Jackson Memorial coach Frank Malta departs after 16 seasons. (Photo credit Bill Normile, Shoresportsmedia.com.
When Matt Potok and his Jackson Memorial teammates were summoned to a zoom meeting by their baseball coach last week, no one had an inkling what was coming from Frank Malta.
Malta had guided Jackson Memorial, most recently, to the championship game of last July’s Last Dance Tournament and to the 2018 NJSIAA South Jersey, Group 4 title. His 2014 Jaguars won the state Group 4 crown. Malta’s prized pupil is Los Angeles Angels corner infielder Matt Thaiss, an All-State catcher at Jackson and former NJ Super 17 player.
Malta elevated the Ocean County program over the past 16 years to perennial statewide prominence. But the 2020 season would prove, indeed, to be Malta’s “Last Dance” with the Jags. Malta informed his team that he had accepted the position of Supervisor of Athletics at East Brunswick High School.
“I was shocked,” said Potok, a 6-4, 225-pound senior righty committed to Coastal Carolina. “We were all shocked. And sad. Coach Malta has been my coach for three years and now for my last year of high school I’m not going to have him there.”
It had been a whirlwind few weeks for Malta — who lives in East Brunswick with his wife and two daughters — since a position he had long aspired to seemingly fell into his lap.
“The opportunity presented itself and quickly a lot of boxes were checked off,” said Malta, who earned his administrative certificate way back in 2004. “I can’t tell you I was actively looking.”
Malta had given his undivided attention to his position as a physical education teacher and baseball coach at Jackson Memorial since 2005. His career aspirations in an administrative role remained a bit on hold as his Jaguar charges began to take the Shore Conference and the state by storm.
Malta’s Jackson Memorial teams won two Ocean County Tournament titles (2012 and ‘15), two Shore Conference Tournament crowns (2009 and ‘12), three NJSIAA sectional championships (2010, ‘14 and ‘18) and the Group 4 title in 2014. His 2010 team lost in the state Group 4 final to Randolph.
Baseball coaches coach but winning is always a preferred part of that. One can imagine winning at the level Malta was winning would be hard to leave behind.
Malta’s 16-year record at Jackson was 289-109, a .726 winning percentage that just does not happen at many public schools, never mind in the meat grinder that is the Shore Conference. Malta, an Elizabeth High grad, boasts a 364-168-1 career record that includes five years (75-59) at Group 2 Arthur L. Johnson in Clark.
“It’s bittersweet,” says Malta. “I love everything about Jackson. It’s a tough place to leave. I wouldn’t leave it for another baseball job.”
Malta recalls seeing the Jackson baseball opening in an advertisement in The Star-Ledger back in 2005. The excitement and possibilities that presented were surely similar to what he felt when East Brunswick High School began advertising for a new athletic director.
“To do an A.D. job correctly, you have to live close by,” says Malta. “You have to be willing to put your time in.” Malta’s older daughter Marisa is a junior and plays field hockey at East Brunswick. His younger daughter, Mia, is in eighth grade and is a gymnast.
“They girls are fine with it,” Malta says of their dad coming to work at their high school. “They’ll miss baseball, though. As they got older and could understand the sport, they got into it. It’s a new adventure for us for sure.”
When Malta picked up his administrator’s certificate in 2004, he knew the time wasn’t right to make that move. He was teaching at Johnson and in his fourth year coaching baseball, plus, he was just starting a family.
“It was tough enough on my wife during baseball season,” said Malta. “The girls are older now, Marisa is driving and East Brunswick High is right here. For me, as a competitor, this was the next challenge.”
And Malta’s Jackson players understand that part of it.
“We understand that this is a good thing for coach and his family,” says Potok, who played for the Diamond Jacks out of Diamond Nation for four years. “He’s putting his family in a good position. He told us this is one of the jobs he’s wanted for awhile and it’s a great opportunity.”
Malta says he began the interview process with East Brunswick before Christmas break. “I took that time to digest everything and talk about it with my wife,” he said. “The more I learned the more boxes were checked off. Still, it seems like it happened very quickly.” Malta’s wife, JoAnne, teaches math at a middle school in South Plainfield.
Malta and his players had no idea that the Last Dance Tournament would be the last time they’d compete as a team together. The event, organized by St. Joseph (Met.) coach Mike Murray, boasted 222 high school teams playing down to one championship. Malta’s Jackson team picked off Murray’s St. Joes squad in the quarterfinals and defeated Bishop Eustace in the semifinals to draw Cranford in the championship game. Cranford had stunned Don Bosco Prep then Delbarton to help forge an all-public school final.
Malta and his boys lost to Cranford, coached by his old Essex County League teammate Dennis McCaffery. The game pitted the two Union County natives, McCaffery a Roselle Park grad and Elizabeth’s Malta.
“Jackson always has a tough group of kids,” says McCaffery. “They battle the whole seven innings. They play hard. You know you’re always in for a game with them.” Malta had taken his Jackson team up to play Cranford over the years to play in the Dad’s Tournament in Roselle Park.
“Frank is just a great person,” says McCaffery, “always has been. He’s very humble and grounded. He’s great for the game of baseball. He was a remarkable player himself and it carried over into coaching. His kids are always well-prepared, always in the mix in the Shore Conference and always making state runs. No one was surprised they were in the Last Dance finals. Win or lose he is always a gentleman.”
McCaffery, who by the way boasts a 427-134 (.761) career record with three Group 3 championships, 11 sectional titles and nine Union County Tournament championships over 21 seasons, gave perhaps the best perspective on Malta’s departure from the dugout.
“If you do it right, there’s never a good time to leave.”
Malta never had a doubt he was doing what was right for him and his family, but that didn’t make it any easier to tell his players he wouldn’t be with them this spring.
“I dreaded having to tell them I was leaving,” said Malta. “They just kind of let me explain it all. Once I did that and they heard everything I had to say, all the reasons why, they were great. It just shows how great the Jackson kids are.”
The feelings for Malta remain strong among his troops.
“I love him. I’ll just say that,” says Potok, “as a coach and a person. He’s tough on us at times but he also liked to have fun. He had a good mix, a serious side but he was always able to have fun. Coach is a great guy and a helpful person. He’d help you with anything you needed.”
Jackson would boast an 8-1 record in the Last Dance, knocking off Brick Twp., Brick Memorial, Manalapan, Middlesex and Washington Twp. before capping its run to the final with huge wins over St. Joes and Bishop Eustace.
In retrospect, the Last Dance unknowingly gave Malta and his Jags one last glorious tournament run together.
“The thing I personally take from it is I got to have that feeling one more time,” said Malta. “That run in a tournament we’ve had with counties and states before. And the teams we played along the way in the Last Dance were a Who’s Who of high school baseball. Our guys loved it because those are teams you want to play.
“There is a feeling you get in those tournament games, watching your seniors play. ‘Just keep winning to stay together as long as we can’ was our rallying cry.”
There will be a time not long from now, in early spring, when Malta is hustling around the East Brunswick campus from game-to-game that a thought will cross his mind. “I’d normally be hitting I/O right now.”
“I don’t know how I’ll feel,” says Malta. “There will be a part of me, the baseball side, that will never go away. The challenges of my new job will occupy me. You find different things to motivate yourself. I anticipate loving the athletic director’s job but I don’t think I’ll ever not think of Jackson.”
To paraphrase McCaffery, that’s because Malta always did it right.