .350, but his on-base percentage is .615. He has 10 walks and has been hit by a pitch four times in eight games. In a win over CBA, he had three walks, and one game later, he was 0-for-0 in five plate appearances in a win over Manasquan thanks to four walks, two of them intentional, and a hit by pitch.

Cosentino returns

Shore junior and George Washington University recruit Matt Cosentino made his return on Friday from a wrist injury suffered during basketball season. He allowed three runs on four hits and struck out 10 in six innings in a 3-2 loss to Manasquan in his first game back. The bad news is that the Blue Devils’ top returning hitter has not yet been cleared by doctors to hit or play in the field, according to Shore coach Pat O’Neill.

Cosentino’s return is a welcomed sight for Shore, which has lost eight straight since an opening-day win over St. John Vianney.  Last year, Cosentino was the team’s top pitcher and as a sophomore, he hit .362 with four doubles, two home runs and 14 RBI.

A bounce of the ball

Run differential is generally a good indicator of a team’s overall talent going beyond the won-loss record, and a quick run through the run-differentials in the Shore Conference tell the story of a few particular teams whose records might suggest something different.

The wrong side

Manasquan lost its first six games of the season by a combined score of 38-28, or an average margin of defeat of 1.7 runs per game. Not surprisingly, the Warriors finally won a couple of games, beating Shore on consecutive days, 4-1 and 3-2.

Manasquan changed its fortune by picking on another hard-luck team in the Blue Devils. Shore drubbed St. John Vianney 16-4 on its opening day and has since lost eight straight games by an average margin of 3.5 runs per game.

Red Bank may be the most extreme case of a team playing better than its record. The Bucs have won two straight to get their record back to 3-6, but they have also outscored their opponents 40-37 this season. Four of Red Bank’s first six losses were by two runs or fewer and none was by more than five runs.

Lacey has had a nightmare start at 0-8 and making it all the more tantalizing is that the Lions have been in every game. The Lions have not lost a game by more than four runs and have lost by an average of 2.5 runs per game in a tough Class A South.

Finding a way

Rumson-Fair Haven (4-5) lost a wealth of senior talent from last season and at times, the Bulldogs have been overmatched this season. They have also shown a keen ability to pull out close wins, with a record of 2-0 in one-run games. The Bulldogs have been outscored 59-34, but the ability to pull out the close ones has them in the mix for a Class A Central public division title and for the postseason.

Toms River South is off to a solid 6-3 start, but the Indians have been doing it with guile more than force. Despite sitting at three games over .500, Toms River South has actually been outscored by its opponents, 40-39. A 4-0 record in one-run games has been the driving force to the Indians fast start.

Middletown South is on its first winning streak of the season after beating Middletown North, 2-1, for its second straight win. The Eagles are 5-3 because they also have not lost consecutive games and have executing the pitching-and-defense model better than almost every team in the Shore Conference. Middletown South is allowing only 2.4 runs per game, has not played a game decided by more than four runs and has not played in a game in which the winning team has scored more than six runs.