Blues feature pitching, defense and team speed

BY TIM MORRIS Staff Writer

Staff Writer

MIGUEL JUAREZ staff Brookdale shortstop Pedro Nieves puts the tag on a Sussex player during the Jersey Blues' 4-3 win on Thursday in Lincroft.MIGUEL JUAREZ staff Brookdale shortstop Pedro Nieves puts the tag on a Sussex player during the Jersey Blues’ 4-3 win on Thursday in Lincroft. It just took a week for Johnny Johnson’s freshmen to become sophomores.

In a seven-day period in Florida, his Brookdale Community College baseball team played 14 games, which for the freshmen was the equivalent of half a high school season, in a week.

“The freshmen were not used to playing that much,” said Johnson. “Playing 14 games in seven days, the freshmen had to learn to be mentally ready.”

The Jersey Blue freshmen and the team in general passed its first test of the season, going 10-5 in West Palm Beach, competing against many of the top teams in the country.

“It was the toughest competition we’ve faced [in Florida],” said Johnson. “We threw them [freshmen] in the fire to see how they did.”

Brookdale enjoyed a near perfect season last year, running off a school-record 33-game winning streak, winning the Region XIX and Northeast District championships and qualifying for the National Junior College Athletic Association World Series. But that team was sophomore-laden, and Johnson began this season knowing that the team would be missing the sophomore leadership it had in ’05.

“It takes time to develop chemistry, and for the players to come together and pull for each other,” Johnson said.

One thing the Blues have going for them is a deep and experienced starting rotation that showed what it can do in Florida, pitching to an impressive team earned run average of 1.20. That exceed Johnson’s expectations.

“I didn’t think we’d be this good,” he said. “The sophomores all improved. We don’t have anyone who will overpower hitters. They don’t walk people. They all throw strikes, and our defense is phenomenal.”

Right-hander Bill Lawson (Middletown), a returning All-American, is at the top of the rotation. Ryan Beard (Pt. Pleasant Boro), Kevin Rickert (Toms River North) and Nick Riker (Red Bank Catholic) all started last year, giving the rotation plenty of experience.

Freshman Jed Rehfuss (Lakewood) has been the surprise of the staff. He is a lefty and has been pitching lights out. Another frosh, Ramond Guzman (the Bronx, N.Y.), is a key addition to the staff.

Jason Wilson (Brick Township) and Lex Wolfe (Lakewood) will share the closer role. Because of the experience of the starting rotation, Johnson doesn’t expect his bullpen to be overused. He anticipates more complete games from his starters.

Making the job easier for Brookdale’s hurlers is a superb all-around defense. Freshman shortstop Pedro Nieves (George Washington, the Bronx, N.Y.) is the key here, making everyone better because of his range.

Catcher Nick Mullins (Brick Township) is a gold glove behind the plate. He keeps everything in front of him and has a great arm. He also works well with the staff. He batted .386 last year with five home runs.

Joe Armino (Pt. Pleasant Boro) is a returning veteran at first. Joe Schiettino (Lakewood), who played short last year has moved to second base. Paddy Matera (Toms River North) is the only freshman starter in the infield.

The infield defense has a collection of players who are sure-handed and have good arms. As good as it is, the outfield defense may be even better.

“This is the most speed I’ve had in the outfield,” Johnson remarked.

Returning center fielder Damian Walcott (Freehold Borough) covers so much ground that extra base hits are a rarity. He is flanked by freshman Vincent Principe (Toms River East) and Carlos Guzman (John Adams, Queens, N.Y.).

Speed is going to be a very big part of Brookdale’s offense. From Denny Walling down, the Jersey Blues have earned a reputation as a power-hitting team that wears pitchers out, but this year will be an exception.

“We’re going to be more of a doubles team that relies on speed,” said Johnson. “One through nine, every guy can run. We’ll have six or seven guys who steal 25 bases.”

Brookdale will put more pressure than ever on defenses and Johnson sees no reason for the team’s production to be done. They’ll still score a lot of runs, only in a different way.

“With our lineup we’ll never be out of a game,” he said.

Despite having a team with 20 freshmen, Johnson believes his Jersey Blues will still be vying for GSAC and Region titles this spring.

“I still think we’re the team to beat,” he said. “This team is more talented athletically than last year. We have depth at every position.”

Del-Tech Owens, Sussex and Mercer were listed by Johnson as the other contenders.”

The Blues are home today and tomorrow (3 p.m. starts) against Morris and Salem in Garden State Athletic Conference and Region XIX games. After a pair of road games (at Ocean on Friday and Del-Tech Owens, Sunday), Brookdale returns to Lincroft on Monday against Gloucester (3:30 p.m.).

Brookdale is hosting this year’s Region XIX tournament May 5-7. The Blues will be looking to take advantage of the home field to take a big step toward returning to the World Series.