SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ - For South Plainfield High School baseball head coach Anthony Guida, 2015 was a dream season. The Tigers went 24-8, taking the GMC white division crown and NJSIAA Group III state championship along the way. Guida was also named “Coach of the Year” by NJ.com. But with six position players being lost to graduation, the 2016 squad will look to forge a bit of a new identity as many fresh faces are set to emerge this spring. The team, however, returns a few of the key players that helped earn the Tigers their first ever baseball state championship last spring. And they all happen to play up the middle of the field.

“When any coach wants to build a team, you usually want to build a team from the inside out,” Guida says. “Usually your best player, if he’s an infielder, he’ll be your shortstop, your best outfielder will be your center fielder, obviously the pitcher is right in the middle of everything, and you want to have a good catcher. And it’s funny how we returned every single one of those positions.”

Catcher Justin Marks, pitchers Jake Alba & Jean Sapini, shortstop Nick Polizzano, and center fielder Jack Gillis will provide the leadership of upperclassmen and the experience of having already gone through a championship season.

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Look for Jake Hoffman (who saw time late last spring mostly in the role of pinch runner) to get the lion’s share of starts at second base.  Juniors Nick Plate and Kyle Bythell are names to keep an eye on as they look to make the jump to the varsity program.

Guida wouldn’t commit to naming any other players on the JV team that could make the varsity team, noting he is trying his best to give the many juniors a fair opportunity and assess where they will be. Every year, Guida says, he seems to have a few players that bounce back and forth between the teams given the circumstances. “With the type of season we had last year and the amount of players without varsity experience this year, it’s made for a very different March,” he says.

“We’re very young even though we have a lot of juniors,” Guida said. “We’re filling in a bunch of spots with different players, but the varsity experience just isn’t there right now. That’s been the biggest thing that I’ve noticed. These guys haven’t played at this level and we’re trying to find the right mix of guys that are going to be able to compete,” he said before adding “We’re not playing our best baseball right now, but not many teams are. It’s only March.”

But with expectations for the team as high as they’ve ever been, Guida welcomes the pressure and sees no reason why his Tigers can’t be right back in the hunt for another title come May and June. 

“I’d definitely say we expect to be right back there. I’m not going to guarantee that we’re going to go to the finals again and win it, but I think as long as you have an opportunity to get into the playoffs…” he said, adding that the better team on paper can lose to anyone if they don’t execute. He thinks his team last season was a perfect example because they were an underdog for many of the six state playoff games but executed better than every team on the way to winning the big prize.

The Tigers will be competing for another GMC White Division title with the likes of Monroe, Woodbridge and North Brunswick, who all feature pitchers expecting to take their game to the college level in the coming seasons. Guida feels the arms in the White Division can rival even the powerhouse schools in the Red Division.

“To say that the team that wins the White Division is going to be undefeated or have one loss (in divisional play), I think that’s very hard to say. I think you can have three losses and possibly still win the White Division because all these teams are going to be knocking each other off. These pitching staffs are that good.” Guida says.

South Plainfield has also put together an ambitious out-of-conference schedule that sees them visit Group IV champion Millburn, top 10 ranked St. Peter’s Prep of Jersey City and St. Mary’s of Rutherford. Notre Dame in Lawrenceville will pay the Tigers a visit in Mid April, as will Paramus and Westfield.

Guida called it “I think the toughest schedule we’ve ever put together this year,” and cited last season’s run to the title as something that raised the program’s profile. Numerous teams, Guida said, contacted him after the state tournament last spring looking to put South Plainfield on their schedule and measure themselves against a champion. “And I’m not one to back down so we said, sure, put them on the schedule,” Guida said.

As difficult as putting a schedule together can be, one decision that was easy to make was naming Alba & Polizzano team co-captains. The two, in addition to last year’s success on the diamond, also teamed up to win a state championship in soccer in the fall of 2014. “It worked out perfect for them to be our captains.” He said.

The Tigers open up their 2016 campaign at Old Bridge on Friday, April 1st.