By Wayne Witkowski
The Jackson Memorial High School baseball team is suffering an identity crisis. Instead of playing at its best like it typically does for tournaments, the Jaguars struggled through an eight-game losing streak following a 6-0 start to the season.
The Jaguars are trying to figure ways to win like they have done in recent years as perennial 20-game winners. They were dethroned as defending Ocean County Tournament champions in the opening round, 4-3, April 30 by Point Pleasant Beach High School, which rallied for two runs in the seventh inning. A costly error allowed the leadoff hitter to get on and after Jackson Memorial’s pitching got the next two batters out, Point Pleasant Beach got back-to-back, run-scoring hits to take the lead and win it.
“They made us pay for it,” head coach Frank Malta said of the error in the last inning. “We were one out away from winning. It’s been our story this year — guys in a position to win it who aren’t doing it.”
There have been a number of losses like that and it’s left Malta nearly at a loss for words. He said, after a pause, he felt he couldn’t single out any bright spots among his players. It’s a surprising turnaround for a team that has won its share of championships in recent years, including the NJSIAA Group IV title just two years ago.
“We haven’t been playing really well. There are no injuries; we’re just not playing well,” Malta said. “We’re not doing our job. It’s a combination of things. Sometimes we’re not pitching well, sometimes not playing well in the field and offensively, we’re not hitting.”
But the Jaguars were in every game, aside from a 12-0 loss to Saint Joseph Regional High School of Montvale, as they lost their other seven games by a total of 14 runs — an average of two runs a game.
And it’s a team with a nearly totally rebuilt roster aside from three returning regulars in pitcher Chris Hawryluk, shortstop Kyle Johnson and outfielder Kyle Lona. The Jaguars’ last victory was nearly a month ago — April 15, 10-3, over Brick Memorial High School.
“I’m not used to this; it’s not acceptable,” Malta said.
Before the season, Malta said there may be guys moved in and out of the lineup since there are so many new players in order to get the best production at every position. And he has kept to his forecast.
“We’re moving guys in and out; we sent guys down to [junior varsity] and are bringing guys up,” he said.
Malta projected that Jackson Memorial would be seeded 14th coming into this week in NJSIAA Central Jersey, Group IV based on power points despite its record, as the NJSIAA looks to fill out its 16-team brackets. With the state considering teams’ first 15 games, Jackson Memorial needed a victory in its 15th game May 9 against Toms River High School East to strengthen its chances of getting in and getting a good seed.
The Jaguars came through behind the two-hit pitching of Hawryluk, who also belted a homer, as they snapped the long losing streak with a 5-3 victory. Dylan Kanner had two hits for two RBIs, and Johnson lined a run-scoring triple, as the Jaguars avenged an earlier 7-4 loss.
Jackson Memorial also is in the running for a Shore Conference Tournament berth.
Jackson Memorial had a game scheduled May 11 against Brick Memorial and plays Brick Township High School the following day. It meets Bayonne May 13 before a special game at home May 14 starting at noon against Middletown High School North.
The game against Middletown North is the 11th annual fundraiser for the Wills Eye Institute in Philadelphia and to raise awareness of retinoblastoma, a cancer of the retina that occurs almost exclusively in young children.
Commemorative baseball t-shirts will be sold for $10 each at the game and donations will be accepted for the fund that has raised more than $1,300 each of the past two years.
The cause is close to the heart of Malta, whose 12-year-old daughter, Marisa, was born with retinoblastoma, with a tumor that was removed successfully from her right eye by the surgeons at Wills. As a young baby, she had successful remission but lost sight in that eye as an infant and needs to wear glasses to strengthen her left eye. Marisa Malta is a sixth-grade student at Hammarskjold Middle School in East Brunswick.
Frank Malta has always counted on a great response from the community over the years.
He also is counting on a big response in the closing games of the season from his team, as it has done in the past, to uphold its proud tradition. But the coach is not certain how his team will respond.
“We have five games this week and there’s an opportunity there,” he said. “Now, it’s crunch time.”