Blue Devils’ baseball team ready for competition in A Central

By Matthew Rocco

The Shore Regional High School baseball team will take on bigger schools in the Shore Conference A Central Division this season. But with established players returning to the field, the Blue Devils expect to have another winning year.

The Blue Devils, who are coming off a 13-9 season in 2016, are looking for a shot at a division title while competing against Saint John Vianney High School, Matawan Regional High School, Raritan High School and other teams that have more players at their disposal. This doesn’t deter Shore Regional, though. If past seasons are any indication, the Blue Devils can keep up with mightier programs.

“[In A Central], you’re not going to get a cupcake on your schedule,” head coach Pat O’Neill said. “Every team we play is bigger than we are. During the regular season, when you’re playing opponents that are bigger than you are, it prepares you for the state tournament. I think we can be competitive again this season.”

Shore Regional has five seniors on its roster, including Austin Cannon, Ryan Jones and Michael Jelliff. The three returning seniors will likely bat first, second and third in the lineup, respectively.

Cannon, an outfielder, hit .388 and stole 10 bases a year ago. Jones hit .357 as the team’s starting third baseman last season. Jelliff also had a strong 2016 campaign, batting .319 with a homer and a team-high 18 RBIs.

The senior class also includes outfielder Alex King and catcher Dean Smolokoff.

Junior Tommy Dunleavy is penciled into the cleanup spot, while fellow junior James LaBruno may bat in the fifth hole.

Shore Regional’s pitching staff is led by Michael Deusch, a standout sophomore who went 3-1 with a 2.47 ERA in his first season. He also stuck out 16 batters in 22.2 innings.

O’Neill will also turn to Jelliff and LaBruno for innings, as well as juniors Jimmy Maletto, Mike Shirvanian, Hunter Ward and Bailey Crochet.

The head coach said a rule change limiting pitch counts, rather than innings, will add new challenges to the season.

“It throws a lot of importance on the individual game. Whatever game you’re playing, you have to win that game if you have a lead. If you don’t win, it’s not like you’re set up to win the rest of the week,” O’Neill said, adding that Shore Regional is about six pitchers deep heading into the season opener.

The Blue Devils had success in division games last season, posting an 8-4 record. O’Neill wants to see his team remain in the mix for the A Central title this time around, and qualifying for the Shore Conference and Monmouth County tournaments will also be important milestones.

“Right now, every day we’re trying to get better,” O’Neill said as the Blue Devils prepared for their final scrimmages. “We’re always looking for a winning season and to be competitive in the division. Ultimately, of course, we want to qualify for the state tournament and make some type of run.”

The Blue Devils start the 2017 season April 1 with a home game against Keansburg High School. First pitch is scheduled for 10 a.m. Shore Regional will return to the field April 3 to face Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School on the road.

On May 6, Shore Regional will dedicate its baseball field to former Blue Devils player and head coach Fred Kampf before a 10 a.m. game against Red Bank Regional High School.