JACKSON – Not even the international catastrophe known as the coronavirus pandemic could stop the Jackson Memorial High School baseball team from achieving excellence.
The first Last Dance 2020 High School World Series, presented by RWJBarnabas Health, began with 222 teams from all 21 New Jersey counties.
The Jaguars were one of two teams to dance the final steps of the tournament. They finished second, falling 12-2 to Cranford in the championship game at the Arm & Hammer Stadium, home of the Trenton Thunder.
The pandemic cost the state’s teams their spring seasons. The tournament was conceived by director Mike Murray, the baseball coach and athletics director of St. Joseph High School in Metuchen.
“This tournament was a lot of fun,” said Jackson catcher Tommy Cartnick, whose team won eight of nine games. “First off, it was a gift to begin with. We were disappointed when our spring season was canceled. We had been a group of guys playing together since the age of seven. Playing in this tournament felt like a Little League All-Star tournament. We sweated and grinded it out all together. We had good team chemistry. This was a special group. I will never forget the memories and the laughs we had in the dugout.”
Cartnick said the cancellation of the season was tough to take.
“On the first day of school, we began lifting weights to prepare for the season,” he said. “We do what we have to do to get a ring. We were extremely disappointed when the news came out that the spring season was canceled. Each year, we expect to be state champions. Thank God for this tournament or our season would have been a bummer for sure.”
Cartnick, a senior who will play for the University of Rhode Island, said the tournament helped wipe away memories of a disappointing junior season.
“We made early tournament exits,” he said. “This tournament lit a fire under us. We felt we should be feared and we wanted to be feared. The fact we went this far in the tournament is a credit to our coaches. Without them, it never would have happened. This was a senior-laden team and we all had the same mindset. Each of us had a chip on their shoulder. We knew what we were. Some people did not want to see us win.”
Jackson coach Frank Malta, whose team graduated 15 seniors, said he enjoyed guiding the Jaguars.
“The guys stepped up and played well,” said Malta, assisted by Nick Koman, Brandon Vega, Tom Paturzo, Tom Cahill and Pat George. “It was not easy. They were off for four months. They had to play well and play together in a tournament like this. We played either two or three games in a row and everything was single elimination. The guys have been playing together for basically their whole lives and they made it fun for themselves. They made the most of being on the field for one last time and I am proud of them. They had fun for the few weeks they were together. It was a fun ride and a great experience for our players and for all of us who coached them.”
Cartnick caught the ceremonial first pitch from Gov. Murphy, attired in a Thunder jersey, prior to the championship game. Cartnick’s father, Tom, has served as a bodyguard for Murphy as a member of the New Jersey State Police. Murphy, a lefty who competes in long distance road races, bounced the pitch. Cartnick handed the ball to Murphy and received a pat on his right shoulder from the Democrat, who wore a mask.
“When he walked on the field, he was booed,” young Cartnick said. “He was booed for the whole time he was on the field, about three to five minutes. When he was booed, he just put his hands up. I don’t think he really cared. Catching the ball was a cool experience. Because of my father, I had met Gov. Murphy at least twice before I caught the ball. It helped to have Gov. Murphy back the tournament. People should have shown him more appreciation.”
Jackson relied on strong pitching, solid defense and timely hitting during its run.
“First off,” Malta said, “we had good pitching. Everyone talks about what we were on offense, but we had to pitch and play good defense and we did. We put together early runs and that took the pressure off of everyone else. Our guys did a good job of going deep in the count. They did not expand the strike zone. They did not swing at the pitcher’s pitch. We made good contact on the pitches that were our pitches.”
Jackson junior Matt Potok, a righty bound for Coastal Carolina University, was 3-0. He put his 6-foot-4, 230-pound frame to good use after joining the varsity team as a freshman.
“He committed two years ago to Coastal Carolina,” Malta said. “He is a pretty special kid. His off speed stuff is off the charts. He can throw his curve and changeup on any count. His fastball, which is in the upper 80s and probably touches 90, is catching up to his off speed stuff. If we had a high school season, he would have done something special each time he touched the baseball. I am really looking forward to seeing how much better he will be as a senior.”
Malta is impressed with Potok’s mental approach to pitching.
“He’s a flat liner,” Malta said. “Nothing really bothers him. He is very confident. He has a short memory and knows how to pitch. When you watch him, you wonder if he is breaking a sweat. He makes it look relatively easy.”
Another solid pitcher was senior lefty Nick Beetel, who will play for Lehigh University.
“He throws a fastball and a breaking ball and he attacks the hitters,” Malta said. “Lehigh was one of the first schools to jump in on him. Princeton University also looked at him. He is a pretty good student, a student of the game. He always looks to find the next best way. He does a lot of research on pitching. That is the connection between his academics and his baseball.”
Cartnick sparkled, delivering clutch hits throughout the tournament. He trained under Steve Johnson, Rob Corsi, Howie Brey and Rob Smorol at the Neptune-based Compete Academy. In Jackson’s 4-3 win over Bishop Eustace’s Sader Baseball Club in the South Jersey championship game at FirstEnergy Park in Lakewood, Cartnick stroked three hits, including a double that tied the game at three with two out in the bottom of the fifth inning, in three at-bats
“He had a great tournament,” Malta said. “He tore up the tournament. If there had been a Most Valuable Player Award, he would have won it for sure. He had an excitement for this thing. He looked so forward to this.”
Senior first baseman Carmine Petosa, who will play for Wake Forest University, enjoyed a productive tournament. His two-out single in the bottom of the fifth plated the winning run in the South Jersey final. He went 2-for-2 and drove in three runs in the South Jersey final.
“He had a few big hits and played really well on defense,” Malta said. “He had a bunch of big runs batted in.”
Senior third baseman Jake Wendell, bound for Brookdale Community College, starred on defense.
“He put on a clinic,” Malta said. “There is a little bit of Nettles (retired Yankees third baseman Graig Nettles) in him. It’s fun watching him play third base.”
Headed for Kean University is senior second baseman Christian Pellone, who will compete for the Cougars.
“He did a great job of setting the table as our leadoff hitter,” Malta said. “He was an excellent base runner. Our infield play was excellent and he was a big reason for that.”
Senior Ryan Lasko, who will play for Rutgers University, starred in center field.
“He was a great player on defense, a highlight reel type of kid,” Malta said. “He is a solid, special player who has a lot of opportunities ahead of him. He is special in everything he does. He is a very talented kid.”
Senior Bill Petrina was solid in right field.
“He just stepped up and played very well,” Malta said. “He had a lot of key hits. We were not sure where he would fit in, but he stepped up and made the most of the opportunity.”
Senior outfielder Matt Feld was a productive player.
“He had a lot of big hits, big pinch hits,” Malta said. “He just did a really good job.”
Another clutch performer was senior outfielder Zach Appuliese, who will attend the University of Jacksonville.
“He had a bunch of key hits and did a nice job on defense,” Malta said.
Jackson also received contributions from senior reliever Dan Greenwood, senior catcher-outfielder Andrew Sefick, senior designated hitter-outfielder Jared Caruso, senior pitcher Rocco LaVista, senior infielder-outfielder Austin Parikh and senior pitcher Joe Santoriello. Greenwood and Santoriello will attend Monmouth University. Sefick will attend the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Caruso is off to Penn State. Ocean County College is a possible destination for Parikh.
Greenwood and sophomore lefty Zach Crotchfelt teamed for 4 2/3 innings of scoreless relief in the South Jersey championship game.
“Greenwood was the first guy we went to in close and key spots,” Malta said. “He did a good job. He threw a lot of breaking stuff and had a lot of movement on his pitches. Sefick played a good left field and got a couple of key hits. Caruso had some big hits and drove in a couple of runs. LaVista, who got hurt, did a nice job. Parikh did a real good job of playing defense. He run for us as the speedup runner for Cartnick and scored a bunch of big runs. Santoriello did a really good job.”