By Bob Behre
It’s no secret that when the HealthQuest Sports Dome rose above the Flemington, N.J. area in December of 2002, the perception of what constituted off-season baseball training was drastically altered and helped to completely change the recruiting dynamic in the northeast region of the country.
Subsequently, Jack Cust Baseball Academy became the heartbeat of off-season baseball in New Jersey. JCBA preceded the construction of Diamond Nation’s all-weather baseball and softball complex in 2009 and what had been primarily a spring/summer and sometimes fall sport in the area, added the winter months to the mix.
The latest generation of New Jersey baseball players is the beneficiaries of this dynamic change in the sport.
All-State lefthander Joey DeChiaro’s visit to Old Dominion University -- his college of choice -- recently provides a snapchat of the drastically changed opportunities for players in the northeast.
DeChiaro, who has already won two NJSIAA Group 4 championships at Hunterdon Central, is pictured here with three other New Jersey high school seniors; Noah Dean of Pinelands, Robbie Petracci of Egg Harbor Twp. and Andrea Dalatri of Christian Brothers Academy. Each has committed to play baseball in September of 2019 at Norfolk, Virginia-based Old Dominion. The Monarchs have more than just a passing interest in New Jersey baseball players.
The program currently boasts eight players with New Jersey roots, two of which grew up a stone’s throw from Diamond Nation. North Hunterdon (Annandale) grads John Wilson, a lefty pitcher, and Matt Busher, a righthander, also call Old Dominion their college home. Wilson, a junior, missed his sophomore season due to an arm injury after putting forth an outstanding freshman campaign. Busher is a freshman about to begin his first college season.
DeChiaro, a longtime Diamond Jack, and Busher have an opportunity to join Wilson and give Old Dominion a trio of Hunterdon County, N.J. pitchers on its staff in 2020. The lefty-throwing Dean, Petracci, an outfielder, and Dalatri, a third baseman, bolster a Monarch roster with a strong Garden State flavor. The team already features Jim Flake, a senior righthander from Lenape Valley, Morgan Maguire, a senior righty from Rumson, Will Morgan, a senior outfielder from CBA, Connor Muly, a sophomore righty from Manasquan, Kevin Teschko, a freshman righty from Gateway, and Kevin’s twin brother Ryan, a freshman outfielder.
The amount of players who’ve graduated the Diamond Jacks program at Diamond Nation and go on to top baseball programs in the south is stunning. Current high school players in the Diamond Jacks program to commit to southern schools include Nick Maldonado (Vanderbilt), Jack Eichler (Georgia Southern), Donovan Zsak (Virginia), Alex Stone (Duke), Luke Storm (Duke) and Adam Boucher (Duke). K.C. Hunt, a senior at Ramapo High School, played with the Diamond Jacks’ Super 17 squad and has committed to Mississippi State. Stephen Reid, a senior at Gov. Livingston, spent much of his youth career as a Diamond Jack and has committed to Georgia Tech.
Recent grads Christian Hlinka and Brandon Hylton are playing at Virginia and Stetson, respectively. Of course, Anthony Volpe, a senior at Delbarton, played several years with the Diamond Jacks. Volpe, an outstanding shortstop, won a World Championship in 2013 in Taiwan with Team USA’s 12U team, a bronze medal in 2016 in Japan with Team USA’s 15U squad and, last weekend in Panama, captured the Pan-American championship with Team USA’s 18U squad.
This, of course, does not mention the many players who’ve utilized Jack Cust Baseball Academy since 2002 and Diamond Nation since 2009 as a building ground and a showcase for their talents, often leading to careers at the collegiate and professional level.