Lerner: Inside the baseball Top 15
The initial release of the MSG Varsity New Jersey Top 15 listed just the teams in descending order. Here is a more in-depth breakdown of the residents in the poll and the some of the reasons why they were considered for the pre-season rankings.
1-Don Bosco Prep
Last year: 25-1, won the Bergen County Tournament title.
Key returners: Tommy Burns (Sr. P 9-0, 1.53 ERA); Michael Gomez (Sr. P 7-0, 2.70 ERA); George Iskendarian (Sr. SS .421, 28 RBI); Matt Dacey (Sr. 1B .493, 32 RBI, 8 HRs); Michael Mecca (Sr. OF .315, .513 OBP); Grant Van Orden (Sr. 3B .375, 18 R, .526 OBP); Joe Purritano (Sr. OF .373, 5 HRs, 35 R).
One of the things most often heard when someone sees the Ironmen for the first time is “They look like a college team” and it’s not too far of a reach to deem them as such.
Gomez (UMBC), Iskendarian (South Carolina), Dacey (Michigan), Mecca (Villanova); Van Orden (West Point) and Purritano (Dartmouth) lend credence to such a description.
With two excellent front-end pitchers in Gomez and Burns and an offensive arsenal eager to generate runs, Don Bosco will seek to repeat in the BCT and be a favorite along with South Jersey powerhouse Gloucester Catholic for the Non-Public A state title. Both teams are nationally ranked in a number of polls.
Last year: 21-6, runner up in both the Ocean County and Shore Conference Tournaments.
Key returners: Joe Ogren (Sr. SS .447, 38 H, 23 RBI); Matt Thaiss (Jr. C .310, 6 HRs, 20 RBI); Spencer Young (So. 2B .389, 28 H); Alex Daniele (Sr. P 4-0, 1.91 ERA); Brandon Holup (Sr. P 5-3, 2.16 ERA); Mike Folk (Sr. 3B .263); Matt Guarino (So. 1B .316, 14 RBI in 15 games).
Key Newcomer: Brian Kenny (Sr. 1B/P .411, 27 RBI, 3-3, 3.44 ERA).
The Jaguars fared quite well in the pre-season behind an offense with no holes and a deep, seasoned pitching staff. Ogren and Thaiss are two well-established bats in the order who drip with confidence in clutch spots.
Ogren is the only player retaining his defensive position on the infield from a year ago. Young will slide over to second base from third and Folk will fill that void, shifting from first base, to make room for Kenny, a transfer from Colts Neck. Thaiss spent the last two years in right field but the graduation of Alex Herceg will allow the junior, who has already verballed to Virginia, to move behind the plate, his natural position.
As much as it has been noted for the collection of power the last few years, Jackson is also fundamentally sound and sharp in regards to situational execution. Couple that with a pitching staff that features Holup, Daniele, Kenny and senior Keith Jennings and you have the makings of a serious threat for the Group 4 championship.
3-Seton Hall Prep
Last year: 22-6, Greater Newark Tournament champion, North Jersey, Non-Public A runner-up.
Key returners: Mike Sheppard III (Sr. P 7-0, 1.55 ERA, 61 Ks, 40 2/3 IP); Daniel Link (Sr. C .359, 33 H, 11 2Bs, 4 HRs, 27 RBI); Taylor Blankmeyer (Sr. 2B .370, 30 H, 25 RBI); Tim Hoehn (Jr. SS .309, 8 2Bs, 3 HRs, 15 RBI, 9 SBs).
Always formidable, the Prep once again has all the trimmings to defending its GNT crown and make a charge toward a Non-Public A title. Sheppard, son of coach Mike Sheppard, Jr., has a proven track record as well as an overpowering fastball. He and Blankmeyer, who are cousins, have both committed to St. John’s, where Blankmeyer’s dad Ed is the head coach.
Link is a smart receiver behind the dish, thus the reason the backstop is heading to Harvard and Hoehn provides ample defense up the middle, forming a smooth double-play combination with Blankmeyer. The blend of pitching, defense and quality hitters will drive the Prep.
4-Red Bank Catholic
Last year: 26-4, Shore Conference Tournament champion, Monmouth County Tournament runner-up.
Key returners: Andrew LaMura (Sr. OF .413, 35 R, 45 H, 32 RBI); Nick Liggett (Sr. OF/P .398, 27 R, 33 H, 5 HRs, 25 RBI); Ryan Slate (Sr. P 6-0, 27 Ks, 41 2/3 IP); Ryan Spahr (Sr. P 5-1, 65 Ks, 48 IP); Mike Rescigno (Jr. 3B/P 25 H, 26 R, 4 HRs, 15 RBI); Trevor Brain (Sr. OF/DH .328, 21 H, 10 R).
The Caseys rattled off a 24-game winning streak last season with Spahr, who has committed to Wagner, and Slate accounting for a combined 10 victories during the run. LaMura, an East Carolina recruit, is so reliable in center field and ignites the offense at the top of the order. Liggett is underrated for the versatility he provides and Rescigno is primed for a big-time breakout showing both as a hitter with power and pitcher who can fire gas.
Last year: 23-3, Mercer County Tournament champion
Key returners: Sam Burum (Sr. P 7-0, 1.01 ERA, 46 Ks, 49 IP); Adam Vorraso (Sr. P/1B 7-2, 3.28 ERA); Matt Samel (Sr. P/3B 3-0, 4.12 ERA, .333, 16 R); Steve Krebs (Jr. P 2-1, 4.44 ERA); Anthony DeChiara (So. P 3-0, 1.35 ERA); C.J. Gearhart (Jr. C .303, 23 R, 17 RBI, 7 SBs); Ryan Fleming (Sr. OF .274, 17 RBI, 17 R); Matt Mindnich (Sr. SS .255).
With its wealth of pitching, Robbinsville possesses the kind of deep rotation that really becomes invaluable during the post season. Considering the quality of defense this program plays, pitchers don’t have to be overly concerned with being too fine around the strike zone because they can throw with the utmost faith that those positioned behind them will make plays. Robbinsville will get an early gauge on where its at on Saturday when it hosts No. 12 Steinert in the season opener.
Last year: 24-7, North Jersey, Section 2, Group 3 champion, Greater Newark Tournament runner-up.
Key returners: Will Fitzgerald (Sr. OF .354, 18 RBI, 27 R, 34 SBs); Ian Riddell (Jr. P/1B 4-0, 2 Saves, 3.25 ERA, .355); Milo Freeman (So. SS .325, 22 RBI); Anthony DelGreco (Sr. 3B .298); Chris Gula (Sr. OF .312, 24 SBs); David Talpalar (So. P/1B 3-1, 1.84 ERA, .302), Evy Ruibal (So. P/OF).
Anticipate Millburn being a legitimate contender for the Super Essex Conference, American Division as well as the GNT and Group 3. Fitzgerald and Gula can put a world of pressure on a pitcher with their aggressiveness on the bases, while Riddell, Talpalar and Ruibal all can pound the strike zone when toeing the rubber. It gets an early test against Seton Hall Prep on Monday.
Last year: 20-5, Union County Tournament champion.
Key returners: Kurt Rutmeyer (Sr. P 7-2); Ryan Williamson (Jr. P/OF .420, 7-2); Andrew Difrancesco (Jr. OF .430).
Coach Dennis McCaffery has built one of the more respected programs in the state over the last 13 years and this spring’s ensemble seeks to continue that tradition behind the pitching of Rutmeyer and Williamson.
8-St. Joseph’s (Montvale)
Last year: 21-6-1
Key returners: Rob Kaminsky (Jr. P/OF .534, 8HRs, 41 RBI, 1.85 ERA, 89 Ks, 53 IP); Marl Cieslak (Sr. DH); Ryan Rivera (Jr. OF); Nick Cuono (Sr. P 6-0); Corey Lerche (Sr. 1B); Nick Wolyniec (Sr. 3B); Chris Chiaradio (Sr. SS); Dylan Scance (Sr. P).
Kaminsky is among the most coveted junior recruits in the state because of his versatility. He will most likely get the ball on Wednesday when St. Joe’s squares off with No. 1 Don Bosco in one of the marquee early blockbusters. Lerche (University of Maine) and Chiaradio (Seton Hall) enhance the daily lineup with the reliable defense and consistent swings and the Green Knights get an added boost with the healthy return of Cieslak, whose junior year was wiped out by a shoulder injury.
Last year: 26-6, Group 2 state champion, Union County Tournament runner-up.
Key returners: Keith Skinner (Sr. C .463, 39 RBI); Joey Graziano (Sr. P/OF 5-2, 53 Ks); Tyler Martis (Sr. SS 41 R, 18 SBs); Billy Worswick (Sr. P/OF 4-1, 40 Ks); Aaron Smith (Sr. P/1B 3-2, 28 Ks); Ryan Jennings (So. P/OF); Jon Schmedel (Sr. P/1B 25 Ks).
The reigning Group 2 state champion returns 13 players from a year ago, including three Division 1 signees in Skinner (Fairfield), Graziano (St. John’s) and Martis (Siena). Graziano challenges hitters with a fastball that peaks at 90 mph and Worswick can hover in the mid 80s consistently. Skinner is skilled at receiving this staff and gets it plenty of run support with the bat while Martis puts pressure on opposing catcher with his wheels.
Last year: 12-10
Key returners: Tyler Fox (Sr. OF .438, 4 HRs, 22 RBI); Mike Roethke (Sr. C .473, 47 R, 10 2Bs, 3 HRs); Ronnie Sessa (Sr. CF .418, 14 2Bs, 3 HRs).
The host of underclassmen who gained immeasurable experience a year ago against the loaded schedule Immaculata annually plays should show the dividends this spring. Sessa, who committed to Northeastern, Fox and Roethke are a nice offensive foundation for the coach Tom Gambino to fashion a lineup around.
Last year: 17-7
Key returners: Brendan Benecke (Jr. C .313, 21 R, 6 2Bs, 6 HRs, 24 RBI); Angel Garced (Jr. SS .260, 17 R, 4 2Bs, 13 RBI); John Holland (Sr. P/3B .437, 17 R, 31 H, 5 2Bs, 18 RBI, 6-1, 2.56 ERA); Tyler Pallante (Jr. P/1B .305, 18 R, 5 2Bs, 4-3, 3.56 ERA); Vin Sica (Sr. P/OF .275, 5 2Bs, 13 IP, 10 Ks); James Sofield (So. P/IF .273, 4-0, 2.72 ERA); Ariel Rivera (Sr. IF).
With so many vital components from a cast that steered Jackson Liberty to the semifinals of Central Jersey, Group 3 last spring, marking the deepest advance in the program’s brief history, there’s plenty of reason for optimism around this team. Holland is a straight up bulldog on the mound and a competitor at the plate, Benecke is imposing with the bat and Garced a proven defensive commodity.
Last year: 23-3, Mercer County Tournament runner-up.
Key returners: Marshall Harden (Sr. P 4-1, 1.89 ERA); James Locklear (Sr. OF .522, 35 H, 9 2Bs, 6 HRs, 27 RBI, .955 SLG, .556 OBP); Adam Riese (Sr. OF .380, 27 H, 9 2Bs, 25 RBI); Brock Podgurski (Sr. IF .403, 27 H, 20 RBI); Casey Plunkett (Sr. IF .300); Matt Belardo (Sr. C .274, 22 RBI).
One the most respected and time-tested programs in the state has a good nucleus in place, keyed by Locklear, a Rider recruit who is practically undeniable in terms of keeping off the bases. Harden, who is heading to Penn, is slated to be the staff ace if he can return from a broken foot. There is a chance he could be back by late April.
Last year: 18-10
Key returners: Sam Ackerman (Jr. P/OF); Eli Kashi (Jr. SS); Evan Janifer (Sr. 2B); Mackenze Genauer (Sr. 3B): Elliot Gertner (Sr. P).
With 20 players back in the mix from a breakout showing in 2011, including eight starters, the Mounties offer a compelling case for pre-season Sleeper to Watch.
Last year: 21-6, Bergen County Tournament runner-up.
Key returners: Ari Kaufman (Sr. P 8-0, 2.10 ERA); Chris Liquori (Sr. IF/P .360, 23 RBI, 5 HRs); Joe Scaglione (Sr. C/P .320, 18 RBI); Alex Nickles (Sr .OF/P .325, 15 RBI); Matt Osieja (Jr. P/OF 3-2, 2.55 ERA); Ryan Dougherty (Sr. OF .350, 27 RBI); Austin Grillo (Sr. 2B); Sam Pecka (Sr. 1B); Cory Sala (Sr. C).
The senior-laden squad has a little bit of everything and that usually bodes well for veteran coach Mickey Hunt. Kaufman, who is heading to Lafayette, and Liquori give Ramapo a competitive presence on the mound. Nickles, another Lafayette recruit, is a quality contact hitter, something that will be predominant in this lineup.
Last year: 23-8, Central Jersey, Group 2 runner-up
Key returners: Chris Petiya (Sr. 1B/DH .362, 42 RBI, 10 2Bs, 9 HRs); Tom Marcinczyk (Jr. OF/P .495, .34 RBI, 47 H, 7 2Bs, 9 HRs); Kyle Dotey (Jr. C/P .356, 49 RBI, 40 H, 14 2Bs, 6 HRs); Tyler Heisch (Jr. SS/P .418, 20 RBI, 38 H, 1 HR); Walter Byleckie (Jr. 3B .351, 6 2Bs); Brennan Price (Jr. 1B/DH .404, 20 RBI, 4 2Bs, 1 3B, 3 HRs).
Middlesex had loads of experience returning, particularly amongst a junior class that saw plenty of action a year ago as sophomores. Marcinczyk, one of the premier hitters in Middlesex County, will also see time pitching. Middlesex could get an inspiring boost from Price, who is trying to make a return to the lineup from Tommy John surgery in November.
Gregg Lerner covers baseball for MSG Varsity. Follow him on Twitter: @gregglerner