American Legion baseball team enjoys hot summer


Jackson’s American Legion baseball team is enjoying another strong season and a great record for the second straight year.

But its 12-0 start is the squad’s best ever, says Frank Malta, who coaches the American Legion team and coached the Jackson Memorial High School baseball team to the NJSIAA Group IV state championship game last month.

“We’ve won [the American Legion Ocean County Division championship] two or three times, and last year we were 14-1, but we never started off unbeaten this way,” said Malta, whose team is excelling even with the departure of New Jersey Gatorade Player of the Year Bryan Soloman, a third baseman and pitcher who is off to a college career at Eastern Kentucky University, as well as outstanding players such as shortstop Brandon Adams and designated hitter Ian Booth, the only other graduated seniors.

“I’m not really surprised,” he added. “I did not expect us to be unbeaten after 12 games, but I knew we would be pretty good with guys coming up and guys coming back. People could respect us a little bit.”

That was evident again on July 10 when Jackson led all the way in a 7-5 victory over Toms River East. Matt Meleo and Andy Lopez each had two hits for two RBIs, and Brian Johnson also had two hits. Lopez also closed out the game in relief as the third of three pitchers, including middle reliever Taylor Reynolds, who got the victory.

The Jackson American Legion team closed out its regular season at Brick on July 12 and at home against Central Regional on July 13 before embarking on the state playoffs this weekend at Toms River East. Malta will be away this week on vacation, and assistant coach J.M. Gold will take the reins of the team.

Even with the departure of Soloman and pitcher Dan Falvo, Malta said that “so far this summer, pitching has been pretty good” through the team’s hot streak. “It’s been our best attribute,” he said. “We have been scoring some runs and hitting the ball, but we’ve had four or five shutouts.”

And the staff is deep with Kevin Carr, who will be a senior in 2010-11, juniors Brandon Holup and Alex Daniele, and sophomores Reynolds and Ed Guippone, the only lefty thrower who started in the July 10 game against Toms River East. All throw fastballs and curves with some adding a change-up along the way.

What has been unusual is that half of the batting order hits left-handed, including Carr and rising sophomore Matt Thaiss, who started in right field for the Jackson Memorial varsity in 2010, as well as junior outfielder Eric Sosa and senior outfielders Fred Scheer and James Volpe. Sosa also has done some pitching.

First baseman Mike Folk, who will be a Jackson Memorial junior this fall, senior second baseman Andy Lopez and senior center fielder and lead-off hitter Meleo are the only familiar faces in the field from the Jaguars’ 2010 run to the Ocean County and Shore Conference tournament championship games, both losses to Toms River South, in a 25-7 season.

Folk has not always been available for baseball games, because he is also playing club soccer as the goalie for Tri-State Arsenal out of Voorhees while preparing for the fall varsity season as the starting goalie for the Jaguars again this season.

Catcher Alex Herceg and Joe Ogren, who is expected to play at third base next spring, have been unavailable for the most part since the end of the high school season because of commitments to travel teams for showcases along the Eastern seaboard.

As for Lopez, he was moved down a spot from his familiar No. 2 place in the batting lineup all spring to No. 3 and continues to hit singles and doubles.

“He’s so consistent. He has good at-bats. He works the count and has good awareness of the plate,” said Malta.

Johnson, who will be a junior, has made the most of his time at catcher filling in for Herceg and has hit three home runs while batting in the heart of the lineup.

Malta said sophomore Spencer Young, while playing a lot of innings at shortstop, “has been taking his lumps, but doing a good job.”

Malta said he is trying different players at third base, including Carr, Sosa, Reynolds and Young, but he is glad the American Legion league gives him an opportunity to get an early gauge on the 2011 high school season, since some players participate in fall sports and will be unavailable for the Jaguars’ fall baseball workouts.