By Matthew Rocco
The Monmouth Regional High School baseball team sees the challenges that lie ahead. With their move to the Shore Conference B North Division this season, the Falcons will share a division with multiple teams coming off winning seasons.
Monmouth Regional is ready for the challenge. A deep pitching staff and veteran lineup have the Falcons thinking big in 2017 — a year after completing a winning season of their own.
The fight for the division will be hard. The Falcons are determined to work harder.
“The competition’s going to be at a very high level this year,” head coach Paul Crivello said. “The key to being successful coming out of the gate hot is who worked the hardest indoors. We’re trying not to miss a beat. We’re trying to work as hard inside as we would outside.”
Josh Jackson will power the middle of the order. The senior catcher, who committed to play for Delaware State University, hit .424 with seven doubles and 20 RBIs last season.
Fellow senior Paul Birzin (first base/pitcher) is another threat at the plate. Birzin recorded eight doubles and 19 RBIs last season, hitting for a .300 average. He also struck out 18 batters in 17 innings on the mound, going 3-1 on the year.
The Falcons have a larger senior presence in the lineup with Mark Abrams (outfield), Noah Eggenschwiler (pitcher/outfield) and Mike Valerio (infield), who hit .282 and posted a .361 on-base percentage in 2016.
Justin Scotto (outfield/infield), a transfer from Robbinsville High School, will give Monmouth Regional some extra speed on the basepaths. The junior batted .391 with nine doubles, a pair of triples and 20 stolen bases.
Monmouth Regional’s junior bats include Charlie Kelly (outfield/pitcher), Anthony Guarino (infield/catcher/designated hitter) and Liam Kile (infield).
New state rules limiting pitch counts rather than innings will steer Monmouth Regional’s offensive approach.
“[Pitchers] are going to be around the plate a lot more because they’ll want to get ahead. We’ll try to be aggressive early in counts,” Crivello said, adding that Monmouth Regional has shown more aggressiveness at the plate in scrimmages.
Sophomore Dante Ciaramella is bound for shortstop, but the young hurler is poised to lead the starting rotation this season, too. Ciaramella pitched well in four innings of work on the varsity team last year.
The Falcons have plenty of experience returning to the mound. Senior right-hander Joe Malfara struck out 45 hitters in 45 innings, throwing to a 5.20 ERA and a 3-5 record. Eggenschwiler added three saves in 2016. He logged a 2.79 ERA and fanned 30 batters in 29 innings.
Crivello will also call on senior pitchers Derek Radzik (pitcher/infield), Josh Rife (pitcher) and Trevor D’Meo (pitcher/infield).
“We don’t have guys who will overpower you, but they will compete. We have a lot of experience, including our senior relievers who have had some experience. I don’t have any concerns about them against the big schools,” Crivello said.
The veterans on Monmouth Regional’s 2017 roster are keeping the team on track heading into the new season.
“I believe we have the best leadership since I’ve been head coach,” said Crivello, who is starting his fourth season at the helm. “It feels like they’re an extra coach.”
The Falcons will lean on those veteran players as they pursue postseason berths. Crivello said the team wants to prove it belongs in the same class as B North rivals like Middletown High School North, Middletown High School South, Red Bank Catholic High School and Ocean Township High School.
After a second-place showing in A Central last season, Monmouth Regional’s primary goal is winning B North.
“We’re always looking to be at the top of the division. Our expectations are going out there with the bigger schools and competing,” Crivello said. “If we pull some wins, now you’re talking Shore and state. Is it attainable? It could be. It’s going to take a lot of hard work.”
Regardless of where Monmouth Regional falls in the B North rankings, there’s no doubt that the Falcons will be battle-tested and ready for postseason games.
“These are all schools that have been at the top,” Crivello said. “They’ll be more than ready to compete in the Shore Conference Tournament, the state tournament and the Monmouth County Tournament.”
Monmouth Regional, which finished 13-10 in 2016, opens the new season April 1 against Ranney School at home. First pitch is at 10 a.m. The Falcons will return to the field April 3 for a 4 p.m. game at Wall High School.