Lerner: Freehold Boro coach beat the odds
Jon Block holds a special place in his heart for the deck at home of Ted Jarmusz.
There is an endearing flexibility to it. The setting meets its intended requisite as a tranquil escape for casual conversation, but has also hosted a variety of summits. The deck has more often transformed into a think tank to throw around baseball philosophies and that only seems fitting considering it’s what drew the two together in the first place.
A friendship that spans some 25 years was first struck when Block encountered Jarmusz through coaching circles. What it evolved into was a unbreakable bond that even the rivalry their two programs share couldn’t break; Block a synonymous figure with Freehold Borough for 21 seasons while Jarmusz has held the same standing at Monmouth Regional for 29 years.
“Back in the late ‘80s, we were the young turks,” Jarmusz said. “We reveled in each other’s misery and success. It’s always been a mutual admiration society.”
The success part came easy. These guys are cut from the same cloth, baseball engrained in the very fabric of their being. They appreciated how tough it was to ascend to the top, so if one made it, the other was vicariously going along for the ride and genuine in his celebration for any worthy accomplishment the route delivered.
Yet, it was the deepest of lows that truly revealed the strength of their relationship and how baseball can be such a natural catharsis. When Block was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in December of 1994, Jarmusz was one of his greatest advocates with an informal remedy at his disposal that proved to be a medicine just as therapeutic as all the cutting-edge treatment his pal was getting to battle the disease.
Jarmusz made baseball an incentive to drive Block’s recovery. In the off-season, the two would head south to Cherry Hill, along with the late and legendary Middletown North coach Richie Veth, for the annual baseball coaching clinic. The drills that were introduced weren’t so much innovative as they were motivating. Jarmusz would review them on the drive back in hopes not of retention on Block’s behalf, but as inspiration to keep his fight strong as a new baseball season loomed.
“Throughout my illness, I never had a negative thought,” Block said. “I never talked about what could happen. I put my trust in the doctors and did what they told me to do. But, teaching and coaching were also a big part of the recovery. We didn’t talk much about the negative part of cancer. We talked about baseball, which was one of the best therapies. I would get chemotherapy in the morning so I could be at practice in the afternoon.”
“We just spent a lot of time together,” Jarmusz recalled. “Richie and I would talk about how the doctors don’t know everything and it’s only an opinion. That they are playing the odds and how he could beat the odds. Jon is that type of guy. He’s not influenced by public opinion.”
Eighteen years have past since Block was diagnosed. He now has a clean bill of health, thanks to a team of physicians who addressed the condition with some state-of-the-art procedures at the time.
“I needed to save myself,” Block said. “I had a stem cell transplant where they removed my marrow, cleaned it and reinserted it. I was lucky. I had a great team of doctors.”
Luck and odds. Block had a fair share of the former to overcome the latter during his uphill fight to lick cancer. Now, as an older and wiser coach, one of the most unsung in the Shore Conference despite his tenure, the revered mentor is getting to experience something that was a long time in the making and even surpasses his lengthy residence at Freehold Borough.
And the irony of it all is the path to his most cherished coaching hour had to go through a dear friend that was by his side during the most trying period of his life in order to be achieved.
Block will lead an upstart Freehold Borough squad onto the field at Toms River South on Saturday to face perennial power Cranford with the NJSIAA Group 3 state championship on the line. The chance to play in such rarified air, which will mark the Colonials first-ever appearance in a state final, was only attained after they defeated Monmouth Regional, 3-0, in the Central Jersey, Group 3 title game for the program’s first sectional crown since 1966.
“If I was going to lose that game, I didn’t want to do so against anyone except him,” Jarmusz said.
“After that game, I told him there was nobody I’d rather do this against more than him,” Block added. “It was weird to say but I think he knew what I meant. He’s one of my closest friends.”
Loyalty means everything to Block. Trust him as much as he trusts you and there will never be a problem. He’s a players’ coach and that’s exactly the reason why so many baseball alumni pop over to the school from time to time to see a game and catch up with their former coach.
It’s one of the features that prompted Matt Coulson to make a big decision.
Coulson was a dependable left-hander for Block for three years before graduating in 2003 and moving on to pitch at Monmouth University. When his playing career ended, Coulson weighed his options of seeking a coaching position in college ranks or pursuing endeavors in public education. He landed a teaching gig at Howell and returned to the Borough to become Block’s valued assistant.
“I didn’t realize until I came back the person he truly is,” Coulson said. “When you’re a kid playing for him, you don’t always want to hear what people are telling you. But, he’s old school in the new school era. He’s the same person he’s always been. He hasn’t changed in how he treats kids, opponents and the game with the same amount of respect. Guys come back to support the program because they respect him and what he stands for. It says something about him.”
“Having Matty here with me is a culmination,” Block said. “He was part of some lean years when he played for me. But, it’s the best feeling having someone who came through the program here with me. He is a bigger part of this than me. I can’t emphasize enough how important his enthusiasm and knowledge has been.”
Block has always maintained a sense of modesty. That humility was only enhanced after enduring the ordeal of 18 years ago. He confesses that on Saturday, he plans to take a moment or two for himself, to smell the roses and take note of the an anticipated throng of people whose lives he’s touched in ways perhaps he himself doesn’t truly know who will pour out in an offer of support.
One of the many things that has made Freehold Borough’s run to the state championship so compelling is the perseverance of a Colonial cast that has embodied the very thing that got Block through is fight with cancer.
As an eight-seed in their section, the Colonials upended ninth-seeded Woodbridge, top-seeded Wall, fifth-seeded Hopewell Valley and sixth-seeded Monmouth before emerging from a 13-inning epic against South Jersey champion Hammonton, with a 2-1 triumph behind the gritty pitching of junior left-handers Jake Yanez (10 innings, three hits, 11 strikeouts) and Michael Bolton, who tossed three scoreless innings of relief to pick up the win.
The offense has complemented its pitching staff’s tenacity by consistently delivering the necessary run support. Seniors Matt Holtz, Travis Rudic and Anthony Vazzana have been staples in the lineup while junior Jason Lundy sparks the offense at the top of the order and Bolton does a great job of turning it over out of the nine hole.
“Before the season, we thought we could have a breakout year,” Block said. “Then, we start out 4-8. But, to go from there to playing in the state final, it’s hard to fathom. Deep down, we believed in what we were doing and that the potential was there to be successful.
“I guess one reason I’m still here is because I never stopped chasing the dream. I’m happy for all the people who put up with me. I hope they are all enjoying this as much as we are. “
One of those who plans to be on hand is the curator of the deck, which, if a victory over a tough opponent can somehow be attained, will more than likely be the site at some point for yet another celebration.
That Ken Frank Stadium at Toms River South is serving as the backdrop for the state final is eerily fitting to this tale for it was the exact same place Jarmusz registered his own Group 3 state championship nearly seven years ago to the day with a 3-1 victory over Ramapo.
“Thank God he’s still here,” Jarmusz said. “He is an inspiration to me. His humbleness is his allure. He will talk about his role the least, always giving credit to the players and assistant coaches but Jon is the only constant. All we ever really talked about was making the most of the time we have coaching. Jon doesn’t care about being famous. He wants to be significant. I wouldn’t miss this game for the world.”
Gregg Lerner covers baseball for MSG Varsity. Follow him on Twitter: @gregglerner