Real quick before I get to all the baseball stuff from the first few days on a rainy Friday, the football recruiting is heating up for Barnegat junior tight end Jarrett Darmstatter and Raritan junior wide receiver Bennett Jackson. Darmstatter has been offered scholarships by East Carolina and Iowa and just a few days ago was given an offer from Rutgers. Once Jackson’s tape got out there, the interest continued to grow as he has now been offered by Syracuse, Minnesota, Maryland, Iowa, Pittsburgh and now Charlie Weis and Notre Dame. Although Jackson still needs size, I can see why he would get a lot of interest because he is the type of player who is all the rage in college football now – the all-around athlete who can play multiple positions and make explosive plays in space.
Now, on to baseball. I’ll start with Thursday’s 2-1 thriller in 12 innings in which Jackson Memorial upended Toms River South to get an early leg up in Class A South. A couple quick observations from this one:
- Jackson coach Frank Malta has harped on defense and pitching, knowing it was the difference between the Jaguars being a very good team instead of a team that brought home championships the past few seasons, and it showed in the opener. The Jaguars were pretty much airtight defensively, and they have been on the wrong end of some of those tense, extra-inning games the past few years, many times because of a defensive breakdown, but they were great on Thursday.
- The Jaguars look like they have some good pitching depth because Pete Kelich and Kevin Mathews really showed something in relief of ace Kevin Needham (pictured). The Jaguars were able to go 12 innings against a very good team and didn’t need Needham to throw 8 or 9 of those innings and they didn’t need to go to their other top pitcher, hard-throwing junior Bryan Soloman. That bodes well for the future and speaks to the job that pitching coach JM Gold has done in the offseason. Needham is the definition of a bulldog, by the way, and gives that team a hard-nosed attitude that they will back down from no one.
- I really liked Soloman’s approach at the plate in the decisive rally in the 12th inning. He had two runners on base against Toms River South ace Tyler Gebler and could’ve tried to be the hero. He has prodigious power and nearly ended the game in his previous at-bat when he belted a ball about 30 feet to the right of the foul pole in right field that would’ve been a game-winning home run. However, against Gebler in the 12th, he didn’t try to be a hero and hit the ball out the park. He knew that Gebler was going to sit on the outside part of the plate, so he just worked with what he was given and punched the ball to right field for a single to load the bases and set the stage for Alex Herceg‘s game-winning RBI groundout. Soloman is getting recruited by a host of Division I schools and could be one of the Shore’s biggest recruits since current LSU pitcher Anthony Ranaudo (St. Rose) before he’s done. He also throws in the low 90s on the mound as well.
- Toms River South may have lost this one, but I think the Indians are going to be fine. They are going to have a good pitching staff once again, and junior lefty Andrew McGee looked good on Thursday. McGee is always around the plate and attacks hitters, and the thing I liked is that he made in-game adjustments after Jackson adjusted to him. He blew through the lineup the first time around, striking out five of the first seven batters he faced, but Jackson got to him for a couple hits and a run the second time through the lineup. However, McGee adjusted and held the Jaguars to one run in seven innings of work.
- I know it’s only one game, but TR South is looking a lot like last year in the sense that it struggles to muster any offense against top opposing pitchers. I talked to Gebler about it in the preseason and he said it was one of their biggest questions marks, and it looks like it still is one.
- An offensive bright spot for the Indians was sophomore Kyle Perry, who may go a long way toward alleviating the loss of one of the best hitters in school history, current Seton Hall freshman Chase Gray. Perry had three hits out of the leadoff spot on Thursday, including a booming double off the St. John’s-bound Needham, and he hit the ball hard even on his outs. He just sprays line drives everywhere. Perhaps most impressively, I talked to Malta after the game and he said that the pitches that Perry smacked for base hits were where the Jaguars wanted them. That means he was hitting pitcher’s pitches, not mistakes, so definitely keep an eye on Perry.
- I know Gebler lost the game, but I’ll take him on my team any day. He is battling some tendinitis, but rather than make any excuses, he took the ball without his best stuff and went out and attacked. His velocity picked up after the first few innings of his 5-inning relief stint, but he didn’t have much of a breaking ball, yet he still did a solid job against a good lineup. He stepped up to the challenge. It didn’t work out, but he didn’t shrink from the moment.
All right, now on to some notes from around the rest of the Shore:
- Freehold Township, ranked No. 6 in the preseason All Shore Media Top 10, has come out of the gates on fire. They beat their first two opponents 21-1 in a pair of shortened games, including No. 7 Monmouth on Thursday. Senior outfielder Steve Talbott has no rust after coming from basketball season as he had four hits in the opener and then bashed a two-run homer against the Falcons and their ace, senior righty Brian Schopka. While ace Matt Cadigan, who won the opener against Point Boro, is a known commodity, the even better news is that junior Dan Reed no-hit Monmouth on Thursday. The Patriots have a glut of about four juniors behind Cadigan who are all jockeying for spots in the rotation and are all relative unknowns on the varsity level. They will all get a chance early in the season. Reed obviously made an emphatic statement in his first chance to take the ball.
- I sat at the frozen tundra of Count Basie Field to watch Red Bank Catholic beat Ocean, 6-4, in the opener on Wednesday. If you haven’t checked out the story on senior Matt Marley, you can read that here, so I won’t really go too more in depth on Marley’s rise to prominence. As for the rest of the Caseys, senior catcher Jake Beim appears healthy after battling nagging injuries last season and could be poised for a huge season for the Caseys as he had three hits on a freezing day. Junior infielder Steve Louie hit a bases-clearing triple and scored on a throwing error on the same play to pretty much decide the game, and afterward coach Buddy Hausmann said that hustle like that is par for the course for Louie. He is undersized, but he will run through a wall to win games, and he was also a favorite of RBC football coach Frank Edgerly in the fall.
- Ocean is very young, but has talent. I liked what I saw from junior first baseman Kevin Romano, a first-year starter. He boomed about a 370-foot home run off Marley, and also watch out for sophomore third baseman Nick Clary, who also homered and has a solid approach at the plate. This team might lose some tough ones in the early going under new coach Steve Rubin, but could be dangerous as the season goes along. Oh yeah, and congrats to the Ocean parent who got tossed from Count Basie Field for being a loudmouth by the home plate umpire on Opening Day. Way to set the tone.
- I think Monsignor Donovan opened some eyes right off the bat in Class B South because Jackson Liberty had generated a good amount of buzz in that division before the Griffins beat the Lions 3-1 in the opener. While it’s a loooong season and the opener doesn’t tell the whole story, that’s a good win for Mon Don, and one of my sleeper players entering this season, senior Mark Poinsett, went 2-for-3 with a homer. I still think Jackson Liberty will be right in the hunt because it has pitching, so it’s more just boosting the offense and things should be OK.
- Manalapan ace Ryan Harvey, who has committed to Seton Hall, came out of the gates strong with six innings and 10 K’s against a solid Brick Memorial lineup in the opener, which is a great early sign for the Braves. Toms River North ace Mark Leiter was the same way in an 8-1 win over Colts Neck, as he looked sharp from the outset. With senior Matt Mancini as the Mariners’ No. 2 pitcher and hard-throwing junior Rudy Ferrentino at No. 3, the No. 1 Mariners look to have a nasty rotation.
- Middletown North pulled out an 11-10 win over St. John Vianney and then Brandon McCloskey came back and pitched a strong game to beat Marlboro. I think getting off to a good start was imperative for the Lions because this season has been built up and expectations are high, so had they lost any of those early games it might have had them questioning whether any of the hype was justified. I still am interested to see if Middletown North has enough pitching depth to challenge for the Class A North title and more because you know they are going to hit. Senior Joe Ciccone is killing the ball in the early going, so keep an eye on him.
- Middletown South had been mashing teams all preseason and it didn’t stop in their opener as senior Mike Farrell set the tone with a first-inning grand slam on the way to a 9-5 win over Manalapan to give new coach Ryan Spillane a win in his debut. Junior Craig Sweeney, who has received interest from Rutgers, UConn and a few other Big East schools, also had two hits for the Eagles, who may turn the Class A North race upside down if they get consistent pitching. Pitching is Spillane’s strength, as he helped develop several top hurlers at CBA before taking the head job at South.
- Congrats to Asbury Park, which beat East Orange for its first win in a season opener in forever, possibly the 1970s.
- Mater Dei‘s season may not start until about July at the rate we’re going, as it has yet to play a game. The Seraphs had their games on Friday and Saturday postponed and are iffy for early next week. They also will be playing their first eight games on the road because of the condition of their home field, according to head coach Pat Riddell. Their first scheduled home game is tentatively on April 20 against Henry Hudson.