SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ - As we enter the dog days of summer and high school sports lay low until Labor Day weekend, TAPinto caught up with South Plainfield High School’s head baseball coach Anthony Guida for an exclusive interview that covered a broad range of topics including his team’s 2017 season that featured a 19-10 record and culminated with a tough loss in the Central Jersey Group 2 Sectional final against Governor Livingston, the blueprint for the team moving forward, and reflections as he approaches ten years at the helm of the program.

TAPinto: Have you been able to take a step back and appreciate how good of a season your team had even though it ended with a heartbreaking 6-5 loss in the sectional final?

Head Coach Anthony Guida: Most of the reflections have been of the last game but I just keep telling myself with the more people I talk to - I saw a couple coaches - and they were mentioning how nice of a season we had. And it was. I mean, 19 wins and a sectional final appearance is a good season. But what I do is keep reflecting on the negative of what happened at the end of the [Governor Livingston] game, and us just not being able to finish that game, and put away a team that most people thought on paper we wouldn’t beat. And we were one out away. Each game in high school is 21 outs and when you get 20 it doesn’t mean anything. You have to get 21 and unfortunately we weren’t able to get that last one.

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TAP:  Your team had a lead with margin for error heading into the final inning. Did you think the sectional title was yours?

Guida: Yeah, I thought the game was ours. We had a lead late and our guy was throwing really well. But when you’re playing a team like Governor Livingston with all the success that they’ve had and the type of lineup they have, we knew it was not something that was going to be handed to us, obviously. Being up three in the sixth inning was a really good feeling.

But seeing that inning end with us scoring two to make it 5-2 and we had guys on second & third…I was more upset we weren’t able to get those last two guys in. When we got out and didn’t score those last two runs I was walking into the dugout saying, ‘Man, I wish it was 7-2 instead of 5-2.’ I am happy, but 7-2 would have been a lot better. But when we got that third bunt down and scored two runs on squeeze bunts, we were feeling really good about ourselves, but that’s the game of baseball. That’s why it’s a great game.

TAP: After the loss you and a couple of your players happened to say ‘It just wasn’t meant to be.’ Do you still think that was the case? Did Governor Livingston have destiny on their side?

Guida: That’s the only way I get myself through the thought of not winning that game. It wasn’t meant to be for us to win that game. This was the second time in the tournament they walked off on a team. Three of us had them beat late in the game and we couldn’t finish it. It was just sort of their season maybe, or just their time to win it on their field. The last three games for them they were losing against Raritan, and they had to walk off against Raritan. Bernards had them by about 2 or 3 runs and couldn’t throw a strike, and then we had them and they walked off on us. So ‘It just wasn’t meant to be’ was the first thing that came to mind. Three teams had them in striking distance and we just couldn’t come away with a win. But those are the words that came to my head. It wasn’t meant to be. I thought we did a lot of things right

TAP: It just goes to show that there isn’t much that separates a team like yours and a team that wins the state championship.

Guida: Right. I agree with that. Sometimes it’s the way the ball bounces. Sometimes luck is on your side and sometimes luck is not on your side. But it is nice to know we played seven strong innings against a team that is nationally ranked, or at least in the northeast or mid-Atlantic region. A team that was ranked number one in the state for a while, and here we are just playing our game and had an opportunity to beat a very well respected team throughout the state and the area. It is nice to be able to play in those games and play well and be able to do what we did against them.

TAP: Your season featured an outstanding record at home and marquee wins against tough opponents like Milburn, Woodbridge and Middlesex. That has to make you proud.

Guida: Yeah, I am proud. As the season ends you look back at the teams we beat… there was a top 30 list in the newspaper and I started reading the teams that were there, and we had three wins against teams that won a state title (Milburn and Middlesex), and Woodbridge, who went to the sectional final as well. So we had three big wins against three very good schools. So we did have a very successful season.

TAP: SPHS seems to have a very tough schedule each and every year. Why is it so important to play top opponents?

Guida: When you play good teams, sometimes you end up beating good teams, and when you don’t beat good teams you analyze the game you just played: ‘What did we learn from this loss? What did they do better than us?’ The more you play better teams it’s only going to make our kids more experienced.  It happened for us two years ago (SP took home the 2015 Group 3 state title), it’s happened for us before two years ago where we were able to win some big games, and it’s something I’ll continue to do. I like playing a nice schedule with some good competition on it. It just helps us out come tournament time.

TAP: A feature of the 2017 Tigers team was the ability to jump out to early leads even though you didn’t always hold them. How were you able to jump on your opponents at the start so often?

Guida: We’re playing a seven inning game, and what any team wants to do is jump on [the opponent] early and take them out of it, but with that being a said, when you get a big lead as a team you want to be able to put them away. The lack of us being able to do that I think hurt us down the road, just based on the type of record we ended up with. There were a lot of teams we still ended up beating by having a big lead, but we also found ourselves scrambling at the end and losing some big games. The one that jumps out at me is, we had Piscataway up 7-0 and then in the next half inning we couldn’t find an out if it fell in our lap. They scored nine runs and we just could not stop the bleeding.

But when you score a bunch of runs early it definitely takes some of the pressure off the pitcher where he doesn’t have to be so perfect. And we were able to do that this year. Every coach at almost any level, they want to do exactly what we were able to do. Every year we look to jump on teams early, and this year we were able to do it. It’s a credit to the players doing the things we ask them to do, jump on first fastballs and run the bases hard and don’t get cheated on any at bats. We were able to put them together early but unfortunately sometimes this year we just weren’t able to put the team away. And it was evident against Piscataway, Morristown, and West Morris. Those are three games that jump out at me that we couldn’t finish a team. It was aggravating. We didn’t know what to do. Montgomery was the other.

TAP: South Plainfield scored plenty of runs, but also left plenty of runners stranded on the base paths throughout the season. Was that something you tried to correct?

Guida: Sometimes some of our players didn’t understand ‘Hey, this is a situation where I can be a little bit more selective at the plate. I don’t have to swing at the first pitch. Its second & third and no out, I don’t have to go up at the first pitch and pop it up. I can take a pitch or two and maybe the pitcher is going to walk me.’

Some kids get up there and see the first pitch and they jump on it and it’s a popup or it’s a double play and our big inning is not there. So there are times when kids aren’t able to figure out the situation and maybe it’s us being young, us being aggressive, or anxious. Two runners on, the pitcher is the one who is supposed to feel the pressure, but meanwhile it was us feeling the pressure. And we got pitchers out of jams because we weren’t patient enough.

TAP: The most exciting feature of the team was the emergence of multiple sophomores who made a huge impact on the team. Roberto Gonzalez, Mikey Marrero, Chris Shine, TJ Massaro. How come you are comfortable using underclassmen when other coaches sometimes aren’t?

Guida: Usually when you have a varsity team they’re going to be scattered with juniors and seniors but when you can have a couple of sophomores that are able to contribute, I just tell myself I think that’s an asset for our program down the line. I’ve said this since I’ve been coaching and I think a lot of people understand this - but I don’t care what level of eligibility you are. If you’re a junior, senior, sophomore or freshman, the best player at that position is going to play. And if it’s a sophomore, well, congratulations, you’re the guy that’s going to go in there.

But I’d say to Mikey Marrero, ‘Hey, we need you to go out and pitch.’ And if I asked him to go out and catch I think he’d put on the equipment and go catch for us. I think Mikey played the most positions for us. I know he played one inning over in the outfield, he also played at third and second, and I also had Mikey at first base in scrimmage games. He’s a kid that showed his versatility and never once said ‘Hey coach, I want to play shortstop,’ because that might be his most comfortable position. But you don’t want to have any kid pigeonhole himself into one spot.

But when you look back and say ‘We have a lot of sophomores,’ or you look at our lineup and see the last four batters are all sophomores, that’s great. They earned it, they’re in the lineup for a reason, and that’s our best nine players. So I was proud of the fact that whoever I put in the lineup earned it and this year we had a lot of sophomores that were able to earn spots and play.

TAP: How nice was it to rely on such a strong pitching rotation between Jean Sapini, Billy Keane and Chris Shine? Sapini had 12 strikeouts against Vorhees in his last ever high school appearance.

Guida: We did have a strong rotation, and each one had their time where they struggled, and when you see that happen, Coach [Mike] Bautista and I have to figure it out as we go. But I’m going to miss a guy like Sapini. He’s one of those players that all his experience as a sophomore completely 100% helped us this entire season. He threw well on a lot of occasions. He wanted that sectional final and we spoke to him about it: This is our next game. It’s not about playing in the sectional final, it’s about playing Voorhees (to get to the sectional final), and he was able to go out there and throw one of the best games I’ve ever seen a pitcher throw, it was unbelievable.

But I think the tough luck guy this year was Billy Keane. For some reason he just struggled ending games. But I feel really encouraged with him coming back next year as a senior and one of our captains now (along with shortstop Mike Stanczak). I was really proud of the way Billy handled himself and I’m really excited to see Billy play next year as well.

TAP: Six seniors graduated from this past season’s team including losses at key positions such as starting pitcher, catcher and center fielder. How do you fill those shoes?

Guida: You don’t ask anyone to go in there and be Dylan O’Connor or Jean Sapini or Jared Marks, you ask them to go be themselves and give it all you got. So when you have to find players to fill those positions you just hope they work hard in the offseason to get themselves better. The interesting spot for me is catcher, where basically five guys are going to compete for one spot. We have Nico Vasquez and Luke Tamburro who are going to be seniors. Chris Born is an on-again, off-again catcher in JV, and then you have two upcoming sophomores with Sam Nieves & Brody Donovan. So that’s five guys that are going to be at the first practice in the first Friday in March. We’re going to have to take it from there and see what happens. It’s going to be interesting to see who earns that spot. This is my tenth year coming up, so for nine years we’ve always been blessed with some outstanding catchers. And now, who is going to be that next guy that steps up? We’ve had success really for nine years behind the plate. So we’ll see how the chips fall come March.

TAP: So many games had to be canceled or rescheduled due to awful weather this spring. As a coach, was there anything you could do about it?

Guida: The only thing you can do is tell the kids not to complain. You can’t complain because, what are you going to do about it? For me, I’m a pain in the butt when it comes to rescheduling and moving games around. I mean, I’m always trying to figure out the best opportunity for us to get games. One thing I can’t stand is practicing three days in a row, because you want the rhythm, you want to continue to stay on the field.

When we got that snow in the middle of March I was like, ‘What am I going to do?’ and then I heard that not much of the snow hit the Jersey shore so I gave some of the shore coaches that I know a call, and I hit the lottery on two of them. Right away they said ‘We’re good, we can play.’ We got Monmouth and the next day we played Jackson, so I was able to get two games and I was pretty surprised on doing that. So it’s just something you can’t complain about, everyone has to deal with it.

TAP: Next season will be your tenth as South Plainfield’s head coach. How does that make you feel?

Guida: When I lined up this job I wasn’t thinking ten years down the road, I was thinking right away I couldn’t wait to get started. I had been teaching in the school since 2001 and I had been the freshman coach for five years and then left and was the Dunellen coach for two years. It was something I was really proud of having, the head job at the same school I’m teaching in. But I never thought of where I would be in ten years.

But looking back, the type of success our teams have been able to have is just a testament to the type of players that have come here. They come in ready, they come in prepared, and they come in with a lot of enthusiasm. I’m not kidding you when I say there are so many coaches that I’ve known throughout the years that complement our players very often, very highly. And it does make me proud that I’ve got a bunch of kids that are able to play the game the right way, to respect the game, respect the umpires, respect the other team, and we’re not a team that is arrogant, I don’t think we come off that way. The kids perform the right way; they walk up to the field the right way. And when you have respect for the game, the game is going to respect you back, and I hope that continues for years to come.

TAP: Last question: Out of all the big wins your team had this year which one was your favorite and why?

Guida: Voorhees. There’s no doubt that it’s Voorhees. I don’t think we made an error that game. Jean threw eight unbelievable innings with all those strikeouts and he got better as the game went on. Shine came in and threw a three up, three down inning. Connor Adams made that great play in left field. Their guy was throwing a gem as well and we were just able to put together three straight base hits and walk off on our home field, which made it even sweeter. All those teams we beat, all those games we played, there’s no doubt that I think that one was the biggest one that sticks out in my mind.