Jaguars relying on experience to perform better than last year

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By Wayne Witkowski

Beatable is a word rarely associated with Jackson Memorial High School’s baseball team over the past decade.

But after getting off to a typically strong 6-0 start despite a young and new lineup last season, the Jaguars won only three of their next 17 games.

“It was pretty inexplicable — a pretty strange thing,” coach Frank Malta said. “We were somewhat surprised to start 6-0, but we’re used to that around here.

“Then, we went off a cliff. In the second inning, we’d be down, 5-0 or 4-0, a lot of games. That wears you out to keep battling back, although we did at times. The hole got too big to dig out of.”

Chris Hawryluk, who is off to a college career at Monmouth University, tried to lead a largely untested pitching corps that became the root of the problem.

“Pitching was our weakness last year,” Malta said. “We didn’t do a very good job of commanding the game. Last year, our pitchers were throwing as inexperienced varsity pitchers but this year, they’re experienced. Last year, we played one of the toughest schedules we’ve played, and they didn’t do the job. This year, they’ve come back understanding it all and knowing what to expect.”

Despite the rough winter weather that plagued most teams around the state during the preseason, Jackson Memorial dodged the bullet with warm weather melting away the snow quicker than many places as the team got in six scrimmages — just a little below the norm — and made the most of its time indoors to work on the little things.

“The little things make a big difference,” Malta said.

Six players graduated after last season but most of the nine returnees saw significant innings on the mound or in the field. Malta said, however, that the younger players out for preseason have pressed hard for opportunities and some have moved ahead of the returning players.

Connor Takacs, a senior left-hander, leads the pitching staff before he embarks on a career at the University of Albany. His brother, Ryan, had pitched recently for Manhattan College.

“He’s coming along pretty well pitching and playing first base and is hitting well,” Malta said, as Takacs throws the typical fastball/curve/changeup repertoire.

Two juniors, left-hander Ryder Tallent and Nick Sefick, also have impressed, along with senior right-hander Tim Halasnik.

Sean Kelich, a junior left-hander, is another prospect. His step-brother, Pete, is a former Northeast Conference Pitcher of the Year at Bryant College and also had a three-year stint in the minor leagues through the 2015 season.

Senior right-handers Dylan Kanner and Colin McCulligh and junior righty Mike Dimino also expect to get innings on the mound, especially with the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association’s new rule that restricts pitching to pitch count instead of innings pitched.

Many of the pitchers will play in the field. Three of them — Takacz, Halasnik and Kanner — will share innings at first base, depending on who pitches. Dimino and senior Brian Boyle will share innings at shortstop.

Two brothers have looked sharp enough in workouts to earn starts: junior Tom Pallone at catcher and his freshman brother, Christian, at second base.

“Tom’s a good blocker, a great leader, a good offensive leader,” Malta said of the trusty catcher.

Another brother combination also could play in the field at the same time. Aaron McCulligh, Colin’s twin brother, is competing for innings at third base with junior Mike Koslowski.

Alex Iadisernia, who racked up perhaps more innings as a freshman last season than any of the returning players, is playing center field for what will be a young outfield. Sophomore Troy Bathman has practiced well in left field and Kyle Thaiss, a junior, is playing in right field along with junior Dominick Billotti, who can play in either left field or right field.
Kyle’s older brother, Matt Thaiss, is heading off to San Bernadino to play High A ball for the Los Angeles Angels, who made him the 16th pick in the 2016 Major League Baseball draft out of the University of Virginia. Scouts feel he may work his way up to the majors by the end of the season.

Anthony Marbette, a senior, also may get some action in the outfield, and senior R.J. Bonner is another steady first baseman.