SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ - It’s been a whirlwind last few weeks with winning the state title, organizing the banquet and sizing up championship rings for the players. Has it all sunk in yet?
It definitely is sinking in. Very proud. A lot of the people I talk to congratulate me, and I’m forced to think about the boys on the team, and think about how well we played as a team going down the stretch. All along the tournament from May and into June, it was just a wonderful run that I’ve never been a part of. They took it like ‘hey, who is the next team on the schedule? OK, let’s go beat them.’ They just seemed destined to win this tournament. Looking back that’s the way it felt. They were at practice, getting their work in, getting their reps, taking their groundballs, taking their bullpen sessions, and they were all satisfied with their roles, they relished in their roles. Good teams are selfless and every single one on that team was selfless, they never thought of themselves. They said ‘This is a team game, and whatever we need to do to win a ballgame, we’re in.’
The team really featured camaraderie and cohesiveness. Was the bond between players on this team stronger than in past years?
Yeah. No one cared who got the big hit. That’s just the way I felt. Whoever got the big hit, everyone was happy as long as we were scoring runs. I mean, I’ve been around baseball a long time, and it’s rare to get an entire team locked in all the time, especially with the small ball that we play. Whoever got the call, if it was their turn to bunt, the kids just seemed like they were gonna do what the team needed to win ball games. A lot of times I’ve been a part of teams where a bunt was put on and kids said “No, I want to swing the bat.” But our kids did whatever we asked them for.
It took a while for the parents and fans to get used to your brand of small ball style baseball with squeeze plays and going station to station. Why are you such a firm believer in that approach to the game?
When I was in college, I kind of took to bunting for a base hit. I wasn’t a power hitter; I was a singles, doubles hitter. And most of my hits in college were drag bunts. Just being a student of the game and understanding how the game is supposed to be played, I took to bunting. My college coach was someone who loved to do small ball.
But looking at our team from one to nine (in the lineup), I knew we weren’t a team that was gonna hit many homeruns or extra base hits. We were a team that was gonna hit singles. I felt that if we moved runners over and got them in scoring position, we were gonna be able to put balls in play and ultimately put pressure on the defense. When the games got more important and we put pressure on other teams, they were unable to play defense against us. And we continued to do exactly that: Put the ball in play, in their hands, and move runners over. It definitely worked.
It seemed like in the championship game, Northern Burlington wasn’t prepared to play the defense that you forced them to play. They only knew how to beat teams by mashing homeruns, which they couldn’t do against South Plainfield.
Right. That’s a credit to the way we put the ball in play. But it’s also a credit to Vinny Pellegrino and Jake Alba, who were able to keep the ball down, pitch to contact and allow them to put the ball in play. Every time, we were able to make the play defensively. We were able to scrap and claw for eight runs where they were waiting to put the ball in the gap or over the fence. And the times we put the ball on the ground, they made some mistakes.
Before we talk more about this Tigers team, let’s talk about your background and playing baseball as a student-athlete at Monroe High School.
I want to say we were a lot like this team. At least I could relate to these seniors because I was part of a team that grew up playing the game together. We had travelling all-stars that we played on. But growing up I was one of the younger guys. Kind of like Nick Polizzano or Jake Alba, I was playing up with older kids. When I was a junior, we went to the county final in 1994 and wound up losing to Edison. But that group of kids, we played together year after year every summer in what we called travelling all-stars and it all came together that one year. We came up a little short, but seeing these kids (at South Plainfield), they won together at the freshmen level and as sophomores. They had a lot more experience winning than I did in high school. In high school, we never got anywhere close to winning a state championship. But I can relate in the fact that when I was their age I was playing together with a group of kids and just being best friends. I understand where that comes from. I went through that when I was younger.
You’ve always downplayed facing Monroe but can you admit those games against the Falcons take on a little extra meaning for you?
Yeah. I’m happy for them because that’s where I grew up and that’s where my life began and baseball began for me, and I’m happy for their program for winning the conference, but I’m even more happy that we were able to have a better season, if you will. We’ve been very successful against them (Up until the 2014 season, South Plainfield had a multi-year winning streak against Monroe). I think in every sport at our school Monroe seems to be a pretty big rival. But to play well against them, and to know that we’re kind of in their heads… They play good baseball but we’re able to scratch and claw for a few runs and win. We’ve been very successful against them. But this year, with the season they had - we split with them, and they were able to take the conference title. But I was happy that when the season was over, we still found ourselves on top of them, winning a state championship. They’ve never won a sectional or a state title. So I’m just kinda happy knowing that we had a little bit more of a successful season. I’m happy for them cause I know they’re a very strong program and they’re gonna be right back against us next year, without a doubt. With their two kids coming back they’re gonna be as strong next year, too.
Those games against Monroe on April 27th and 28th were very intense to watch (the teams split the series). Monroe is known for their players yelling from the bench.
They do a good job on the bench. We’re not a bench that likes to yell and scream. But those were definitely two heated games. Unfortunately we had a bad bounce that went against us, but we definitely played well enough to win those two games. But we only came away with one.
What did you do in between attending Monroe High School and Rowan University?
I actually had a couple of stops. I went to Brookdale and played my freshman year there. Then I wound up my sophomore year playing at Middlesex. Then I went over to Rowan and played for two years, and then eventually coached at Rowan for two years.
I still have a lot of friends at Rowan and ties with a lot of coaches down there. The current head coach down there was my teammate. I really get a kick out of our players going to Rowan. We’ve had a good handful of players that went down there. I love that school. I think it’s a great spot for our kids to go and it’s been very successful for us.
When did coaching become something you thought you wanted to do?
At Rowan, I played my two years but I still had a year and a half left of school to finish, so my coach approached me knowing I was gonna be around and asked if I wanted to be an assistant coach. And without a doubt, knowing this was something I wanted to get myself into, I was an assistant coach there for the 2000 season and the 2001 season. Then after the 2001 season, I left there in July and interviewed at South Plainfield High School in August and was teaching there by September.
What drew you to coaching?
I thought it was right for me. Obviously I loved playing baseball growing up, I loved the sport. I knew I wanted to be a Phys. Ed teacher, and being around the sport I knew I ultimately wanted to coach. So I’ve just been thrilled to be able to teach and coach in the same building. So I’ve been blessed to be able to do that.
Back to South Plainfield. Your seven years as head coach have been marked by a few crushing defeats at the county and sectional levels. So was it a goal, not only get back to a title game, but also to win one?
Every year we schedule the baseball dinner, I always make sure the dinner is after the final. Just because I feel every team I have beginning in March has a chance to go all the way. That’s what baseball is all about. As long as you make it into the tournament, we have a chance. I’m always one of those guys that says we have a chance to win it. Midway through April, I was a little unsure. We weren’t playing that well. You can point the finger at the bad weather in March, but ultimately we weren’t playing our best baseball. But I knew the type of success the kids are used to. And as the season unfolded we started getting hot at the right times. We got into the tournament, and these kids just did not want to end their season with a loss. They spoke about ending with a win, and doing something that’s never happened before at South Plainfield. They were just on a mission, that’s the best way I can explain it.
Like you said, the team sputtered early. But then it all started to change when Jean Sapini emerged as a crucial part of the rotation and Kyle Dickerson returned to the lineup from injury. When did you sense things starting to click?
You know, this might sound kind of stupid but the first time I moved the lineup – when we started the season Bryan Gillen was our leadoff guy and LJ Scarpitto batted second – and I just felt Gillen is our strongest hitter and fastest player and I had him leading off in March. And at the third game we were 0-2 and I just didn’t feel comfortable with the lineup. So I moved Gillen to third. LJ was hitting well, Tommy Dunn was our MVP for April because he was our best player. But to move him and bat him second with LJ leading off and Bryan batting third, and then with Polizzano hitting fourth and Chris Graves fifth, I just felt more comfortable after our third game. I ended up having to move Polizzano a little but ultimately I fell in love with that lineup and didn’t have to change it much.
As for Dickerson, when Tommy started to struggle it was the perfect time to slot in Kyle up top. We tried a few DH’s with Xavier Wilson and Jean and they did a good job. But when Kyle was available it kind of sparkplugged our team. These kids are used to seeing him leadoff. And the moment he was available I told him the night before “Be ready. We’re going to Monroe and you’re leading off for us.” And that just turned things around.
And I can’t say much about Jean. Words can’t describe what that kid did for this team. I said it at the dinner; we don’t win a state championship without Jean on the mound in those two games against Mount Olive and Roxbury. One of the best performances I’ve seen a sophomore give.
It’s got to feel great as a coach to pencil in the same lineup every day and know it’s going to work
Yeah. The last time I had that feeling was in 2010. We had a great team. That lineup really did not change all year. With this one we had to tweak and move things around. But some unsung heroes of the season came along. Chris Marrero struggled a bit, not too much, but Jared Marks was breathing down his neck, and for half the season Jared was our guy. Then he struggled a bit and I knew ultimately that Marrero, who did a nice job blocking baseballs…I just could not see myself putting anyone else besides Chris Marrero behind home plate. The Mount Olive coach pointed at Marrero and said ‘Man, he’s better than what the scouting reports told me. He was fantastic.’
And even the emergence of Jack Gillis, he puts the ball in play and he’s fast. And with Sean Erhardt, I was unsure of what type of defense he was gonna give but then he threw three kids out the first three weeks of the season. Defensively sound, solid in right field. He understood the game and how to play that position. Jack worked into his own. The whole outfield was terrific. All three of them. I was very pleased with how they played.
So that was the team you rolled into the county tournament with. But the 8-7 loss to St. Joseph Metuchen was ugly. How disappointing was it to go home so early in the GMC Tournament?
It’s very disappointing when you lose by one run. But we scored seven runs against a good St. Joes team. But we all know baseball well enough to know that when you walk batters, chances are they’re going to score, and we had six walks that game. Five of them scored. We had three errors, two of them from our outfield. We just played our worst game against St. Joes in May. It was actually our only loss that month. As soon as the calendar turned to May we were 14-1 including the two games in June.
You guys knew that if you played like that again, the whole season would be over. Was that game a wakeup call of sorts for the NJSIAA tournament?
The bad part about high school sports is that there is no playoff; it’s just a one game elimination. And that’s what we learned against St. Joes. Who knows who the better team was? We were the 4 seed and they were the number 5 seed. But the way I look at it is it doesn’t matter who is the better team on paper. St. Joes was the better team that day. They scored more runs than us. We handed them some runs, they hit the baseball when they needed to and they won the game. When you look at it, they were the better team. But if you look at our state run, you can look at Northern Burlington who was top 10 in the state. I got some scouting reports and more than one coach said that they’re the better team. But that doesn’t mean they’re gonna win the ballgame. So it’s all a matter of how you execute on that given day.
And execute you did for the rest of the season. The South Plainfield Tigers never looked back. Can you describe how incredible that journey to the Group III state championship felt? It was almost dreamlike.
I’m trying to find the right words. I would say it’s a total team effort. Without a doubt. Not one person shined the entire time. You can look at Jean, but what about Cranford and Northern Burlington? Vinny and Jake pitched those games. We had a three-headed pitching staff there. You look at Marrero vs Cranford opening up the seventh inning with a walk and then Dickerson with a push bunt. LJ hits a ball that goes through the second baseman’s legs. Every person, again, as I preached all year, put the ball in play. Just put the ball on the ground and let them make plays. That’s all we did. At a certain point I started hearing the kids saying it: “Guys, just hit the ball on the ground.” When that happens, teams are going to make mistakes. That’s high school baseball. There’s going to be two or three errors every game.
I always say when they make errors, make sure we capitalize, and when we make errors, we make sure there’s an out right after. And we were able to do that. That’s huge to not extend their innings.
As the games got more important, the Tigers support section continued to grow larger. As head coach, you seemed to take on folk-hero status. Some students brought posters with oversized images of your face on them and were screaming your name. Did you ever expect anything like that?
No, never had anything like that. We’ve had crowds before, mostly parents. But never have I had a situation where I’m walking in the gym and every period I had kids coming up to me saying ‘good game,’ or screaming my name during class. It was just a wonderful feeling to have that type of support every game. It was wonderful. You gotta point the finger back at them. They did a lot for the psyche of our team.
So the dream season ends with a championship but the accolades don’t stop. Not only does The Star-Ledger name the team the # 1 ranked public school team, but you earn Coach of the Year honors. What has that been like?
It’s a wonderful award. I do not like to pat myself on the back. I just don’t like doing it. But a lot of people told me to just enjoy it and its well deserved. I kind of felt going in that it’s about the kids. They’re the ones swinging the bats; they’re the ones pitching the ball. But when you get an award like that, you can’t get an award like that without great coaches and without great players. And that’s the best way I can explain it.
You don’t need me to tell you that this accomplishment can open a lot of doors for your coaching career if you ever get interested in seeing what other jobs are out there.
I’m pretty happy with where I am. I like the town I’m in, I like the school I work for, I like the relationship I have with the Junior Baseball Club. I’m really comfortable where I’m at. It’s a nice feather in the cap, I like being a state champ. It’s something I’ve always wanted. I always wanted to win a national championship in college but we never got there. And I always wanted to win a state championship and now we can say we won one. We’re state champs, it can’t be taken away from us. But I love where I coach, I love the kids, the parents are good to me. There’s no other spot for me than being in South Plainfield.
How will things change in the coming years now that South Plainfield baseball is on the map?
It’s going to be different. I’ve always talked about that when we make a schedule. I want to make sure we’re playing some top notch schools. That’s not going to change. We want the best competition out there. But we’re used to having a target on our back. We’ve been blessed with some good talent here and have put together some successful seasons. Playing good competition is something that’s ultimately going to give us a chance to go far in the tournament which we always want to do. So I welcome the competition.
10 seniors from this team just graduated SPHS. Will it be hard to overcome their departures?
We’re definitely losing what got us there. We’re definitely losing some fantastic defense. The defense is what kept us in games. Yeah you can talk about bunting or pitching, but pitching and defense win games. We’re going to have to find a new first baseman, a new second baseman and a new third baseman. Let alone two spots in the outfield. I probably have the most comfort behind home plate because I know Jared has been there. He’s been a catcher and played a good handful of varsity baseball. So I do feel comfortable with Jared back there. But it’s always up in the air. There will be opportunities for anybody to take positions away. In the outfield we have two spots, center and right. And the infield is something that we’re going to have to piece together, or find the right mix of infielders. It’s definitely going to be difficult to replace what we have, or what we had.
Especially someone like Scarpitto with that glove. Over 200 attempts with no errors. Just a great leader. He and Graves did a great job as our captains. I’m just going to miss those guys, I really am. I’m told all the time from Coach Darby that this is a special group and it definitely was a very special group.
Though you are losing many players, you do retain many standouts that were a part of this team including multisport state champions Alba and Polizzano
I was saying that in November. We saw them win a state championship in soccer and we said ‘this is only going to help us,’ and sure enough it helped us in the best way. And now they’re two time state champs along with Jared and Jake Hoffman. So we’re keeping them and we have Jean and we have Jack back in center so I’m pretty happy with what we have coming back. Very happy.
Last series of questions. When will the player be receiving their rings?
We’re aiming for early August. We want to get the rings to the kids before they go to college. And right now it seems like we’re on task for that.
Will it be bittersweet knowing that could be the last time you’re all in the same room together?
I was going to say earlier, I’m looking forward to the next time we’re all together. I really enjoyed being around these guys, they’re a lot of fun. They always kept things loose, they never felt pressure on themselves, and it’s hard to find that in a team. They just said ‘who are we playing? Where are we playing? What time does the game start?’ and that’s all they were concerned about. I’m looking forward to being around the guys at least one more time. The best thing about winning a state championship, you know, not that you want to look 5, 10, 15 or 20 years ahead, but I’m sure there’s always going to be a time when we all get together again down the road somewhere.
One thing I want to add about the town. It was amazing how many alumni, how many former players, how many fans, whether it be a former players’ parents going to the game in Toms River, it speaks volumes about what type of town South Plainfield is. It’s a very big family type atmosphere with that town. I was just amazed. I was shaking hands with former coaches and just so many people at our final game supporting us and being so happy for us and I couldn’t be any prouder of the town and how they came out and supported us, especially that student section.