SCOTCH PLAINS AND UNION – With the sun out and the temperature reaching just over 50 degrees, several Union County baseball teams were able to get in scrimmages Saturday exactly one week before the first day of the season.
Some still were not due to the recent heavy snowfall.
Squads that were able to get in full scrimmages that lasted more than two hours Saturday included Union Catholic and Union.
On their field turf field the Vikings hosted Passaic County school Passaic Valley.
Union Catholic has several talented players back from last year’s 16-9-1 squad.
Assistant coach Dave Luciano stressed afterwards that the fundamentals still need shoring up before next week’s opener vs. Plainfield.
At the top of the pitching staff is junior right hander Brendan Welsh, a transfer from Linden. He just had minor shoulder surgery, with Luciano stating that he should be back in April.
“He’s a workhorse,” Luciano said. “He throws a heavy ball and mixes his pitches well.”
Welsh shut out Oratory Prep 11-0 in a North Jersey, Non-Public A first round game last year en route to earning First Team All-Union County Conference-Mountain Division honors.
“He changes speeds and really battles hard,” Luciano said. “He’s looking to play in college.”
Other key Union Catholic players include junior Dylan Donahue at first base, sophomore Alex Gordensky at second, senior Patrick Hartnett at shortstop and senior Shamar Crawford in center.
Sophomore left hander Michael Fox was the last pitcher Luciano used in the scrimmage vs. PV.
Saturday’s scrimmage between Morristown and Union at Gordon R. LeMatty Field at Union High School was a homecoming of sorts for Morristown head coach Ed Collins.
A standout in football and baseball at Union, Collins played on the last Union teams that won a football state championship and a baseball county championship – both in the year 1993. He was the starting quarterback on Union’s 1992 (11-0) and 1993 (10-1) North 2, Group 4 state championship football teams.
This is Collins’ fifth year at the helm of the Colonials and he guided his first four teams to winning seasons: 2014 (19-8), 2015 (16-12), 2016 (17-9) and 2017 (17-10).
The 2016 squad captured the North 1, Group 4 sectional state championship and reached the Group 4 state championship game, falling to Hunterdon Central 4-2.
With all of the snow this month, Saturday was actually the first day Morristown got outside this pre-season.
The Colonials are scheduled to host Old Bridge on Opening Day next Saturday, but Collins said that game may be moved to Old Bridge because all of the snow still affecting Morristown’s field.
Collins has three college-bound players on this year’s squad, including seniors Brennan O’Neill and David Haberman headed to Seton Hall and junior Tate Ballestero, who last July gave a verbal commitment to continue at the University of Virginia.
O’Neill pitched in the Hunterdon Central game as a sophomore two years ago and leads the pitching staff this season. Haberman handles the pitching staff behind the plate, while Ballestero played shortstop in the scrimmage vs. Union and Collins said he will be used at other positions (utility) as well.
“We have a lot of experience,” said Collins, whose first head coaching stint was at Chatham for two seasons in 2012 (13-13 and 2013 (9-17). “We expect to be there like we always do, this year is no different.
“We want to win our conference, county and states.”
Collins said that his team has scrimmages at Diamond Nation Monday and vs. Ferris at Caven Point in Jersey City Wednesday, both field turf fields.
“We expect to get both of those in,” Collins said.
Last year’s 17-10 squad reached the North 1, Group 4 semifinals and the Morris County Tournament semifinals. Morristown was 0-3 vs. Delbarton, losing twice by 1-0 scores, including in the MCT semis.
During his junior year in the spring of 1993, Collins helped Union win the Union County Tournament for the eighth time as Union defeated top-seeded Westfield 5-3 in the final at Linden’s Memorial Field. Collins played shortstop in that game, with senior right hander Eric Shaw going the distance to earn the mound victory.
“We had a very good team (22-7) that year,” said Collins, who also pitched on that team, which was coached by former UHS standout Chet Czaplinski. “I also remember losing in the states in the ninth inning. Baseball is tough because it’s single elimination.”
The next year when Collins was a senior in 1994 Union was the top seed this time. Westfield turned the tables, winning at Union 7-3 in the quarterfinals.
Collins pitched in that game and took a 5-0 record to the mound before he suffered his first loss of the season. Collins tossed a seven-hitter, striking out seven and walking three.
“I remember that game and pitching against Chris Vogel,” Collins said.
Union finished 18-9 in 1994, but Westfield went on to win the UCT, with Vogel the winning pitcher. Defending champion Westfield has won the most UCT titles with 14 and from 1994-1997 won a record four straight – all under present head coach Bob Brewster, who is now in his 36th season at the helm of the Blue Devils.
Last year Brewster became the third baseball coach in Union County to reach 600 wins after LeMatty (finished with 641) and Ray Korn (leader with 651) of Roselle Catholic and Elizabeth were the first two.
A young Union team, one filled with more sophomores and juniors according to fifth-year head coach Angel Navarrete, previously had scrimmages against Mendham, Millburn and St. Peter’s Prep
Scrimmages scheduled for this week include Hunterdon Central and Delbarton.
The Farmers are coming off a 12-14 season that included a 5-2 start. Union went 14-11 in 2016.
“We just want to get better every day,” Navarrete said.
Key returning players include senior catcher Jerry Gamone, sophomore shortstop Dren Gocaj – he played third base last year – junior right handers Zach Fernandes and Brian Bedlivy and sophomore righty Andrew Sanborn.
Gamone will continue playing at Division 3 Caldwell College.
“He’s a great leader and has a lot of energy,” Navarrete said. “He’s the first guy in and the last guy out and drives the kids around.
“He’s really good defensively and we will need his offense this year as well. He’s really worked hard the last four years.”
DEFENDING SECTIONAL CHAMPIONS
IN ACTION SATURDAY, MARCH 31
For the first time in six years the baseball season in New Jersey will commence before April 1. The first time was in 2012 when on Saturday, March 31 of that year teams were allowed to play their first games.
The same is true for this year.
Among the Union County teams in action next Saturday include defending sectional state champions Cranford (North 2, Group 3) and Gov. Livingston (Central Jersey, Group 2).
Both will be on the road in Union County Conference-Watchung Division action with Cranford at Scotch Plains and defending champion GL at Elizabeth. Both are 11 a.m. starts.
Cranford head coach Dennis McCaffery, in his 20th season at the helm, enters the 2018 season with a record of 397-121 (.766). That includes a state playoff record of 59-16, which includes a mark of 11-3 in sectional finals and 3-4 in group finals. The Cougars went 21-8 last year.
GL was ranked No. 1 in the state for the first time in the middle of last year. The Highlanders went 15-0 before they were upset at home by Johnson 9-5 in a UCT quarterfinal. The Highlanders finished 26-4, which was the best record in Union County.
GL seniors that will be playing in college include left fielder Tyler McCulloch (Iona), shortstop Danny Serretti (North Carolina), right fielder Will Jennings (Iona) and first baseman DJ Gonnelli (Montclair State).
2018 OPENING DAY BASEBALL
IN UNION COUNTY
SATURDAY, MARCH 31:
New Brunswick at New Providence, 10 a.m.
Gov. Livingston at Elizabeth, 11 a.m.
Cranford at Scotch Plains, 11 a.m.
Johnson at Ocean Township, 11 a.m.
Middlesex at Union, 11:30 a.m.
Plainfield at Union Catholic, 11:30 a.m.
UNION COUNTY CONFERENCE
FINAL BASEBALL STANDINGS
FOR 2017 SEASON:
THE DIVISIONS ARE THE SAME FOR 2018
WATCHUNG DIVISION (6 schools):
1-Gov. Livingston (8-2) – champions
3-Scotch Plains (5-4)
Not played: Scotch Plains at Westfield
MOUNTAIN DIVISION (5 schools):
1-Summit (6-2) – champions
2-Union Catholic (5-3)
4-New Providence (4-4)
VALLEY DIVISION (6 schools):
1-Roselle Park (9-1) – champions
5-Oratory Prep (3-7)
6-Roselle Catholic (0-10)
SKY DIVISION (4 schools):
1-Plainfield (6-0) – champions
4-St. Mary’s, Elizabeth (0-5)
Not played: Hillside at St. Mary’s
2018 UNION COUNTY TOURNAMENT DATES:
Seeding – Monday, April 23
Preliminary round – Thursday, April 26
First round – Saturday, April 28
Quarterfinals – Saturday, May 5
Semifinals – Saturday, May 12 at Cranford
Final – Sunday, May 13 (Mother’s Day) at Kean University
WINNINGEST UNION COUNTY BASEBALL COACHES:
Ray Korn (Roselle Catholic, 1974-1979; Elizabeth 1980-2009) 651-308-1 (.679)
Gordon LeMatty (Union, 1959-1991) 641-272-4 (.702)
Bob Brewster (Westfield, 1983-present) 611-308-3 (.665)