Lions’ baseball team expects contributions from young players

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By Wayne Witkowski

Six starters return from last season’s Jackson Liberty High School baseball team. The Lions still have a young lineup intent on surpassing last year’s 11-11 record.

Eight seniors graduated — half of them starters — but there are plenty of players who saw extensive action last year, including three who started as freshmen: middle infielders Alex Torres and Dan Sofield at second base and shortstop, respectively, and David Melfi, who was the catcher.

Senior right-handers Matt Pickus and Andrew Ludovico saw a lot of action on the mound throwing a fastball, curveball and changeup, and so did Kyle Tavaska, who also started in center field. They’ll handle a lot of the pitching.

Junior Billy Hart also was a regular starter at first base and designated hitter.

“We do return a lot of starters, but a lot of those guys are sophomores and we are still a very young team, so a key is how quickly these players can progress as varsity baseball players,” veteran coach Jim Rankin said as his team prepares for its run in Shore Conference B South Division in his 10th season as head coach. “Last year, these players got their feet wet at the varsity level. I look forward to seeing them taking the next step in their game.”

The Lions hope to catch up for lost time from lingering winter weather that forced cancellation of a few early-season scrimmages and the April 1 season opener against Raritan High School, which is important for developing the young players. Pitching depth will help the team get off to a good start and help later in the season for tournaments.

“With the new pitch count rules, the key to our season is going to be our pitching depth,” Rankin said, referring to the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association’s (NJSIAA) new rule regulating pitch counts rather than innings pitched as in the past. “We are going to have to rely on contributions from more guys this year than in years past.”

Seniors Matt Piro and left-hander Jared Caroll, juniors Dan Dordas and Rich Dordas (a lefty) and sophomores Nick DeCarlo and Kevin Ritz add depth to the pitching.

Rich Dordas is expected to share innings with Hart at first base, and new starters Shane Hickey and Chris Matragrano have been sharing innings at third base.

Connor Kennan, who saw action as a freshman last year in left field, and Scott Wierciszewski in right field flank Tavaska in the outfield.

Tavaska and sophomore Melfi are hitting well for average, and sophomore Scott Wierciszewski has shown power, as the Lions look to hit the ball better in big games this season. Last year’s team lost early in the NJSIAA Central Jersey, Group III tournament to Nottingham High School, 2-0, and in the Shore Conference Tournament to Red Bank Catholic High School, 4-1.

Rankin remains optimistic about the offense for this season.

“We seem to have very good team chemistry, which is always important,” said Rankin, whose best season was an 18-9 campaign in 2013 when the Lions reached the Shore Conference Tournament finals. “I think the players are doing a great job picking up where we left off last year. We return a lot of starters, so our installation process this year has been rather smooth. I would like to see our attention to detail.”

The Lions were scheduled to host A South power Toms River High School North April 3 and open their division schedule the following day at Barnegat High School. They play division rival Manchester Township High School April 6.