Jaguars look to reload baseball team heading into next season


Matt Guarino, Joe DeMaio and Kyle Johnson will return to Jackson Memorial High School’s baseball team next year after having great seasons and great memories in 2013, which provided a learning experience about sustaining a high level of play at the crucial late season tournament run.

All three were integral to the Jaguars adding to the recent string of four straight 20-win seasons, but this 23-5 season ended short of last year’s sweep of Ocean County and Shore Conference Tournament titles. Instead, the Jaguars lost in the semifinals of the Shore Conference Tournament to Toms River High School North, 6-3, and in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV tournament to Brick Memorial High School, 2-0. They beat both teams twice en route to their second unbeaten run through Shore Conference A South in the last three years.

Coach Frank Malta is never one to mince words, and he didn’t make excuses for falling short of expectations. The veteran coach said this was a far different team in the last third of the season than the one that started off 19-1 with a 14-game win streak, cracking the top five of the leading Shore and state polls.

“I thought we were playing really well in all facets of the game — pitching, defense [and] hitting,” Malta said. “They all did a good job of executing. Pitching was really keeping us in games. We had a lot of close games the first three [or] four innings. And the fact that we could do so much, we’d score more runs and take the lead after that and win the game.”

“In the last third of the season, we were not doing those good things. We were not a championship-caliber team,” he added. “That seemed to be a pattern of what I saw. At that point, we were playing teams consistently that were good, and there was a need to play better.”

Instead, Jackson Memorial would struggle in at least one phase of the game and, unlike some teams that hit a slump, it was not the same phase.

“It was uncharacteristic of us. It was not who we are,” Malta said. “That’s the time [at the end of the season] when we usually turn it on.” He said his team was “out of sync” and could not maintain its quality level because it was “not consistent.”

Malta could not sugarcoat the ending with the team achieving its earlier goals — winning the conference and going unbeaten in those games, as well as having a winning season with 20-plus victories for the fourth straight year. There were too many seniors and experienced players for that to be enough.

Malta did admit that there were not many lucky breaks that go with winning. He said they hit the ball hard against Brick Memorial’s fine, young ace pitcher in the state tournament, but right at fielders that made plays. At times, Jackson Memorial players did not do that in big games.

Ten seniors graduated off this team, most with two or more years in the starting lineup. Half of them are pitchers and three of them were regular starters. However, Malta cautions, “We’re not rebuilding. We don’t want that.”

“It’s tough losing some of those guys, but the young guys are working hard,” Malta said.

They won’t be playing this summer for an American Legion team in Jackson, Malta said. The Legion team was dropped because most players were obligated to play with other travel teams and had a tough time making games in recent summers.

Guarino, a junior this spring who was a regular at first base, committed only two errors and surprisingly emerged as a top level pitcher with three victories and a 2.28 ERA, second only to graduated shortstop Spencer Young’s 1.58 ERA when he was on the mound. Guarino also batted .411 with 31 RBIs. He powered three homers and nine doubles.

Young drove in 29 runs and batted .344.

Johnson may also be pitching a little, Malta said, and he may be moved to shortstop from third base, where he established himself well as a freshman. Sophomore backup second baseman Brandon Janofsky may also move over. Malta called Johnson “a perfect leadoff hitter,” as he stole 15-of-16 bases while batting .355 with 10 RBIs. DeMaio, likewise, might move from left field to center field to fill the spot vacated by graduated Ed Guippone. Both outfielders batted an identical .295, with DiMaio driving in a dozen runs. Nick Gabrio, another outfielder, missed nearly all of his junior season with an injury after a fine preseason.

Mike Petrizzo, a junior this spring, also played in the outfield regularly and batted .345 with 14 RBIs. Malta envisions him as a hitter in the middle of the order. One of those returning outfielders may be groomed as the designated hitter, where graduated Jordan Burst came on strong with a .347 batting average and a dozen RBIs.

“They’ll find their comfort zone and maybe play a secondary position,” Malta said. “Guarino may be our top pitcher.”

Graduated pitchers Anthony Rocco, who is headed to Pace University this fall, and Chris Gehrsitz had seven and six victories, respectively. Rocco had a 2.42 ERA with four complete games, and Gehrsitz posted a similar 2.47 mark. Another senior, Jake Harlinski, won three games and had a 3.06 ERA, while fellow senior Brian Delesky won two games and played in the outfield. Rick Aviles, a tall junior, got some innings on the mound.

They threw to Matt Thaiss, a fixture behind the plate the last three seasons who is headed to the University of Virginia. He batted .351 with 19 RBIs, along with four homers and 11 doubles. Not many baserunners challenged Thaiss, who threw out 7-of- 12 who tried stealing.

Malta said there are prospects at many positions, including catcher, where Nick Babin, a senior next spring, will get a good look along with two young prospects off the underclass program.

“We lost players from last year like Brandon Holup, Joe Ogren and Nick Petrizzo and then others stepped up, and we feel we have guys who can do that,” Malta said.

Two other infield prospects are sophomore backup outfielder Matt Crispe and Mike Schmidt, a sophomore middle infielder on the junior varsity team.

Next year’s team may look different from the power slugging squads of recent years, instead resembling this spring’s team that pounded a dozen homers, but stole 52 bases while batting .329.

“We return a lot of speed and young guys who caught on fast,” Malta said. “That’s a comforting thing.”