Matt Kalinak never lacked for ability or a knack for impressing his coaches for his hard work and versatility on the field. But it took one seemingly uneventful decision to realign his opinion of his own abilities.
Kalinak, now a senior at Gill St. Bernard’s, was elevated to the Diamond Jacks Super 17 2021 team entering the 2020 season.
“This summer was my first on a Diamond Jack ‘Super’ team,” said Kalinak, a 6-0, 175-pound middle infielder with equal ability as an outfielder. “I knew all the guys, obviously but I wasn’t expecting to come up and perform like I did. I didn’t see much of a difference from my Gold team.”
Aiding Kalinak in that transition was the fact he was joining two teammates, Alex Duffey and fellow Branchburg native Matt Miceli, who he had played with before. “I felt like I was the new guy, but it didn’t take long to settle in,” said Kalinak. “I knew I belonged after the first tournament. Two kids I played with since I was 8, Matt and Alex, helped a lot. Once I saw the results, my game got so much better. I know I had it all along. I just needed that confidence boost.“
Kalinak’s successful summer and surging confidence would bear fruit in the form of convincing college recruiters that the ability that had seen earlier was indeed blossoming. Kalinak would turn a strong summer into a productive fall and, subsequently, a December commitment to Division 3 Clark University in Worcester, Mass.
Kalinak had actually begun drawing interest from college coaches as a result of his performance at a local Prep Baseball Report (PBR) showcase in January on 2020.
“I played well at the PBR showcase and a couple coaches texted me after,” says Kalinak. “Clark coach (Billy) Cather was one of them. He told me about their program and I was really interested. They saw me at a couple tournaments this summer. We kept in contact. At that point I was getting good advice about finding a place where I would be happy and could play right away. That made Clark No. 1 for me.”
A visit to Clark on Nov. 24 would firm up Kalinak’s opinion of the school and crystalize the most important decision of his young life.
“When I walked on the campus it seemed like everyone knew each other, “ said Kalinak of the 3,100-student university. “It was a very friendly environment. And the baseball facilities are beautiful. They have a turf field, which I really like, having played at Diamond Nation pretty much my whole life. It definitely looked like they take pride in their baseball program.
“And the potential to play as a freshman is something I really like.” Kalinak committed on Dec. 16. He plans to study business management.
The corona virus pandemic laid waste to the 2020 season and perhaps a potentially special one for Kalinak’s Gill St. Bernard’s team. That’s what creates even more urgency to this winter’s workouts for Kalinak and his baseball brethren.
“I’m focusing on getting stronger,” said Kalinak. “I want to get to 185 pounds. I’ve been hitting the weight room a lot. Our team has held captains practices. I’m getting in the cages as much as possible. I started throwing last month and I’m working with a buddy from Gill. We are doing a velo program together.
Kalinak is one of just three seniors this year at Gill and the trio has formed quite a bond.
“This spring definitely means more to us,” says Kalinak. “For me and Jake Sempervive and Joe Skapinetz. We created a friendship that will last forever. We came in together as freshmen and we all started. Coach (Dave) Pasquale says he never saw three guys work so hard together.”
The trio of seniors is actually providing the type of leadership Pasquale could only hope for.
“The three of them put together workout routines and off-campus practices,” says Pasquale. “I think they are anxious to provide our younger guys what they got from the seniors when they were freshmen.”
Pasquale turned over his shortstop position in 2019 to the sophomore Kalinak, a spot vacated by graduated fellow Diamond Jack Ryan Morash, who had made off to Hofstra University. All Morash left behind as an example was a school record 153 career hits.
Morash’s 153 hits will likely stand for quite a while at Gill as will his mark on the program as a leader. Kalinak clearly drew some benefits from that leadership as a neophyte freshman.
“Ryan had a big influence on me my freshman year,” says Kalinak. “He was a big role model. She showed me how the game was to be played. He was a senior I looked up to.”
Though he started as a freshman, Kalinak truly broke out his sophomore season when Gill made a concerted run at an NJSIAA Parochial B championship. Kalinak was slotted in the leadoff spot and batted .355, scored 31 runs and drew 22 walks while posting a gaudy .519 on-base percentage. Pasquale had found himself the perfect ignition to Gill’s engine.
That 2019 Gill squad reached the NP-B North final where it dropped a 2-1 decision to St. Mary of Rutherford. St. Mary then won the NP-B state championship a couple days later. The big-game atmosphere did not overwhelm Kalinak, who went 2-for-3 against St. Mary and drew a walk.
“We are proud of how we played in 2019 but I think this season will be our best,” says Kalinak.
“Matt had big shoes to fill when we put him at shortstop sophomore year,” says Pasquale. “Ryan was a four-year starter and set our hits record. But you watch Matt play and he just does everything right. He’s fundamentally sound, athletic and doesn’t make mistakes, which is critical in baseball.
“On top of that, he’s versatile. He came in as a middle infielder and has started in left field and center field for us.”
That versatility likely aided Kalinak in the recruiting game as well.
“Coach Pasquale broaden my horizons,” says Kalinak. “I’m not just a middle infielder who hits a couple singles a game. He started me in left field as a freshman and I got comfortable in the outfield. I did well in left and he moved me to center toward the middle of the season. That’s when I realized I wasn’t just a one-position guy. I was an athlete. That translated well to the Diamond Jacks heading into the summer.”
Pasquale said Kalinak didn’t say more than 10 words his freshman season but has since come out of his shell. And that has been seen in the senior’s approach at the plate. “It took Matt a while to get his feet under him but he gradually developed into a leader,” says Pasquale
“I used to go up to the plate just looking for contact,” says Kalinak. Then one of his Diamond Jack coaches, Walter Cleary, got into his head a bit. “Coach Walt told me my approach was all wrong. I should go up to the plate swinging hard and looking to drive the baseball. He brought me out of my shell and helped me with my confidence as a hitter.”
Kalinak’s consistent hard work contributed to his development at the plate. Few things in the developmental process happen overnight.
“I hit with Matt a couple years and had the opportunity to coach him a couple seasons,” says Cleary of his student who joined the Diamond Jacks as a 13 year old. “After Matt’s 15U year, he started to make big jumps physically and athletically. He started to find the barrel more and continued to move up in the order. Than he found himself jumping up to our Super team.”
It will be fun to watch Kalinak’s continued development this spring at Gill and, starting next fall, at Clark University.
Extra Innings: Clark coach Billy Cather is in his third season with the Cougars. He was drafted in the 33rd round of the 2010 draft by the Washington Nationals. He chose a year of Independent ball instead and the outfielder batted .302 in 62 games for Worcester of the Canadian American Association. … Kalinak’s Diamond Jack teammates Miceli and Duffey have committed to Division 1 schools Stony Brook and Elon University, respectively. … Dave Pasquale has coached at Gill St. Bernard’s 10 years and was at Newark Academy prior. He boasts a career record of 304-193. Joe Skapinetz’ no-hitter in May of 2019 gave Pasquale a 1-0 victory over Bernards High School and his 300th career win in style. … Three players with New Jersey roots are on the 2021 Clark University roster. They are John Limaldi, a sophomore lefty from Howell, Sean Savage, a junior righty from Gov. Livingston, and Casey Gorczyca, a freshman righty from Parsippany Hills.