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Millburn's Peter Serruto (7) connects during at bat vs. West Essex in regular season game. Millers' catcher, Rutgers commit and MLB draft pick is Sideline Chatter's Essex County Player of the Year. (Photos by Gene Nann-visit www.genenann.smugmug.com)

Livingston's Marist College-bound senior right-hander Ryan Cardona, seen working on mound vs. Millburn in Greater Newark Tournament semifinals, is the Sideline Chatter's Essex County Pitcher of the Year after leading Lancers to 7th GNT title.

Seton Hall Prep junior right-hander Nick Maldonado is SC's runner-up as Essex County Pitcher of the Year after leading 24-5 Pirates. (Photos by Richard Morris/SHP)

Nutley junior shortstop Marty Higgins (left), seen applying tag on Seton Hall Prep baserunner Angelo Crincoli in GNT semis, is runner-up as Essex Player of the Year.

Head coach Mickey Ennis (facing camera, left) addresses his Livingston Lancers after their GNT game at Verona. The veteran North Jersey high school and college coach is the Sideline Chatter Essex County Coach of the Year in 2018. (Sideline Chatter photo)

The Livingston baseball team gathers with their Greater Newark Tournament trophies after defeating Nutley, 8-3, to capture the 86th tourney crown. (Photo by Don Schwartz)

Livingston Enjoyed One Magical Season
Highlighted By 7th GNT Championship
…SC’s All-Essex Honors Include Lancers As County's 'Team Of The Year'

By Steve Tober
For sidelinechatter.com

TEAM OF THE YEAR: LIVINGSTON

Mickey Ennis recalls vividly the final afternoon of the 2018 baseball season for his Livingston Lancers after they defeated Columbia, 5-0, on May 31st behind a complete-game effort by ace Ryan Cardona to earn a share of the Super Essex Conference-American Division championship along with perennial title holder Seton Hall Prep.

“There was no ‘dog pile’ after we clinched the title with that win on the last day of our season,” recalled Livingston’s third-year head coach. “It was more of an emotional moment with plenty of hugs and tears as everyone realized that our season was over and what had been so impactful for all of us for the past three months had come to an end.

“But, we also realized just how magical a season it had been!”

The Lancers (21-4) showed their full-length devotion to the mission at hand after being ousted by Randolph, 10-1, in the May 24th North 1, Group 4 state tournament sectional quarterfinals by bouncing right back with the conference title quest in mind, rolling past Montclair, 12-1 (May 25) and then defeating a strong-hitting Columbia team twice, 5-4, May 30th, in Maplewood, and then in the May 31st finale back home at the Oval behind their ace hurler.

The SEC crown revealed a great deal about the resilience of the 2018 Livingston ball club which already had its share of rich memories to take with it into the summer after capturing the school’s seventh Greater Newark Tournament title and first since 2009 with a 8-3 triumph over Nutley in the 86th GNT final on May 20th at Verona’s Doc Goeltz Field.

“Call it ‘chemistry’ or whatever word you want to use, but whatever it was, this team had a special feeling and everyone fought for each other from beginning to end,” said Ennis. “I’ll never forget just how special this group of players were, that’s for sure!”

The bonding of the 2018 Livingston team had already been underway when pre-season drills officially began in early March; however, a true rallying point came in the March 31st season opener with SEC-American Division powerhouse Millburn when the Lancers not only lost a 1-0 heartbreaker in 9 innings despite an outstanding 8 innings of shutout work on the mound by Cardona, but also lost their outstanding junior catcher Richie DeMaio to a season-ending fractured leg on his slide while getting back to first base to beat a throw from the outfield early in the contest.

The DeMaio injury, as big a hit to the lineup as it was, became a rallying point in that it was simply time for a teammate to step up and move behind the dish to man one of the most important positions on any diamond.

DeMaio’s replacement turned out to be 'team-first' senior Austin Chambers, a valuable utility infielder, outfielder and backup catcher who moved in as his team’s starting catcher’s and proceeded to work extremely well with the entire Livingston pitching staff led by Cardona (10-0, 0.79 ERA) and junior right-handers Chris Senney (6-2, 1.75) and MJ DePaola (4-2, 2.65).

“Austin was one of the most versatile players on our team and without him I’m not sure we have the same season we did, but he helped hold it all together when Richie went down with the fractured leg,” said Ennis. “And, we pitched well and played terrific defense, led by our middle infield, which was sensational.”

Seniors Brett Mendez (shortstop) and Chris Tamburri (second base) were stellar in anchoring the Lancers’ dynamic infield, and with Mendez (.444 BA, 32 runs, 32 hits, 22 walks, 25 stolen bases) emerging as perhaps the county’s best leadoff batter, plus Senney, who was one of Essex’s top run producers with 30 RBI to go along with 10 extra base hits and a .500 batting average, the Lancers’ offense was able to do enough in most instances to produce runs when it had to in order to back their strong pitching.

The highlight of the season came over successive weekends in the GNT as Livingston rode Cardona’s clutch pitching to edge an always challenging Millburn team, 1-0, in the semifinals, before producing more than enough offense – highlighted by sophomore Will Egner’s grand slam home run – to defeat Nutley, 8-3, for the 2018 GNT championship.

“Winning the GNT title was a tremendous achievement and our kids stayed focused in order to earn a share of the conference title,” said Ennis. “To tell you the truth, after our state tournament loss to Randolph I didn’t know how we would respond, but this team is simply special, and they wanted to keep going and continue going for the conference championship which they achieved by beating a good Columbia team twice in the final week of the season.

“It was a great run by this group of kids and I’m enormously proud of all they accomplished!”

Runner-Up Team of The Year: West Essex

West Essex put together an outstanding 20-2 season while going undefeated in the SEC’s second division, the Liberty, led by a splendid group of seniors including twin brothers Max (.429 BA, 30 hits, 4 HR, 24 RBI, 18 SB) and Ben Ruvo (.390 BA, 30 runs, 29 hits) in the outfield, second baseman Matt Cesare (.354 BA), first baseman-DH Frank LaGreca (.370 BA) and standout starting pitchers Ian McLaughlin (7-1, 1.44 ERA) and Dave Kolesar (6-0, 1.28). Plus, the Knights had a superb array of underclassmen, including juniors Tyler Behrle (catcher) and Ryan Rusignuolo (shortstop) and terrific freshmen prospects Vin Panzarino (third base) and Tyler Sorrentino (outfield).

The Knights executed classic, old-school - and mostly successful - ‘small ball’, including well-executed bunts and clever base running. Eric Johnson, a young coach on the rise, took advantage of being able to bounce ideas off a coaching staff that includes three former head coaches in Chris Checchetto (formerly at Cedar Grove), Mike Llauget (Leonia) and Barry Russomano (Whippany Park).

And, more often than not, the Knights made excellent stragegic choices as the 2018 West Essex diamond squad became one of the more enjoyable teams to watch play the game, and play it well.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR- Peter Serruto, senior catcher, Millburn

Brian Chapman feels fortunate to have no less than three successful former catchers on his present coaching staff in Chris Drechsel (Cranford HS and Wagner College), Eric Cantagallo (Governor Livingston and Montclair State) and Jorge Solotkin (Millburn and William Paterson University), plus one former assistant still within earshot in the form of Chris’ brother Dave Drechsel, who had been on the Millers’ coaching staff for several seasons before having to leave his official duties on the diamond due to assuming a new school administrative position.

With all that catching knowledge around, and knowing just how good they all were as players – including the fact that he coached both the Drechsels at Cranford and Solotkin with the Millers - Chapman has had more than a great baseline to refer to when it comes to assessing his most current standout Millburn catcher Peter Serruto, who also happens to have perhaps the best throwing arm of any backstop in some time, and is a strong all-around player as well while earning this season’s SC’s Essex County Player of the Year honors.

“Peter’s numbers throwing are not high school or even college numbers, but professional-level numbers,” said Chapman, whose Millers won Group 4 state titles in both 2015 and 2017, and did a good job by reaching the North 2, Group 4 final this spring. “He has a crazy number of 1.81 (throwing to second base), and it’s been an absolute pleasure to see him grow in leaps and bounds strength-wise and as a terrific hitter as he put forth just a simply great season for us.

“And, he’ll be a prize in the future wherever he winds up playing along the way starting next year at Rutgers.”

Serruto, who was selected in the 22nd round (649 th pick overall) in the recent Major League First-Year Player’s Draft, has remained committed to playing for Rutgers University in the new school year. He had been a main target in the recruiting efforts of Scarlet Knighs head coach Joe Litterio and will next be able to display his arm in the Big 10 Conference in 2019.

Another MLB draft will also be on the horizon in the future.

Serruto was the third N.J. high school player taken in the most recent draft after Nick Decker of Seneca (second round-Red Sox) and Arbert Cipion of Passaic Tech (ninth round-Brewers).

The Millers’ standout catcher batted a solid .377 (32-for-85) this past spring season with terrific extra base power (4 doubles, 2 triples, 4 home runs) to go along with 26 RBI.

“I think the scrutiny with every at bat as the MLB draft approached had to be tough, but Peter remained totally focused on our next game at hand and was one fantastic player, a great leader and wielded a huge bat in our lineup while playing his usual lights-out, stellar defense all season long,” said Chapman. “As far as high school catchers go he was the best around!”

Player of the Year Runner-Up- Marty Higgins, junior shortstop, Nutley

Nutley has had its share of terrific baseball players through the years and strong athletic family lineage has been one of the trademarks for continued success by the Maroon Raiders’ diamond program with one of the latest in that category being junior shortstop and St. John’s University commit Marty Higgins.

A son of the former Nutley great basketball-baseball combo athlete of the same name along with being the nephew of another fine ex-Raider Mike Higgins, young Marty is already etching his mark on the diamond with Division I college baseball in his future as well with coach Ed Blankmeyer and the Red Storm.

Higgins had a terrific 2018 season for the GNT runner-up Nutley squad batting .440 with 44 hits, 34 runs scored, 14 doubles and a triple along with 28 RBI.

“Marty is the complete package as simply a great all-around player for us,” said veteran Nutley coach Bob Harbison. “He plays a solid shortstop and as an offensive threat he’s as good as it gets in our conference.

“Wherever St. John’s decides to play him in the future (perhaps at second base or in the outfield), he’ll be a huge asset for them. and I’m thrilled to have him returning to us for his senior year next spring!”

PITCHER OF THE YEAR- Ryan Cardona, senior, Livingston

Whatever the apparent pressure-packed situation he found himself in, Ryan Cardona was at his best in simply getting the outs he needed to in order to keep Livingston ahead or remaining in the game until the end as the Marist College-bound senior right-hander compiled a perfect 10-0 record and 0.79 ERA with 70 2/3 IP while allowing just 40 hits and 8 earned runs, walking just 20, hitting six batters and striking out 94 for the GNT winner and SEC-American Division co-champs.

“Whenever guys were in scoring position Ryan simply elevated his game,” said Lancers coach Mickey Ennis. “He’s just different in the sense that, unlike some high school pitchers, when the pressure was on he just got better, even if he didn’t have his best stuff that particular day.

In leading the way on the mound in both the 1-0 GNT semifinal win vs. Millburn and in the 8-3 championship game triumph vs. Nutley, Cardona simply did what he had to do in any precarious situation he found himself in, and also took advantage of having one of the better defenses in the county in back of him, while recording all the big outs.

“He’s just a special kid and a great pitcher,” said Ennis, who is a former pitching coach at Montclair State University. “He decided on Marist fairly early on and I think it’s a perfect fit for him because he should be able to get into the mix right away there, and he’ll definitely keep getting better at the next level because he has the right mentality and competitive spirit to become a really good college pitcher.’

Possessing a biting slider and effective changeup to go along with his fast ball, Cardona worked very well with catcher Austin Chambers as the battery emerged as a key component of the Lancers’ success.

“A big part of our magical season was definitely Ryan Cardona, and we’re certainly going to miss his presence next year even with the fine pitching we have coming back,” said Ennis. “He simply stepped up big-time for us in huge spots all year long!”

Pitcher of the Year Runner-Up- Nick Maldonado, junior, Seton Hall Prep

A quick look at his final 5-3 won-loss record is deceiving because Nick Maldonado was simply terrific and pitched well in a number of big spots this past spring season for a 24-5 Seton Hall Prep team that reached the Non-Public, North A state sectional final and earned a share of the SEC-American Division championship.

He worked 51 2/3 innings allowing 27 hits while walking 10 and striking out 70 with an ERA of 1.35. In a first-round state tourney 2-0 win over St. Joe’s of Montvale he hurled a no-hitter with 11 strikeouts, including fanning the final eight men he faced.

In another stellar effort, albeit in defeat, he allowed three unearned runs and retired the final 15 batters he faced in a tough 3-2 setback to Nutley in the GNT semis.

Maldonado continued to also be an excellent shortstop for the Pirates when not on the hill and led his team with a .412 batting average to go along with 21 hits, 18 runs, 10 extra base hits and 18 RBI. He also stole 11 bases in 14 attempts, was hit by pitches an amazing 18 times while also drawing 18 walks to bolster on OBA of .648.

Opposing coaches heaped praise on SHP’s Vanderbilt commit who has shined for three seasons under legendary Pirates head mentor Mike Sheppard, Jr.

“I think we perhaps sometimes take Nick for granted in our county,” said Millburn’s Brian Chapman. “He’s probably the most complete player in our league again this year and he definitely pitched better than his record might indicate, including against Delbarton (8-0 SHP loss in the North A final) when he threw well despite the loss (allowing just three earned runs).”

NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR (First-year varsity impact freshman or sophomore):

Vin Panzarino, freshman third baseman, West Essex

Very few freshmen impacted as quickly as bona fide centerpieces of their lineup as did freshman Vin Panzarino of West Essex as the first-year varsity standout batted cleanup (batting a solid .419 with eight extra base hits, including two home runs, scored 16 runs and had 22 RBI) and manning third base with consistently solid defense.

“Vin was just so good for us right from the start of the season and was so important to our success this season,” said Wessex coach Eric Johnson. “To bat cleanup and be such a key guy for our lineup as a freshman is extremely impressive and we’re looking forward to many more seasons of having him help lead our team.”

Panzarino, who was also selected as a member of the Essex County team in the annual Quad County Underclassmen All-Star Game, teamed with fellow Wessex freshman Tyler Sorrentino (.422 BA as starting left fielder) to be two key frosh starters on the 20-2 Knights squad which was one of Essex County’s top baseball stories of 2018.

While the Knights were led by a strong group of seniors, including the Ruvo twins Max and Ben, there was always the infusion of youthful talent, spearheaded by Panzarino in the heart of the order, which helped form a solid basis for the future as well.

Newcomer of the Year Runner-Up: Tom Clancy, freshman pitcher, Newark Academy

Opposing coaches in the highly-competitive SEC-American Division raved about the promise they saw in Newark Academy freshman right-hander Tom Clancy (1-2, 3.17 ERA), who effectively utilized both a 2-seam and 4-seam fast ball while working 29 innings and striking out 20 for the Minutemen.

The Newark Academy frosh prospect, who wrestled at 189 pounds during the winter for the Minutemen mat squad, took advantage of the opportunity available to work in some higher profile spots on the varsity with injuries to two key veteran pitchers who missed the 2018 season.

Clancy held both strong-hitting Columbia (3-1 NA win, April 6) and eventual GNT and co-SEC American Division champion Livingston (1-0 NA loss April 13) to one run in starts against those two upper echelon Essex teams.

His complete game effort vs. Livingston when the Lancers’ ace Ryan Cardona hurled a 2-hit shutout vs. its private school neighbor was one of the finest efforts of the rookie’s initial varsity scholastic campaign.

COACH OF THE YEAR- Mickey Ennis, Livingston

There have been plenty of memorable baseball moments for Mickey Ennis going back to his playing days at Emerson Boro where the football field is named for his late dad, Larry, who was a longtime diamond and gridiron mentor at the Bergen County school, and for whom a special Bergen County Baseball Tournament award is also named in his honor.

However, the now 58-year-old Livingston head mentor is also fortunate in the sense that his coaching success is lengthy in its own right and can date back 34 years to when he was a young, 24-year-old head coach at his alma mater, Ramapo College, guiding the New Jersey Athletic Conference school to the NCAA Division III national championship.

And, even though he was out of baseball for a few years before returning in 1990 as Norm ‘Moose’ Schoenig’s pitching coach at Montclair State, some of the best coaching memories were yet to come for Mickey Ennis.

This spring’s Livingston High School season was one for the ages for the history-rich Lancers diamond program with its 21-4 record, Greater Newark Tournament title and co-championship (along with Seton Hall Prep) of the SEC-American Division title.

For his efforts in what he has described as a ‘magical’ season, Ennis is the Sideline Chatter Essex County Coach of the Year.

“This season’s team and what we accomplished as a group is definitely right up there for me with the greatest memories I’ve had in coaching” said Livingston’s third-year head coach, who had also coached previously at both Madison and Newark Academy. “Our players remained focused from beginning to end and once we were eliminated from the state tournament our goal became winning our final three regular season games in order to earn a co-championship of our conference, and they did just that which was a fitting cap to an incredible season!”

Ennis and his staff, which included former 1970s Livingston player Dave McLaughlin and ex-West Orange standout pitcher Corey Feigenbaum, worked seamlessly together in combining a splendid pitching rotation headed by ace Ryan Cardona with an air-tight infield defense and enough timely hitting to produce what was certainly a baseball season to remember for a head coach still enjoying success in his most recent memorable diamond moments 34 years after winning a college national championship.

Runner-up- Coach of the Year- Eric Johnson, West Essex

Even days removed from having absorbed a 10-0 defeat at the hands of West Essex in an SEC crossover contest, Millburn coach Brian Chapman made it a point of praising the coaching job put forth by the Knights as he prepared his own well-oiled Millers machine for the GNT semis.

“I can’t say enough about the great coaching job by West Essex,” said Millburn’s veteran diamond mentor, who has a pair of Group 4 state championships to his credit. “Watching how well they executed against us it was obvious that they totally out-coached us that day, that’s for sure!”

Eric Johnson, the 31-year-old, third-year West Essex head coach, continued to progress in his role, while blending in seamlessly with a veteran set of assistants, including his own former Whippany Park head coach Barry Russomano, who has watched his former pupil grow into his role as a high school head coach.

“It’s Eric’s team, he is making the decisions you have to make as a head coach, and he’s done a real nice job in the process,” said Russomano. “I’m very proud of how far he’s come, and I hope he has many more years to build on what he has already accomplished this spring.”

West Essex won its first 15 games of the season before having one of those bad days that all good teams go through in the course of any 20- to 30-game high school season, when the Knights fell to eventual GNT champ Livingston, 8-0, in the quarterfinals.

Still, the Knights bounced back, finished strong while going undefeated in winning the SEC-Liberty Division title, and although they absorbed a heartbreaking 3-2 season-ending loss to Pascack Valley in the North 1, Group 3 state tournament sectional semifinals, the season had already been a huge success and Johnson was the orchestrator of making sure all ran smoothly for his team that had a nice mix of veteran seniors and young, up-and-coming underclassmen.

ESSEX DIAMOND NOTES- Columbia’s Longwood University-bound junior shortstop Eliot Dix was the Essex MVP after he delivered a triple, single and drove in four runs in an 8-8 tie with Middlesex County in the inaugural Quad County Underclassmen Game played June 10 at Kean University…Newark Tech, which finished 14-9, impressed by winning two state tournament games over Hackettstown and Dover before falling to Rutherford, 10-0, in the N2G2 sectional semifinals. Coach Todd Romano’s Terriers were led by Ian Diaz (.409, 16 RBI) and Gabriel Soto (.441 BA, 23 RBI, 29 runs)…One of the relatively unknown players that coaches who have seen raved about is Barringer junior catcher Janthony Rosario, who batted .538 with 5 homers and 24 RBI along with 29 runs scored for a Bears team that finished 16-6. The Blue Bears finished a solid 16-6 including going undefeated in winning the SEC’s third division, the Colonial.

SIDELINE CHATTER FINAL ESSEX COUNTY TOP 10

1-Seton Hall Prep (24-5)

2-Livingston (21-4)

3-Nutley (21-9)

4-Millburn (19-9)

5-West Essex (20-2)

6-Columbia (13-11)

7-Cedar Grove (15-12)

8-West Orange (14-9)

9-Bloomfield (12-12)

10-Barringer (16-6)

***

Sideline Chatter 2018 All-Essex Baseball:

First Team:

P- Ryan Cardona, senior, Livingston

P- Nick Maldonado, junior, Seton Hall Prep

P- Matt Ciccone, junior, Newark Academy

C- Peter Serruto, senior, Millburn

Inf- Marty Higgins, junior, Nutley

Inf- Eliot Dix, junior, Columbia

Inf- Brett Mendez, senior, Livingston

Inf- Luke Jackson, senior, Columbia

OF- Chris Walker, senior, West Orange

OF- Max Ruvo, senior, West Essex

OF- Ryan Sheppard, senior, Seton Hall Prep

DH- Chris Senney, junior, Livingston

 

Second Team:

P- Steven Sgaramella, senior, Seton Hall Prep

P- Ian McLaughlin, senior, West Essex

P- Trevor Santos, sophomore, Nutley

C- Tyler Kaufman, junior, Seton Hall Prep

Inf- Kevin Hogan, senior, Nutley

Inf- Vin Panzarino, freshman, West Essex

Inf- Ben Chrzanowski, sophomore, Millburn

Inf- Tyree Bradley, senior, West Orange

OF- Pete Lopez, senior, Nutley

OF- Ben Ruvo, senior, West Essex

OF- Christian Pierre, senior, Columbia

DH- Brian Kelly, senior, Seton Hall Prep

 

Third Team:

P- John Ariza, senior, Seton Hall Prep

P- Manny Corporan, senior, Bloomfield

P- Nick Picinich, senior, Cedar Grove

C- Janthony Rosario, junior, Barringer

Inf- Ian Diaz, senior Newark Tech

Inf- John Martinez, junior, Science Park

Inf- Amaury German, senior, East Side

Inf- Francisco Galarza, senior, Bloomfield Tech

OF- Evan Chaladoff, junior, Montclair

OF- Ben Sinans, sophomore, Millburn

OF- John Sweetwood, senior, MKA

DH- Ian Metzger, senior, Verona

Follow Steve Tober on Twitter @Chattermeister

Eric Johnson, who guided West Essex to 20-2 season, is the runner-up choice as Essex County Coach of the Year in 2018. (Photos by Gene Nann-genenann.smugmug.com)

West Essex freshman clean-up batter Vin Panzarino is Sideline Chatter's Essex County Newcomer of the Year after his superb rookie varsity campaign in leading the Knights.

Newark Academy freshman Tom Clancy is runner-up as Essex County Newcomer of the Year after strong season on the mound for Minutemen who needed him to step up.

Ace starting pitcher Ryan Cardona and catcher Austin Chambers were terrific battery for Sideline Chatter's Essex County 'Team of the Year' this past Essex baseball season.

Mickey Ennis (right) did one of his best coaching jobs in successful career with his work in guiding Livingston to 21-4 record, GNT title and SEC-American co-championship.

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