By Bob Behre
When you link New Jersey and Florida in the same chain of thought, you think of snowbirds and early-bird specials. Thanks to Stetson baseball head coach Steve Trimper, New Jersey and Florida suddenly have more of an intrinsic relationship.
Trimper, you see, was raised in the tiny Sussex County, N.J. berg of Newton and has deep local knowledge when it comes to baseball talent in the Garden State. This explains why the Stetson baseball roster has a noticeable New Jersey flavor to it.
Longtime Diamond Jack Brandon Hylton is a freshman first baseman at Stetson and is joined by Garden Staters Robbie Peto of Monroe, a redshirt sophomore righthander, and Jon Meola of Toms River East, a senior third baseman and returning starter on a team that reached an NCAA super regional last spring.
“My first few months here have been both challenging and thrilling,” said Hylton. “I wake up, go to practice, have class and go back to the field to end my day with more baseball. It’s the life I’ve been dreaming about since I was a kid.”
Trimper, coming off a dream season as a coach, played collegiately at Division 3 power Eastern Connecticut State University and made four coaching stops before landing at Stetson. He experienced successful coaching stops at University of Vermont (1994-’98), Manhattan College (‘98-’05) and University of Maine (2005-’16). In fact, Trimper has been named Coach of the Year in three separate conferences.
Under Trimper’s guidance, Stetson finished its 2018 season at 48-13 and won its conference and region championships on the way to a No. 10 ranking in the final Collegiate Baseball Top 25. So, yes, Stetson means business in the world of NCAA Division 1 baseball and, with Trimper at the helm, can expect to keep the pedal to the metal.
“I am beyond confident we will repeat the great year our team had last year,” says Hylton.
The imposing Hylton had a spectacular experience as a Diamond Jack and produced impressively for his high school teams, first Watchung Hills then Ridge, to which he transferred for his senior season. A 6-7, 230-pound lefty hitting stud, Hylton turned heads among collegiate as well as professional scouts. He was drafted last June by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 33rd round before choosing to polish his skills under Trimper’s tutelage.
“Brandon is phenomenal,” said Trimper. “He’s one of our best hitters. He’ll start at first base and DH right away. We found out about him from (Montclair State head coach) Jared Holowaty. We saw a video and flew up to see him at Diamond Nation. We knew he played for a great program and was a super athletic kid with great lefty power. Once he visited Stetson and saw the stadium and campus he loved it. It’s a beautiful campus and the City of Deland (Florida) is a good college town. Brandon’s family was really impressed. I think a little of our Jersey influence helped us. I credit Jared and guys like (Gov. Livingston coach) Chris Roof for their help, too. They both said we had to see this kid. I played for Jared’s dad, Bill Holowaty, at East Connecticut State.”
Bill Holowaty won four Division 3 championships at ECS.
Peto, a 6-4, 215-pound hard-throwing righthander, led Monroe High School to new heights in the sport of baseball behind a powerful right arm that registered a 15-5 career record with 182 strikeouts in 118.2 innings. He pitched three no-hitters in his high school career and committed to the University of North Carolina. Shortly before the end of his senior year of high school, Peto was drafted in the 30th round by the Los Angeles Angels.
After a redshirt freshman season at UNC, Peto opted for junior college where he made 10 starts, went 3-2 and recorded 10.23 strikeouts per nine innings. His performance still strong and his stock still high, Peto would choose Stetson over Florida State, Clemson and South Florida to begin the remainder of his collegiate career in 2019.
“Robbie was a high profile kid out of high school,” said Trimper. “He went to Carolina then transferred to Manatee. We certainly knew about him and had him in early. Then we found out he was close to Meola.”
Peto offered another bonus. His arm.
“Robbie is a big time power arm,” says Trimper. “Our pitching led the nation in every category last year but we lost some guys and needed an infusion for our depth. We were super excited when Robbie committed. He gives us a great 1-2 punch with Mitchell Senger, who played for Team USA this summer.” Senger was 9-2 as a sophomore last year, boasting a 2.51 ERA with 114 strikeouts and just 28 walks in 93.1 innings. He’s a pre-season All-American.
“Senger will go on Fridays and Robbie will pitch Saturdays. Robbie’s a hard-throwing guy. We’ve had him up to 96-97 on the gun. He’s a redshirt sophomore who’s eligible for the draft, so he has bargaining power.” Peto and the rest of the Stetson staff is under the direction of pitching coach Dave Therneau, who was just named the National Pitching Coach of the Year by the American Baseball Coaches Association.
“Robbie and Dave have really gelled,” said Trimper. “Dave has worked with Robbie on his approach in getting ready for his starts.”
Meola, the son of U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame member Tony Meola who played in goal for three U.S. World Cup teams, is the more proven commodity among his New Jersey teammates. Built in similar fashion to his dad, Jon is a rugged 6-0, 210-pound infielder. He shined at Toms River East High School, playing in the highly competitive Shore Conference, where he also starred in soccer and basketball. He batted .405 his senior season at Toms River East and scored 19 goals in 22 soccer games. He committed to Virginia out of high school but after playing just five games as a freshman, transferred to Seminole State College. From there Meola chose Stetson over Central Florida and South Florida.
Last season, Meola produced for Stetson at the most optimum times. An outstanding defender at third base, Jonathan propped up an ordinary regular season batting average when he batted .312 during the team’s 18-game winning streak. He then took the postseason by storm, batting .333 in the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament. Stetson won the ASUN tournament and Meola would have consecutive three-hit games against Oklahoma State in regional play. The team’s season would end with a loss to North Carolina in the Super Region. Meola hit his first home run of the season in that game. The Toms River native would bat .500 overall in NCAA play.
“Jon is an intriguing character as a ball player,” said Trimper. “He’s one of the most athletic players I’ve been around and the best defensive player I’ve coached. He not only makes the routine plays but he makes the big play, too. He’s a big, physical guy.”
Meola struggled at the plate as a college freshman and sophomore, but things changed for him at the plate as a junior. “We re-tooled his swing last year and he really took off for us,” says Trimper. “If I was to tell you Jon’s biggest improvement, it would be his swing and his approach. I would put money down that he’s going to have a monster year this year. He’s only a bit away from being a draftable kid. He has an opportunity to turn some heads this season.”
For Hylton, playing college ball with a couple other Jersey guys goes a long way.
“Knowing I’m teaming up alongside very talented New Jersey players like Jon Meola and Robbie Peto just shows New Jersey kids are not afraid of the competition in the south,” said Hylton. “They came to Stetson to join a winning tradition as I did.”
While Trimper prepares Stetson for its first day of full team practice on Jan. 25 and its Feb. 15 opener at home against Manhattan, it’s worth taking a look at how far the 1988 Kittatinny High School (Newton) grad has come, because the route from Kittatinny-to-Stetson University, a major player in Division 1 baseball, isn’t exactly a straight one.
The route to Stetson, for Trimper, would best be described as a patient and determined one.
After his days at Kittatinny, playing in the Sussex County Interscholastic League, Trimper played Division 3 ball at Eastern Connecticut State and would begin his college coaching career almost immediately after. He was an assistant at Wentworth for two years before taking an assistant head coach gig at the University of Vermont. His first head-coaching job was at basketball-crazy Manhattan College, where he posted a 172-174-2 record in 1998-2005, certainly admirable given that program’s humble beginnings. He was named MAAC Conference Coach of the Year in 2002.
Trimper moved on to the University of Maine head job in 2006, posting a 309-292-2 record through 2016. “I’m a Jersey boy,” says Trimper. “I played SCIL ball. New Jersey is known as a great baseball state. I spent much of my career in the northeast and recruited New Jersey heavily. But Maine was a little different. It was difficult to get New Jersey kids to Maine. We had an easier time getting Florida kids to Maine, strange as that sounds. My biggest obstacle was I had to recruit early because once a school came in that could flash a palm tree at a New Jersey kid, you lost him. That was my first thought when Stetson hired me. In fact, two kids who had signed at Maine followed me to Stetson.”
The move to Stetson was certainly career altering for Trimper and he wasted no time putting his staff together and jumping in the recruiting pool with the top southern schools.
“Once our staff was in place we went about recruiting Florida and we felt strongly about competing for northeast kids, taking a page from Virginia, Vanderbilt and North Carolina,” said Trimper. “We were excited to get up there. Jon Meola was a kid we tried to get out of high school but he ended up at Virginia. He later landed at Seminole College, just 30 minutes away. We were able to get him to transfer in. Then our next big one was Hylton.”
After Stetson won the Atlantic Sun Conference title last May, it played host to an NCAA Regional Tournament and darned if they didn’t go out and win it.
“That opened a lot of doors for us nationally,” said Trimper. Stetson would fall to North Carolina in the Super Regional, just two wins of a trip to Omaha and the 2018 College World Series.
Trimper has certainly earned the respect of his college-coaching peers, too, and this comment was delivered by one of the top coaches in the nation upon the Newton native’s arrival at Stetson.
“Steve is one of those coaches who has made the most of every situation,” said Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin. “From his days as a recruiter at Vermont, to head coach at Manhattan and Maine, Steve has been able to cultivate strong programs while maximizing his resources. He has tremendous positive energy and will transition well into a program that has been led by one of the nation’s finest coaches (Pete Dunn).”
“The Northeast and New Jersey are going to be very big targets for us,” said Trimper. “We’d like to get 2, 3, 4 or 5 players. I have a lot of New Jersey ties, like Chris Roof, who is a hell of a coach and a good friend. He’s always helped me with kids. New Jersey is a heck of a baseball state, a very good athletic state. It gets overlooked from a national standpoint at times. The list of successful players the past 25-30 years is outstanding. There’s 15-20 New Jersey products getting drafted every year. You love New Jersey guys because they have that swag, that chip on their shoulder.”
Stetson would conclude 2018 at 48-13 and ranked between No. 10 and No. 13 in five separate national polls as Trimper earned his third college Coach of the Year honor, this time by the ASUN Conference.
“It was rewarding to see the guys have that kind of success,” said Trimper. “My father was the athletic director at Hopatcong and a wrestling and football coach at Kittatinny. That's where I got that work ethic, playing three sports against good talent.”
Trimper experienced winning at a high level as a player, too, as his Newton American Legion team won a state championship at Breslin Field in Lyndhurst. His 40-6 Eastern Connecticut State squad won a Division 3 national title in 1990 in Battle Creek, Michigan.
The ultimate championship for Trimper, of course, would take place in Omaha.