MILLBURN, NJ - The Millburn varsity baseball team won state championships in two of the previous three seasons, and the fact that last year's title was accomplished with a large percentage of juniors and even a couple of freshmen means that the Millers are well-stocked and in a favorable position to make a run at yet another state crown in 2018.
Millburn actually reached the promised land last year despite losing the ace of its pitching staff, Kyle Mazer, to a torn ACL injury sustained in practice in late April. Mazer spent the summer rehabbing and is back on the mound to reassume his perch atop the Millers' potentially deep rotation this spring.
Just over 10 months after beating Hunterdon Central in the Group 4 championship game to cap a 26-5 season, Millburn coach Brian Chapman will have starters back at five of eight positions (excluding pitcher), with Rutgers-bound catcher Peter Serruto, slugging second baseman Ben Pampush, shortstop Peter Gula and a pair of sophomores who started varsity as freshmen--third baseman Ben Chrzanowski and center fielder Ben Sinins (moving over from right field)--all back for another season.
Mazer's knee injury was a low point in a 2017 season that was otherwise replete with high points. The senior right-hander with a 5-foot-8 frame may not intimidate anybody on the mound, but few batters ever get the best of him. He was 4-0 with a 0.47 ERA in 29 2/3 innings last April.
"Kyle was pitching at a level that was almost freakish last April," Chapman said. "The goal is to get him back to that level. He's been very good, No. 1 worthy this spring. I watched him really handle Jackson Township and then manage Delbarton, a team with a great lineup, in scrimmages. I saw glimpses last Saturday of how Kyle can keep us in a game against anybody we play."
Whether Mazer, returning senior right-handed swingman Alex Byington (who walked only three in 23 innings last season) or any of Millburn's other pitchers is on the mound, they can count on the savvy and unmatched defensive excellence of four-year starting catcher Serruto behind the plate. He caught 65 percent of the runners attempting to steal against him last season.
"Peter's arm is at a different level, it's the thing that separates him the most," Chapman said. "He also brings a real physicality in his presence and blocking back there. He's got enormous, strong hands and grip. Factor in his experience behind the plate, too. He has an impact on the pitching staff, the middle infield, and the third baseman defensively. Peter collaborates and gives input to the coaching staff on pitch calling. He's become an active part of that process. We trust him."
Serruto batted .361 last season and has shown more power at the plate in scrimmages this pre-season.
Pampush, an athletic second baseman with a lethal bat, sported a .420 batting average last year with 14 extra-base hits and 37 runs scored.
"You could wake Ben up on Christmas morning and he'd go out and hit two doubles and make a circus play on the infield," Chapman said. "He went out for football before his junior baseball season and he came back as a bigger, stronger and more confident athlete and hasn't missed a beat since. He's a .400 hitter now. Ben is an incredible athlete--great hands, hits ball to all fields, great instincts. Defensively, he uses his athleticism at the position,with very quick hands and incredibly good range with his lateral foot speed."
Gula, who batted .303 with 30 runs scored and 12 stolen bases, is Millburn's leadoff hitter and is entering his third season as the team's starting shortstop, where he teams with Pampush for a very strong defensive presence up the middle. Sinins, who batted .296 with 18 RBI, and Chrzanowski, possessed with a powerful arm at third, adapted quickly to the varsity level when thrown into the fire as freshmen. And Chrzanowski looms as a potential game-changer as a power relief pitcher this season.
After the precedent set by Sinins and Chrzanowski last season, Millburn will start another freshman this season--left-handed hitting first baseman Oren Abbott, whose sweet southpaw swing in the middle of the order may help defray the loss of graduated all-time great Richie Schiekofer, who is now playing for the University of Maryland.
With senior Matt Knowles out four to six weeks with a fractured wrist, Millburn's outfield now will have junior Jake Panzer in right and senior Eric Von Bevern in left, with senior Nick Santagata and junior Evan Molka slated to see time in the outfield, too.
In addition to Mazer and Byington, who are each possessed with pinpoint control and extraordinary ability to pitch under pressure, and the hard-throwing Chrzanowski, the Millers' pitching staff will consist of smooth, strike-throwing junior lefty Ty Adelman, senior right-hander Ryan Wenslau, Jordan Brochin, Panzer, Molka and junior right-hander Kyle Yih. Abbott could also get innings on the hill, as well.
"My goal with the pitching staff is to have four starters and four primary relievers," Chapman said. Last year, Millburn had a 1.92 staff earned-run average.
The Millers open the season at 11 a.m. Saturday at Livingston. The first showdown with defending Greater Newark Tournament champion Seton Hall Prep is next Friday, April 6. And Millburn christens its renovated home field with new dugouts and fresh sod (but still no outfield fence) in the Phil Krug Memorial Game next Saturday, April 7 at 11 a.m. when Rutgers Prep visits. A three-game road trip to Myrtle Beach, S.C. follows from April 9-12.