Toms River North Baseball: Winning Once Is Not Enough

Toms River High School North players announce their collegiate destinations. In the front row (from left to right) are Brendan Mullins (Penn State), Jared Bellissimo (Rutgers), Alex Klalo (Stockton), Craig Larsen (Penn) and Mike Centeno (New Orleans). In the back row (from left to right) are North athletics coordinator Paul Barnoski, North coach Andrew Pagano and North principal Ed Keller. (Photo courtesy Toms River North Baseball Team)

TOMS RIVER – These Mariners had mettle.

The Toms River High School North baseball team displayed mental toughness.

Enough to win the Shore Conference Tournament for the second straight season. Enough to capture the Ocean County Tournament for the third straight year. Enough to share the Shore Conference Class A South title at 11-3 with Jackson Memorial. Enough to finish the season with 22 wins – the most in coach Andrew Pagano’s five-year tenure – and eight losses.

“We did not worry, ” Pagano said. “The boys had enough confidence in their abilities to overcome anything. If we were down, we did not get rattled. We did not get worried. This was a group hungry to win the bigger games.”

The Mariners also had talent. Enough to hit .332. Enough to post a 2.23 earned run average. Enough to outscore their opponents 204-89.

North had enough talent on the mound. Enough to whiff 201 batters in 203 2/3 innings and walk a mere 65. Enough talent to surrender a mere 177 hits. Enough to post a WHIP (walks and hits to innings pitched) of 1.19. Enough to limit its adversaries to a .225 batting average.

Toms River North players listen to The National Anthem. (Photo courtesy Toms River North Baseball Team)

One of the Mariners’ top pitchers was senior Jared Bellissimo. Bound for Rutgers University where he will pitch for the Scarlet Knights, Bellissimo was 8-1 with a 1.42 earned run average. Relying on a fastball, curveball and changeup, the lefty struck out 73, walked 13 and allowed 42 hits in 59 innings. He appeared in 13 games and started 10.

Bellissimo verbally committed to the Scarlet Knights during his sophomore season.

“A lot of schools kind of stayed away from him after that,” Pagano said. “He had the knack of being at his best when he faced his toughest opponent. He stepped up when times were the toughest. He had pinpoint control, very good control.”

Bellissimo is a 6-foot-1, 195-pounder.

“He looks like he is throwing effortlessly, but he gets a lot of swings and misses on his fastball, which has been clocked at 87 and 88 miles per hour,” Pagano said.

Bellissimo was also talented on offense, hitting .396 (38-for-114), driving in 35 runs and scoring 18 runs. Among his hits were five home runs, eight doubles and one triple. He drew 24 walks. He hit third in the order.

“When we needed a big hit, he was the guy we needed in the batter’s box,” Pagano said. “He drove the ball to all fields very well. He was such a polished hitter even as a sophomore. Pitchers would try to fool him and he would be ready and hit doubles to left and right-center. He was so disciplined when there were two strikes on him. He was confident in his two-strike ability. He’d cut down on his swing and hit a hard line drive the other way.”

Another solid player was senior pitcher-shortstop Craig Larsen.

Toms River North’s Dylan Feigin fires the ball to first base. (Photo courtesy Toms River North Baseball Team)

Larsen, who will play in the infield at the University of Pennsylvania of the Ivy League, put up a 3-0 record and posted one save. In 22 2/3 innings, he posted a 3.09 earned run average, surrendering 19 hits, striking out 26 and walking 10. He appeared in seven games, starting two.

Larsen stroked a North single-season record 49 hits, set the school’s single-season record for runs batted in (40) and tied the Mariners’ single-season doubles record (14). He batted .495, led the team in homers (seven) scored 34 runs and banged three triples. Larsen finished the campaign with 99 at-bats.

He filled a key role as the team’s lead-off hitter.

“He was the guy who could put the team on his back and carry us when he had to,” Pagano said. “In my opinion, he is one of the best kids North has ever had. He is a hard worker and he is also smart. He is a kid who has been good since he picked up a bat and a ball. He gets good reads on the ball when he is in the field and he is a gifted athlete.”

Larsen is strong in the intangibles department.

“He is a special kid who you don’t get too often,” Pagano said. “He is very intense, but he is a quiet leader. He does everything right. He runs the bases right. He throws right. He fields right. Everything he does is right and everything he does is effortless. We had a young infield this season. He meant so much to us at shortstop that we had to keep him there for the most part.”

Senior Brendan Mullins, who will pitch for Penn State University, was 3-3 with a 1.20 earned run average. He notched one save. In 46 2/3 innings, he struck out 36, walked 11 and yielded 40 hits. He appeared in eight games and started seven.

“He had a bounce back year this year,” Pagano said. “He was more of a power pitcher this year. He threw the ball by more guys than most pitchers. He was one of our hardest working kids.”

The 6-foot-5 Mullins batted .348 (23-for-66). He drove in 10 runs, scored 18 and hit four doubles.

Toms River North’s Mike Colella (left) and Dylan Feigin get fired up. (Photo courtesy Toms River North Baseball Team)

“He drew a lot of 3-2 counts and played hit and run real well,” Pagano said. “He was a good contact hitter as he hit line drives. He got his hits when we needed them the most.”

Senior center fielder Alex Klalo, who will play for Stockton University, batted .278. He scored 33 runs, plated 10 and hit five doubles.

“He did not light up the statistics sheet, but he did all of the little things like execute the hit and run, lay down the sacrifice bunt and hit the sacrifice fly,” Pagano said. “He hit second and moved runners over. He did not have the offensive season we hoped for. He hit 12 line drives that resulted in outs. He was a shut down center fielder, one of the best center fielders in the Shore Conference.”

Another North player bound for Stockton is senior catcher Justin Schaff, who hit .366 (37-for-101). He drove in 26 runs and scored 10. He laced nine doubles and hit one homer.

“He has been catching this staff forever,” Pagano said. “He controlled our guys. He was pretty much their coach on the field. He’d yell at a teammate and talk to our coaches. He is the first catcher I can remember who called his own game for our pitchers. We had a lot of confidence in him. He hit fourth and protected Jared.”

Junior first baseman-designated hitter Sam Angelo batted .385 (20-for-52). He knocked in 15 runs, scored 17 and hit one homer, one triple and seven doubles.

“He was a newcomer who added lefty balance to our batting order,” Pagano said. “He battled and got some playing time. It seemed like he drove in a run with a big hit in every game. He is very patient. He probably has the best eye for the strike zone on the team. He makes the pitcher throw a lot of pitches. He stays within himself real well. He does not try to hit the ball a mile.

“He just tries to hit the ball real hard. He does extra time in the batting cage and on the batting tee.”

Another solid pitcher was Jonathan Giordano. The junior won five of six decisions and notched one save. In 31 2/3 innings, he allowed 25 hits, struck out 33 and walked 18 en route to a 1.33 earned run average. Giordano, who hit .287, slugged four homers, drove in 15 runs and scored 12, was the lone junior on the pitching staff.

“He had that boyishness about him,” Pagano said. “He loves the sport and is a competitor on the mound. You could not tell he was a junior as he was mature. He throws a fastball, curveball and changeup for strikes and does not get beat. He lets the defense make the plays behind him.”

Other team members were Aaron Craig, Jake Kazanows, Mike Colella, Sean Aguiar, Robert Jeans, Nick Sibilia, Nick DeMaio (.287, 10 runs batted in, one homer, three doubles and three runs scored), Nick DeRose, Dylan Feigin, Brandon Feigin, Donovan Varga, Jake Dawson, Mike Centeno (2-3 record, one save, 3.76 earned run average), Chris Wood and John Poplawski. Centeno is headed for the University of New Orleans.

Jeans, a sophomore, played left and right field. He hit .368 (21-for-57), drove in seven runs, scored 15 and stroked three doubles.

“Jeans was very good in the outfield,” Pagano said. “He is very coachable and loves playing baseball. Even our older kids noticed how hard he worked. He has the will to get better each day whether he is practicing or playing in a game. He does not go out to practice to just go through the motions. He does not play to be recruited by a college. He does not worry about exit velocity and launch angle. That is nice to see today.”

Pagano said he enjoyed coaching the team.

Toms River North celebrates its Shore Conference Tournament title. (Photo courtesy Toms River North Baseball Team)

“The boys definitely had a loose personality, a never say die personality,” he said. “You’d see them in a locker room before a championship game and they’d be loose and joking around, but they were able to flip the switch better than any team I have ever seen. They were focused and intense for the games, a mature group and a confident group.”

The Mariners’ assistant coaches were Mike Peck, Dennis Kopin, Steve Pagano and Chris Kane.

Peck, a former North pitcher, was the team’s varsity assistant and pitching coach. The owner of the Mariners’ single-season earned run average record at 0.72, Peck was a groomsman at Andrew Pagano’s wedding.

Kopin, an Elizabeth fireman, is a volunteer coach. Steve Pagano (Andrew Pagano’s brother) guided the freshman team to a 15-1 record and the Monmouth Regional Freshman Tournament title. Kane, who coached the junior varsity team, took the Mariners to the semifinals of the St. John Vianney Tournament.

Andrew Pagano, 39, is a 1997 graduate of North where he played in the outfield and at third base. He’s a member of the Fairleigh Dickinson University 1990s All-Decade Team. FDU is an NCAA Division I school. A personal finance and technology teacher at North, he owns a 92-40 career record at the helm of the Mariners and has led the team to five winning seasons. He took over after Ted Schelmay retired.

“We have taken a lot of the same things that Ted was able to instill into the program,” said Andrew Pagano, whose Mariners won Class A South in his second season as their leader. “We have had some good players. The kids we have work hard. I got the job at the right time.

“This is where I grew up. It’s my home school. I take a lot of pride in the program. I am in the building each day teaching and coaching and there is nothing else I would rather be doing.”

Newsy notes: The Mariners’ postseason banquet took place at The Clarion Hotel and Conference Center in Toms River.

The Most Valuable Player Award went to Larsen. Schaff won the Ted Schelmay Award as the team’s leader. The Bill Paskewich Award, named for the late North assistant coach, went to Mullins for his hard work. Klalo and Feigin shared the Golden Glove Award. Bellissimo was named the Best Pitcher.

The Walt Peto Award, named for Andrew Pagano’s freshman coach and the former North athletics coordinator, went to Jeans, honored as the club’s Rookie of the Year. Angelo was named the team’s Most Improved Player. The Mariner Man Award for excellence on and off the field went to Larsen, Bellissimo and Schaff.

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Chris Christopher covers sports for Micromedia Publications Inc. with knowledge, pride and passion. His beats are the high school, college, professional, youth and recreational scenes. A three-time New Jersey Press Association award winner for sports writing, Christopher was inducted into the Shore Football Coaches Foundation Hall of Fame in 2015 for his work in the media. The Lakewood resident enjoys taking walks in Ocean County Park and on the boardwalks in Ocean and Monmouth counties and rooting for the New York Mets.