JMHS grad Jennings leads Kean U. baseball squad

BY WAYNE WITKOWSKI Correspondent

 Ed Jennings of Jackson is enjoying a productive 2012 season with the Kean University baseball team.  LARRY LEVANTI Ed Jennings of Jackson is enjoying a productive 2012 season with the Kean University baseball team. LARRY LEVANTI Ed Jennings of Jackson has been to the NCAA Division III World Series twice, but the catcher on Kean University’s baseball team wants to end his career with a championship. Two years before Jennings arrived on the Union Township campus, Kean won the 2007 Division III World Series.

“That’s the goal, getting back to the World Series. We have all of the tools. It’s just a matter of working them all at the same time,” said Jennings, a former Jackson Memorial High School standout.

Kean has reached the World Series in four of the last five years.

Despite leading the Cougars to a No. 8 national ranking and a 25-9 start, Jennings said he has not seen the team put all of the pieces together lately.

“We are doing well, but the parts haven’t fallen together yet,” Jennings said. “Some days we get the pitching and not the hitting, and some days we get the hitting but the pitching isn’t there. Unfortunately, we’re not rolling yet. We should have been [rolling] before the NJAC [New Jersey Athletic Conference] season. The team chemistry is great. Most of the starters have been together for four years. We should be getting the job done.”

Jennings’ words were evident in a pair of recent nine-inning losses to NJAC rival Rowan, 7-2 and 2-0. The Cougars bounced back last weekend with an 11-0 and 5-4 sweep of Rutgers-Newark.

“We know we have to [have] … great defense and pitching to keep the score down,” Kean coach Neil Ioviero said. “We know we can’t match some other teams offensively. We have to play a certain style to win. We do not get a lot of chances, so when we do, we have to capitalize.”

As Kean’s cleanup hitter, Jennings has carried the load on a team that had hit only 12 home runs coming into this week, although the squad has been hitting around .300 while opposing hitters have batted well under .250.

Jennings has been among the NJAC leaders in batting and was hitting .445 with eight doubles, one home run, 12 RBIs and five stolen bases to begin the week.

He has been a leader for the team offensively and defensively.

“As a catcher, it’s very difficult working with 10, 12, 15 pitchers a year and you have to set the pitchers up,” Ioviero said. “When you think about the level of games he’s been in, going to two World Series and the quality summer leagues he has played in, he is never satisfied and wants to improve.”

Jennings, who was selected for an NJAC Player of the Week honor this season, has improved at the plate, which shows in his stat line.

“It’s being more aggressive,” Jennings said. “I seemed to fall into two-strike counts a lot [in the past]. Now I’m hitting ahead of the count on first strikes and when you’re hitting ahead and not defensively, the numbers go way up. And when I’m in a twostrike count, I stay aggressive.”

“He’s a tougher out. He’s more balanced when he hits,” Ioviero said.

The same can be said for the rest of a team that had far surpassed its opponents in slugging percentage, .404 to .304, and on base percentage, .369 to .319, coming into this week.

“When you play for this team, there is a lot of pressure playing in big games. Other teams see [their games against Kean] as a World Series, and it’s tough to match that every day,” Ioviero said. “This team has performed well, losing only about three games in the [NCAA] Regionals over the last five years.”

The coach said he has seen Jennings mature in the program.

“I have seen the transformation from his freshman year and [playing in] so many pressure games. He hasn’t complained,” said Ioviero, who is in his 15th season as the Cougars’ coach.

As the 2012 season continues, Jennings knows he has to stay at a high level as he has played every game. With the NJAC playoffs coming up soon, he knows that he and the rest of his team will have to be at their best to repeat as the conference champion.

After that, Jennings is not dismissing any hopes of playing professionally.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t thinking about that,” he said. “It’s every player’s dream.” Items for the Sport Shorts column may be submitted via email to tmorris@gmnews.com. Please submit items at least two weeks prior to a tryout date or a registration deadline.