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Verona's Rutgers-bound senior right-hander Collin Kiernan is one of the top pitchers to watch as the 2017 Super Essex Conference-American Division baseball season is about to unfold and the Hillbillies prepare to vie in top division for first time. (Photo by Gene Nann-nannphoto)

Coach Joe Phelan (right) is ready to guide the latest edition of 'Billies. (photos by njsportaction)

Veteran right-hander Ian Metzger is superb No. 2 pitcher for Hillbillies to turn to this spring

Notre Dame commit Jack Zyska, who batted .500 last spring and earned all-state honors, returns to lead what should be another first-rate Seton Hall Prep team. (Photo by Richard Morris/SHP)

Millburn's Maryland-bound Richie Schiekofer is senior leader after splendid junior season in which he was the runner-up as Sideline Chatter's Essex County Playr of thh Year as he now helps lead a young and talented Millers edition. (Photo by Glenn Kross-glennkrossphotography)

Newark Academy's West Point-bound Anthony Giachin connects at plate as Millburn's Peter Serruto (Rutgers commit) is the catcher as two of SEC's best players are in spotlight during game last season and new campaign now begins. (photo courtesy of Newaark Academy baseball)

Verona Faces Tough Terrain In 2017
As Member Of SEC’s Top Division
..A Look At Teams In Strong SEC-American Headed By Seton Hall Prep

By Steve Tober

Verona coach Joe Phelan knows he has one of the state’s top pitchers to turn to when senior Collin Kiernan’s turn in the rotation comes up each week, but as far as traversing the tough terrain that is the rigorous Super Essex Conference-American Division for day-to-day baseball battles, the Group 1 Hillbillies know that they will have supreme challenges ahead this 2017 spring season.

The 9-member SEC-American, spearheaded by reigning Non-Public A state champion and 4-time defending Greater Newark Tournament champ Seton Hall Prep, plus Group 4 title contender Millburn, is one of the state’s toughest diamond circuits and new division members Verona and Columbia, who were elevated up a division after sharing the SEC-Liberty Division crown in 2016, will have their work cut out for themselves in repeating their previous spring’s team won-loss success.

And, Verona jumps right into the cauldron, so to speak, as its season-opening opponent scheduled for a first pitch at 10 a.m. this Saturday (April 1) is none other than the vaunted SHP Pirates, who will be a pre-season top five team in New Jersey led by the return of Vanderbilt commit Nick Maldonado (shortstop-pitcher) and Notre Dame-bound all-state center fielder Jack Zyska.

“Being in the top division will be a huge challenge for us as a small Group 1 school,” said Phelan. “As far as starting the season against Seton Hall, it will be a good test and should be fun.

“We enjoy competing no matter who we play!”

A new wrinkle for all the teams in New Jersey is the National Federation Baseball Rules mandatory provision that requires states to adopt a pitch count standard and Jersey’s newly-instituted rule includes a maximum of 110 pitches per game/day and four calendar days off for those throwing 91-110 pitches.

Also, a pitcher cannot throw on three consecutive calendar days or throw more than 50 pitches on two consecutive days.

In addition, the home team is required to provide an adult pitch counter and have numbers verified for each team’s hurler after each half inning.

Should be an interesting high school baseball spring in Garden State.

“I like the fact that we are going to by pitch counts and not innings,” said Phelan. “The health and care of our pitchers arms is what is most important. This will not be a change for us at Verona as we have always looked at total pitches when determining how long a pitcher should stay in the game or how much rest he needs between appearancs.”

One critical commodity Verona’s pitching arsenal starts 2017 with is the Rutgers-bound Kiernan (7-2, 135 K’s in 68 IP in ’16), who possesses a fast ball in the high 80s and a very effective overall pitching repertoire.

“Collin is 100 % healthy and ready to go,” said Phelan. “He will be on the mound every fifth day as long as he is feeling well and his arm is rested and ready.”

Another pitcher to watch for the Hillbillies is junior Ian Metzger, while junior shortstop Mike Daggett is a top position player to watch.

“Ian is our No. 2 pitcher and top offensive threat, while Mike, who is our shortstop, has looked solid at the plate this month,” said Phelan. “We have been high on Mike for a couple of years now and he seems ready to take the next step and produce at the varsity level.”

All told, in spite of the enormous challenges of being a Group 1 program among larger baseball-oriented schools in the SEC’s best division, the ‘Billies head diamond mentor is optimistic. Plus, he likes the fact his team will be playing on a newly-refurbished Doc Goeltz Field.

“We feel good about some of our arms on the mound and our defense has improved,” continued Phelan. “The new turf field is really nice and we enjoy playing on it.

“As the season moves along it will be great on those days that get a lot of rain early in the day, but as soon as it stops we will be right out there on the turf.”


SHP- The 4-time defending GNT champs who defeated St. Augustine to win the Non-Public A state title and finished 28-3, should be among the elite Non-Publics also including St. Joe’s of Montvale and Bergen Catholic as top teams to watch in North Jersey led by multi-talented sophomore Nick Maldonado, the Vandy commit who was 6-0 with a 1.11 ERA last spring, and also plays a solid shortstop. Standout junior center fielder Jack Zyska (Notre Dame) batted an even .500 last spring when he was an all-state selection. The mound staff is also boosted by Campbell University-bound senior twins Jamil (2-0, 1.72 ERA) and Jermaine (1-0, 1.40) Vanheyningen. Others to watch include Harvard-bound senior pitcher Jack Mahala, who was sidelined by an injury all last spring, and senior outfielder Nico Mottesi (Cornell), who had a .491 OBA last year. Veteran coach Mike Sheppard, Jr. always finds players in his system to step up as first-year senior starters (examples include pitcher Bobby Morgenroth, who wound up landing a college situation at Bryant University, and catcher Pat Gardner who parlayed his emergence behind the dish to play at Fordham) and look for previously-unheralded upperclassmen to step in to key spots on the field and on mound as per usual this spring as well.

MILLBURN- The 2015 Group 4 state champs were still solid last spring at 23-4 plus won the regular-season SEC-American Division title. Fueled by one of the state’s top Little League feeder systems, the Millers should be able to reload fairly quickly despite graduation leaving the pitching staff and a good part of the everyday lineup fairly inexperienced. Back to lead the way, though, are two of the state’s top players at their positions, Maryland-bound senior centerfielder Richie Schiekofer (.435 BA, 37 runs, 20 stolen bases in ’16) and junior catcher Peter Serruto (Rutgers), who is an exceptional backstop (.995 fielding %). Senior Connor Lally and junior Kyle Mazer are experienced pitchers to help build the mound staff around, while veterans back on the infield are a pair of juniors in returning starting shortstop Peter Gula and Ben Pampush, who was a solid utility guy last spring and now takes over at second base on a full-time basis. Also keep an eye out for a couple of prospective freshmen starters for the Millers in third baseman Ben Chrzanowski and right fielder Ben Sinins.

LIVINGSTON- Second-year coach Mickey Ennis returns six of eight full-time starters in the field from last year including All-SEC first baseman Nick Cotugno, who is the team’s cleanup batter. Slick-fielding senior shortstop Austin Miles (.440, 37 hits) is one of the team leaders. Also back are senior OF Max Spitz, junior twins Kacey (OF) and Austin Chambers (3B), junior Tom Kelly and sophomore catcher Richie DeMaio. One of the prizes of the mound staff is junior right-hander Ryan Cardona, who opened up eyes at recent Wladkyka Pitchers Showcase where he hit 91 mph on the gun and was consistently in the upper 80s. He is drawing interest from Seton Hall, St. John’s and Penn State so far. Also boosting the rotation this spring for Lancers will be senior Logan Bushwell and sophomore MJ DePaola.

MONTCLAIR- In an interesting coaching addition for the Mounties this spring, the team’s former head coach Ron Gavazzi returns to combine with his former right-hand man and friend Anthony Genchi to guide the MHS diamond squad. The latter had done a solid job guiding the Mounties the past three years after Gavazzi’s departure to concentrate more on football as an assistant at Don Bosco Prep. The two Mountie head coaches have a talented group to work with led by the team’s No. 1 player, Post University-bound infielder-pitcher Makhi Booker (.415 BA, 22 runs, 25 RBI, 12 extra base hits, 5-2 mound record, 2.69 ERA). Senior third baseman Matt McGoey (Hamilton College), promising junior shortstop Danny Banks, senior outfielder John Lewis (Trinity), senior catcher Dylan Scarfo (Emerson College), senior first baseman Dylan Wright and senior pitcher Mark Uehlinger are among the other veteran players to watch for what could be a dangerous Mountie diamond squad this spring.

NUTLEY- Another of the consistently solid diamond programs in Essex County, the Maroon Raiders will have to reload quite a bit after going 20-10 last spring and being a GNT runner. They graduated all-time hit leader Anthony Condito and a few other key veterans, but the talent pool still continues led by impressive sophomore shortstop Marty Higgins (.358 BA in ’16, .465 OBA), while team will look to key pitching contributions from a host of players headed by senior Jake Ramezzana and junior Sean Bernando and also including sophomores Josh O’Neill and Jon Luberto. Ramezzana will also play first base while Bernardo is a third baseman. Other position players to watch are junior rightfielder and leadoff batter Dan Carabello, junior centerfielder Peter Lopez and senior catcher Mark Charles. The Raiders recently returned from pre-season trip to Orlando, Fla., and longtime assistant Phil Agosta is back on 14 th-year head coach Bob Harbison’s staff this spring.

BLOOMFIELD- Bengals played six sophomores and two freshmen last spring so there were some growing pains during 10-17 season although they were highly competitive 7-9 in SEC-American. Senior outfielder Danny Carter wields one of the top bats in Essex while seniors Andrew Altiery and Chris Veloz (third base), Roger Garcia (catcher) and Joey Gilberti (pitcher) along with juniors Eddie Abplanalp and Craig Dittrich (infielders) all played a lot last year.Several newcomers could impact including Victor Vazquez and Angel Merado. The pitching staff, which has depth as it faces new pitch count rule, returns seniors Aldo Maldonado, Manny Corporan and Dylan Placenza to rotation with a number of other arms looking to fill innings as well.

COLUMBIA- Cougars, who won SEC-Liberty title outright in 2015 and shared the crown with Verona last spring, are now directed by highly regarded former West Essex assistant Jim Whalen, who inherits a talented squad with a solid 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation with senior right-handers Peter Nolet and Danny Boehmer, both of whom have commanding stuff, while the position players are led by gifted junior center fielder and leadoff batter Christian Pierre and promising sophomore shortstop Elliot Dix, who should provide an impact bat. Other pitchers who could impact include juniors Palmer Krais and Michael Roseman. Junior third baseman Luke Jackson and sophomore right fielder Phil Whitney are two hitters projected to hit in middle of the order. Seniors Reid Evans (2B) and Daniel Cotler (LF) are other position players to watch, while junior Danny Lawall and senior Jack Niggli are competing for the catcher’s job.

NEWARK ACADEMY- Dennis Sasso, Jr. did a superb job in his rookie season at the helm in guiding the Minutemen to 13-12 record last spring and he sees overall improvement in his returning group of veterans who he expects to be more consistent offensively. He is also very happy to have back the team’s No. 1 performer, senior shortstop-pitcher Anthony Giachin (.500 BA, 34 hits, 22 RBI, 12 extra base hits), who is West Point bound in the fall and is one of New Jersey’s top all-around players. Among the others to watch for NA are sophomore infielder-pitcher Matt Ciccone, senior infielder-pitcher Brad Simon, junior catcher Ben Kany, senior outfielder Aman Patil, sophomore first baseman-pitcher William Hutchinson and freshman first baseman-pitcher Lucas Rich. NA should also challenge in Non-Public B once again this spring.

Follow Steve Tober on Twitter @Chattermeister

Veteran coach Mike Policastro is optimistic about his Bloomfield Bengals. (Photo by Todd Mundt)

Ron Gavazzi, who had guided Montclair to a Greater Newark Tournament title in 2012, returns to combine with Anthony Genchi as the Mounties' co-coaches in 2017. (Sideline Chatter photo)

Bob Harbison returns for his 14th season of guiding Nutley. (Photo by Gene Nann-nannphoto)

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