Experience pays off for Vikings in 20-win season

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By Warren Rappleyea

Thanks in large part to a veteran group that included 12 seniors, South Brunswick High School’s baseball team went 20-10 this spring and made it all the way to the NJSIAA Central Jersey, Group IV tournament finals.

A year ago, South Brunswick’s coaching staff opted to go with a young squad. The Vikings showed flashes of brilliance but struggled to a 7-17 mark. However, those growing pains paid dividends this season.

“Last year, we had issues with our pitching, and we often had four or five sophomores in the lineup,” said first-year head coach C.J. Hendricks, who was an assistant last season and is in his eighth season with the program. “Still they learned a lot, and the turnaround was so evident. Our pitchers challenged hitters more, cut down on walks and our guys were more comfortable at the plate.”

South Brunswick’s season came to a close June 4 with a 12-2 loss to second-seeded Hunterdon Central Regional High School in the Central Jersey, Group IV finals.

The 12th-seeded Vikings earned a berth in the finals with a 3-1 triumph over neighboring North Brunswick Township High School, the 16th seed, May 31. Brandon Siroki tossed a seven-hitter, while Sean Nally, Garrett Byrne and Thomas Leavy all drove in runs for the Vikings. Siroki also picked up the win in his team’s opening-round success against fifth-seeded Freehold High School.

In the quarterfinals, Byrne doubled in a run and Ryan Moran was 2-for-3 with an RBI in a 4-1 win over fourth-seeded Montgomery High School. Anthony Sjolund went the distance and allowing just four hits to earn the win.

Pitching was a strong point, with Sjolund and Siroki combining for 70 percent of the Vikings’ wins. The crafty Sjolund won eight games and had an ERA that was under 1.00 for the bulk of the campaign. He tossed 45-plus innings and struck out 39. Siroki, meanwhile, posted six victories against just one loss. In 39 innings, he struck out 35 opposing hitters and will continue his career at Mercer County Community College.

Siroki was also a force at the plate. The Vikings’ right fielder when not on the hill, he led the team with 24 RBIs and hit a robust .377. Third baseman Byrne hit .436 with nine RBIs, despite starting the season with an ankle injury and battling through an illness. Sean Nally, the shortstop who will play for Middlesex County College, was at .326 with 14 RBIs, while catcher Thomas Leavy hit .280 with a pair of homers and 14 RBIs. As a result, South Brunswick had a team batting average of .310 — 70 points higher than a year ago.

Key returnees include Moran, a junior second baseman who hit .380 with two home runs and 16 RBIs; outfielder Alex Pollock, a .286 hitter; infielder Chris James, who also hit .286 and drove home nine runs; and center fielder Marco DiIusto, who hit .246. Sophomore outfielder/designated hitter Kevin Reyes batted .288 with 12 RBIs.

Pollock and fellow junior Troy Sweeney are among the key pitchers who will be back. In addition, Hendricks will look for more from freshman Jacob Ciccone, who won two games and saved two others.

With its first 20-win season since 1979, Hendricks acknowledged that the bar has been raised higher for the program but feels his team is ready for the challenge.

“Our younger guys really got to see what happens when a team buys into the program,” Hendricks said. “We’re looking for our juniors to do that and show the way next year. And Jacob [Ciccone] is a hard-working guy who can grow with the program and become a leader. We’re happy with where we’re at and where we’re going.”