By Warren Rappleyea
The good news for Ocean Township High School’s baseball team is that several key pitchers return from a squad that went all the way to the finals of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) Central Jersey, Group III finals a year ago. The bad news is that 218 of the Spartans’ 280 hits last spring have been lost to graduation.
In addition, coach Cip Apicelli’s team will consistently square off against quality competition in the Shore Conference’s B North Division, which includes Middletown High School North, Middletown High School South, Red Bank Catholic High School and Manasquan High School. Finally, there’s the weather, which has made assessing a bevy of newcomers a difficult challenge for Spartans’ mentor.
“By this time of the year, we’ve had about six scrimmages, and I can pretty much see what we have,” Apicelli said. “Right now, we have a lot of unanswered questions, and we’re going to be a young team. So the quicker we can figure that out, the better.”
Time is short between now and April 1, when Ocean Township is scheduled to open the season at Freehold High School. At least in the short term, Apicelli will count on pitching and defense to get the job done.
Seniors Alec Keezer and Phil DeMarco lead a solid pitching staff. Keezer struck out 44 opposing hitters in 43.2 innings last spring while compiling a 5-2 record, two saves and a 2.40 ERA. DeMarco, a lefty, went 4-2 with a 2.59 ERA in 54 innings of work.
Other key hurlers include senior Travis Lillie, who posted three wins as a sophomore, Brian Davis, juniors Mark Butler and Brian Jenks and sophomore Scuba Hagerman. Max Winters, who saw some mound time as a freshman a year ago when he posted a varsity win, is expected to get the ball more often this time around.
Junior outfielder Jack D’Auria is coming off a .262 season with a homer and 25 RBIs, while Keeler, who hit .268 last spring, will move to shortstop from second base. Another junior outfielder, Jack Poppa, who missed last season with an injury, also brings a big bat. Apicelli also said he will likely insert DeMarco, who rarely batted as a junior, in the middle of the batting order.
Junior Matt Redbord will play first base, but he may see time at the hot corner as well. Winters will be the shortstop, and Keezer will play third — at least most of the time — when he’s not on the hill. Junior David Yatcilla, Hagerman and sophomore Ryan Toomey are all battling for time at second base.
Junior Evan Arbeeny will catch, with Keezer and Winters also seeing time behind the plate. Competing for a spot in the outfield and possibly as a designated hitter are Juan Baez, Max Degilio, Mike Kardane and junior Will Callano. Pinch-runner extraordinaire Matt Samilow, a junior, returns after leading the team in stolen bases. He could also see some time in the outfield.
Apicelli noted that there are several really good freshmen in the program, and a few could get looks as the season progresses.
“If the pitching can do what I expect, we’ll be very competitive,” Apicelli said. “The big question is, are we going to hit? That means we have to work hard and play smart baseball, because we’re going to have to win a lot of 2-1 games.”