Rejuvenated Jaguars play for a ‘championship pile’


 The Jackson Memorial High School Jaguars warmed up for the 2012 baseball season with a scrimmage against Christian Brothers Academy of Lincroft on March 23. The Jaguars will open the season at home on March 31 vs. Kinnelon.  CLAIRE SHEPROW The Jackson Memorial High School Jaguars warmed up for the 2012 baseball season with a scrimmage against Christian Brothers Academy of Lincroft on March 23. The Jaguars will open the season at home on March 31 vs. Kinnelon. CLAIRE SHEPROW A shuffled infield and a pitching staff that coach Frank Malta regards as the deepest he has had will carry the hopes of a Jackson Memorial High School baseball team that will try to continue the winning ways of last year’s emotional 21-6 season, and add some championships in the process.

Last year’s team surged to the championship games of two tournaments before losing in the finals, 2-1 to Red Bank Catholic in the Shore Conference Tournament, and 10-7 in the Ocean County Tournament final to a Brick Township High School team the Jaguars had beaten in the Shore Conference Tournament semifinals.

But this year’s team believes it can fulfill some unfinished business and defend its Shore Conference A South Division crown.

“Through all four of my years, we’ve finished second in some championships, and I remember that we drive toward that,” shortstop Joe Ogren said. “It’s my responsibility to bring this team to the championship game and finish it.”

An emotionally exhausted and physically fatigued team ended the 2011 season when it lost in the second round of the Central Jersey Group IV state sectional tournament to Manalapan.

The Jaguars had regrouped from the death of teammate James Volpe, who died in an auto accident during the season, and although they put their preparation for games in perspective from that point on, Malta and veteran players say sad memories linger at times as the squad prepares for its March 31 opener at home against Kinnelon at 11 a.m.

“We are still adjusting mentally and emotionally,” said Spencer Young, who has moved from third base to second base. “There are still times we all think about it. We’re all like brothers, and Volpe was like a brother with us.”

“Every day you have your time where it comes back once a day and you think about it,” Ogren said. “We all know, and it comes at different times for different players, and we have his uniform number at the field. But when the time comes to play, we know we have to focus in. It was definitely hard times, but we’ve talked about it, especially with the seniors who have been close friends with him. We help each other out.”

Malta said the character of his team showed in those dark days that still mustered moments of glory.

“From what we were able to accomplish last season from what we came back from, I’m happy for that,” Malta said. “It’s still tough thinking about it. I did not know how the kids were going to respond and to go about the rest of the season. They did a great job of getting in position to get to the Ocean County and Shore Conference tournament finals, and it was a great job with their fam- ilies, too.” “It was really amazing that we came together so well,” Ogren said. “We would not have done it without each other.”

“It was a little tough,” Young said. “We had to pull together as a team, like one big family.”

Graduated from the 2011 squad is second baseman Alex Lopez (.479, 32 RBIs), standout catcherAlex Herceg (.354, 24 RBIs), and clutch hitting outfielder Matt Meleo (.475, 22 RBIs) as well as outfielder Fred Scheer. Also graduated are pitchers Dan Falvo and Kevin Carr.

Malta has a 2012 team with enough quality in all three elements — pitching, hitting and defense — to reach title games and win them. Last year’s squad batted .375 with 30 home runs, while the pitching staff had a 3.43 ERA and held opposing hitters to a .280 batting average.

“This program has gotten to the point where we don’t just play to be there, but to finish it, to have that championship pile after the seventh inning,” Malta said. “It’s getting the younger guys acclimated, and they are kind of comfortable already for this from filling in roles quite well. You don’t know how they will react, and they have stepped up.”

Brandon Holup leads a senior staff of right-handed pitchers with a slider and change-up complementing his effective fastball. He was 5-3 with a 2.16 ERA in 2011.

Alex Daniele, who was 4- 0 with a 1.91 ERA, uses a fastball, curve and change-up, and Malta said both pitchers pose an intimidating presence on the mound since Holup is 6- 6 and Daniele is 6-4. Keith Jennings, whose fastball has shown good movement in the preseason along with his breaking pitches and a change-up, is the reliever. And Ogren, who picked up two victories in 14 innings of pitching, also is available for action.

Meanwhile, Young says he is eager to play second base. “It took no time for me to get back into it. I was pretty prepared because I’ve always been a natural middle infielder, but I had some seniors playing ahead of me there,” Young said.

Mike Folk moves from first base to Young’s prior spot at third base. Malta said Folk “is doing really well, and defensively has done a nice job. It’s just going from one corner to the other.”

Matt Thaiss, a junior, has moved from right field to catcher. Thaiss batted .310 with 20 RBIs and was one of three players to share the team lead in home runs last season with six.

Matt Guarino, a sophomore who played a lot at first base late in the 2011 season, is the starter there.

Nick Petrizzo, a senior, saw spot time in the outfield and will start in left field. Junior Ed Guippone and sophomore Nick Dabrio, both up from the junior varsity, are expected to start in center field and right field, respectively.

Brian Johnston, a senior, is the designated hitter, and Malta said he has been hitting well in preseason along with Ogren, Young and Thaiss. Brian Kenny, a senior transfer from Colts Neck, can play first base and third base, be a designated hitter and pitch.