Jackson Memorial coach Frank Malta calls Matt Potok, his big righthander, “a flatliner. Matt is resilient. He’s doesn’t let anything bother him on the mound.”
The 6-3, 206-pound Potok has indeed built a reputation for being unflappable on the mound. When that steely demeanor is paired with an 85 mile-per-hour fastball, it’s no wonder the rising high school junior has attracted the attention of top Division 1 programs.
While Potok surely enjoyed the attention, he did want to prolong the recruiting process, preferring to put his college decision behind him this summer. So, last week, Potok gave his verbal commitment to 2016 College World Series champion Coastal Carolina.
“Coastal has been my dream school for a long time,” said Potok, who just returned with his Diamond Jacks Super 16U teammates from a Perfect Game event in Georgia. “It’s a big relief to get it done.” He also had offers from Elon University and Boston College coming off a 7-1 high school season in which he posted a 0.79 ERA. Potok also struck out 24 and walked just three batters in 26.1 innings. He permitted just three earned runs.
“We knew coming into the season that Matt was 1-2 in our rotation, right there with (Nick) Beetel,” said Malta. “He came up late in the season as a freshman and won a few games. He answers all the bells. The big thing was his resiliency but his off-speed stuff has always been advanced for his age.” Potok went 3-0 with a 1.62 ERA as a freshman and is already 10-1 just halfway through his high school career.
Potok boasts that hard fastball that is a bit advanced for his grade level, too, but has spent a great deal of time working on his slider and changeup, which he says he can throw, “maybe 10 times in a game.” The slider is more of a work in progress that Potok picked up fairly quickly with the help of another Diamond Jack.
“Gavin Stellpflug throws a good slider and he showed me how he throws it,” said Potok. “He worked with me on the grip and the release point.” Stellpflug, a rising senior righthander at Somerville High School, has committed to Maryland. He plays for the Diamond Jacks Super 17 squad.
“I’ve been struggling with it a little bit lately,” said Potok of his slider. “It’s coming up a little short, so I’m working on my arm slot.” Still, Potok is 6-1 this summer with the Super 16U squad. “I’ve pitched well. I’m not giving up many hard hit balls and I’m getting a lot of ground balls.”
Malta believes Potok has all the qualities, and more, that Division 1 college coaches look for in a player.
“College coaches ask me all the time if a kid is a competitor,” says Malta. “Matt is a competitor. He’s a bulldog. He’s not a kid that’s going to hop around on the mound all pumped up. Even better, nothing bothers him. He’s very unassuming and relaxed. When he steps on the mound you can see by his eyes and his demeanor that he is a real competitor.”
Potok recognized that attribute in himself. When asked about his strengths on the mound, his first response was, “Mentally, I don’t get fazed by anything,” he said. “If someone hits a home run or gets a big hit, I put it right behind me.”
The Coastal Carolina coaching staff is a familiar one to the Garden State as assistant coaches Matt Schilling and Kevin Schnall grew up in Mercer County. Schilling is from Hightstown and Schnall is from Hamilton. Coincidentally, Potok’s neighbor, Al Goldberg, is a Coastal Carolina grad, having played baseball at the South Carolina school in the 1980s.
Anthony Veneziano, a lefthanded pitcher from Warren Hills, is a rising junior at Coastal Carolina, which was 36-26-1 in 2019. Of recent vintage, St. Joseph of Montvale grad Tommy LaStella played at Coastal in 2010 and 2011, earning First Team All-America as a senior. The Los Angeles Angels second baseman became Coastal Carolina’s first-ever Major League All-Star when he was named to the American League team last week.
Coastal Carolina’s staff now gets to watch Potok develop the next two years under the direction of the Diamond Jacks staff and Jackson’s Malta, who many consider one of the top scholastic coaches in New Jersey.
“Matt is no longer the new kid,” says Malta. “He’s a dude. He’s walked the walk. Now we are looking for him to be a leader with us.” That leadership is starting to show, says Malta, in terms of off-season training. “He’s doing the things he needs to do to get better. He’s in the weight room getting stronger. He’s bought in.”
Jackson was 20-3 and ranked No. 7 in the state by NJ.com when it was stunned by 15th-seeded Cherokee, 5-2, in a an NJSIAA South Jersey, Group 4 first round sectional game. The eight-inning loss to a team that was 7-12 at the time was a crushing end to an otherwise excellent season. Such is the fragile nature of the NJSIAA single-elimination tournament.
“I was pleased with my season but it was a tough ending,” said Potok. “We are working hard in the weight room right now getting stronger.”