By Tim Morris
There’s a common threat running through the Freehold Regional High School District baseball teams: pitching.
It carried them to success last year, with every school qualifying for the state tournament. With many of those arms back, the 2016 season is shaping up as another good one.
Leading the charge is Mike Yorke’s Colts Neck High School team. They Cougars have been division champions three of the last four years, including the last two. The Cougars moved from Shore Conference A North to B North in 2015 with a familiar result: a championship marching through B North with a perfect 14-0 record on the way to a 21-4 season overall.
Colts Neck returns two of the aces that made that season possible in Mario Ferraioli and Mike D’Ottavio, who were a combined 12-2.
Ferraioli was 7-1 with a 2.32 ERA and 63 strikeouts in 48.1 innings of work. D’Ottavio was 5-1 with a 2.33 ERA ad 38 strikeouts in 39 innings.
Sure-gloved Tim Cavrak (one error at shortstop) and outfielder Mike Antico lead the offense.
Cavrak is coming off a .333 season with 26 hits, 28 runs scored and 16 RBIs. Antico also batted .333 with 27 hits — of which six were for doubles, five were triples and one was a home run — 29 runs scored and 15 RBIs. He helped the team manufacture runs by swiping 29 bases.
Outfielder Andrew Conforti (13 RBIs) and catcher Jeremy Slad complete the starters who are returning for the Cougars.
Newcomers and returning letter winners are Nick Umbro (infield), Dante Caruso (outfield), Jonathan Weitzman (pitcher/infield), Jake McTigue (outfield), Brendan Clarke (infield), Jack Tirrell (infield), Anthony Galason (outfield/pitcher), Kevin Condon (pitcher) and Connor Schauer (catcher).
Colts Neck was hit hard by graduation, losing the likes of B North Pitcher of the Year Chris Murphy and Tyler Kapuscinski, who was the A North Hitter of the Year as a junior. However, with as good a one-two punch on the mound as any team in the division, the road to the title will go through Colts Neck. If the Cougars can get the overall offensive production they had in 2015, it could mean another big season.
Only a couple of years removed from back-to-back Group IV titles, Manalapan High School came roaring back in 2015, going 18-10. Head coach Brian Boyce has a senior-laden team determined to win a championship in 2016.
“We’re senior-dominated, and we have high expectations,” Boyce said. “We have seven returning starters. We are experienced.”
Like the other district teams, pitching was a big reason the Braves won 18 games. They graduated their aces, Nick Serra (4-0) and Nick Marotta (5-2),who combined for half the team’s wins. However, Tyler Stafflinger, who went 3-2 with a 1.23 ERA, is back. The 40 innings he logged were second highest on the team. John Pudder (3-1, 3.94 ERA) and Jake Sadowitz (1-2) are the most experience pitchers behind Stafflinger.
Jake Becker, John Crockett and Stephen Hansen all saw limited innings last year and are back.
Manalapan had a 3.00 team ERA.
The cornerstones of the Manalapan offense, which on paper is one of the best in A North, are infielders Sadowitz and Chris Rodriguez. Sadowitz batted .430 with eight doubles and four home runs among his 34 hits. He had 35 RBIs.
Rodriguez hit .390 with eight doubles and three triples among his 39 hits. He scored 26 runs and had 19 RBIs.
Returnees Stephen Carbonara (.329, 17 RBIs), Michael Mollica (.333), Matt Rosenberg (.296), Stafflinger (.292) and Hansen (.289, 11 RBIs) make Manalapan’s lineup formidable.
Manalapan’s others returnees — Chris Winters, Brian Zinco and Carmine Rainone — are all seniors.
If the Braves can come up with the pitching depth they had a year ago along with the defense behind it, they should be able to pick up where they left off in the second half of last spring and be right back in the championship picture.
They need the depth, as Boyce pointed out, because A North is a grind every week.
Freehold High School’s baseball team put a so-so regular season behind it when the Colonials made a surprise trip to the NJSIAA Group IV semifinals as the 14th seed.
This spring, with most of their starting lineup intact, the regular season should mean much more.
“Experience of last year’s tournament run and deep pitching staff has us hoping to be competitive in A North [and the] Monmouth [County], Shore [Conference] and state tournaments,” Colonials head coach Jon Block said.
The Colonials have all the ingredients to be a team to avoid in the regular season or postseason because of their pitching, defense and experience playing in one-run games.
Steve Rullo, who was 5-2 last spring, tops a deep pitching staff. He had a stingy 1.84 ERA in 2015 and helped the offense with his .294 batting average.
Closer James Manos is back. He went 3-3 with five saves and an even stingier ERA of 1.04.
Todd Burger (1-0, 1.00 ERA), Dan Chiusano (3-5, 3.57 ERA) and Nick Zuppe (1-0, 1.75 ERA) are other mainstays.
Tom Holdorf and Marco Meleo add further depth to the staff that will be counted on to carry Freehold (16-13 last year) this season.
Catcher Nick Lamorte is a pitcher’s best friend. He takes the running game away from teams. Last year, he threw out 21 of 31 baserunners. He batted .250 with 20 hits.
Shortstop Chris Cassandra is the club’s top returning hitter. The junior batted .305 last spring with 29 hits. He stirred things up on the basepaths, stealing 17 bases and scoring 18 runs.
Meleo batted .274 with 28 hits, 15 RBIs and 11 stolen bases.
Manufacturing runs is something the Colonials have done well for Block over the years.
Holdorf had 12 RBIs and batted .271. He had five doubles and a home run.
Outfielder Ryan Yee battled through injuries last year and is in full health this year, giving the offense a lift.
Newcomers to the Colonials are junior pitcher/infielder Mike Belka, junior pitcher/infielder Pat White, senior pitcher/infielder Mark Costanzo and sophomore catcher Phil Marcantonio.
The newcomers add more arms to the pitching staff.
Deep pitching and defense have the Colonials ready to be strong in both the regular season and postseason because of the quantity of the quality arms.
All the pitching is needed for the A North Division that sports the likes of Christian Brothers Academy, Middletown High School South and Manalapan.
Block, who is in his 26th season overall, begins the season just four games shy of 300 career wins.
Marlboro High School has made a habit the last couple of years of extending their season past Memorial Day and deep into the state tournament. Head coach Jim Ferraro has a veteran team, anchored by five starters who are college bound in the fall.
The Mustangs (12-10 in 2015) are solid on the mound with Jeremy Dyzenhaus (Rowan University), Donald Alfano (Ramapo College) and Justin Kaplan (Penn State University-Harrisburg) all returning. The team did graduate its ace, Jason Nardi, and will rely on its depth and experience.
Outfielder Matt Disciullo (The College of New Jersey) and first baseman Brian Reilly (Dickinson College) are the other Mustangs starters who have made their college decisions and can just focus on making their final high school season something special.
Shortstop Will Trochiano is a junior who has been a starter since his freshman year and makes Marlboro’s infield defense special. Andrew Gambardella, a senior infielder, and junior catcher Gene Napolitano complete what is a good defensive infield.
The Mustangs have plenty of experience in the outfield with returnees Dylan Finn and Noah Thomas, who are both seniors, and junior Jared Wright.
Newcomers to the Mustangs are senior Casey Hernandez (infield); juniors Will Kramer (pitcher), Mark Ventre (infield), Anthony Petrosino (outfield), Riley Keating pitcher/first base), Jeremy Bello (pitcher) and Noah Hutter (pitcher); sophomore Justin Levito (infield); and freshman Justin Kapuscinski (center field/infield).
Before even thinking about a postseason run, the Mustangs have to survive a loaded division.
“[A North is an] extremely tough division this year,” he said.
With pitching and experience, Marlboro could again extend its season past Memorial Day.
Another team built around pitching is Freehold Township High School. Todd Smith said he believes his club has the ingredients to have a pretty good team.
It all starts with the pitching. Freehold Township has three starters returning: Ralph Gambino (a junior who has verbally committed to Penn State University), Mike Pirrotta (a junior verbally committed to Wagner College) and Pete Nielsen.
Pirrotta was 4-1 last year, pitching to a 2.84 ERA. Nielsen, a senior, was 2-2 with a 2.86 ERA, and Gambino went 1-3 with a 3.31 ERA and 46 strikeouts in just 36 innings.
In addition to this trio, Smith said, “We also have much more depth with what should be quality varsity arms in five other guys.”
John Carroll was limited to just two innings pitched in 2015 because of an injury. His return gives the Patriots’ staff depth and more quality, as Smith noted. Carroll is also the team’s top hitter and run producer. He batted .354 last spring with 11 doubles and 17 RBIs.
Sophomores Ryan Ford and Bryan Reed have potential and could be major contributors. Juniors Greg Najar and Zack Pericone can fill spots on the mound as well.
Senior center fielder Matt Gorman batted .319 as the table setter with 23 stolen bases.
Shortstop Brian Oliver, a senior, completes the group of returning starters.
Seniors Lane Shapiro (infield) and Robert Nitti (catcher) played last year and will play a more important role this season.
Among the newcomers are seniors Joe Romanowski (outfield) and Rodney Paulino (outfield) and juniors Nick Goluccio (catcher), Andrew Beam (catcher), Matt Beuka (outfield) and Ryan Cardone (outfield).
The key to Freehold Township’s season will be finding offense behind Carroll, Gorman and Pirrotta. If the Patriots can give the pitchers some runs to work with, they could be right up there near the top in the division and a threat in the postseason.
Howell (10-12) was also a playoff team in 2015. Head coach Eric Johnson has a veteran team looking to move up in A North this spring.
“We have a senior-heavy group that returns three solid offensive players in [Troy] Miller, [Justin] Steel and [Connor] Fey,” Johnson said. “The team hopes to show some balance with offense and defense this season, with [Donovan] O’Malley and [Brian] Chaballa anchoring a pitching staff that improved the second half of the season last year.”
In addition to Miller (infield), Fey (infield), Steel (catcher/infield), Chaballa (pitcher/outfield) and O’Malley (infield), Howell’s other returnees are James Wynne (pitcher/outfield), Tom Scanlon (outfield), Christian Gedell (outfield) and Matt Furlong (pitcher). All of Howell’s returnees are seniors.
Important newcomers include seniors Russell Quinlan (infield), Mark Iacobino (infield) and Justin Jarosz (catcher); junior Grant Hackett (outfield); and sophomore Eddie Morales (infield).
With so many seniors who experienced postseason play in 2015, Howell is a team to watch out for in 2016.