Senior All-Star Games cap terrific rebound season

By Bob Behre | June 16, 2021

Jay Bant of Wall had a triple, double and three RBI in the Senior All-Star Games at Diamond Nation.

The New Jersey Scholastic Baseball Coaches Association set the table and the graduating class put on an excellent show, as usual, in the 43rd Senior All-Star Games at Diamond Nation in Flemington.

The annual event honors the top 100 high school seniors in the Garden State and year-after-year boasts a competitive yet community-like atmosphere that is hard to beat.

That tightly wound family is New Jersey’s baseball community, one that just experienced a terrific, inspiring season in the wake of a 2020 season decimated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Baseball is thoroughly back in business at every level in the Garden State and nothing says it better than an entertaining evening that honors its finest.

The Central and Northeast teams won the nine-inning games as the Central defeated the Northwest team, 10-2, and the Northeast squad prevailed over the South, 6-4.

Jay Bant of Wall helped ignite the Central offense, delivering three runs with a two-run triple to right-center field in the second inning and later added an RBI double to left to extend the Central the lead to 7-2.

“I was really looking for the first fastball I saw in the zone,” said Bant, who laced his double on a first-pitch fastball. “If I get it I’ll swing.” He did sit nicely on an 0-2 curveball in his first at bat to launch his triple into the gap. “I was relaxed. I knew most of the guys from playing them in tournaments. I was just being aggressive and having fun.”

Lefty-hitting Nick Czarnecki of Hunterdon Central followed Bant’s triple in the second with a triple of his own to left-center field, chasing Bant home for an early 6-0 lead.

Westfield coach Bob Brewster, center, receives the NJSBCA Man of the Year award from Sam Tropiano, left, and Frank Malta.

Pope John’s Mike Bello went 1-for-3 with a single for the Northeast and was robbed of a hit his first at bat when his shot ricocheted off the pitcher for a 1-4-3 out at first base. The Auburn-bound Bello certainly knows how to get on base, having mashed for 111 career hits in just three high school seasons. That number is fourth all-time for the Lions.

Bello batted .514 this spring and 18 of his 37 hits were for extra-bases. Equally remarkable, Bello struck out just once. He leaves Sunday for Auburn.

“I’m going down right away and I’m taking two classes,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it.”

Bello estimates he’s played 35 games at Diamond Nation but that number could be even higher, considering he’s played at the facility since he was 10 years-old.

“It’s a great atmosphere here,” he said. “There’s nothing like Diamond Nation in New Jersey. I remember playing here at 10, 11 and 12 years old on the (converted) fields with the portable fences.” So it was appropriate that Pope John’s hit machine concluded his time at Diamond Nation with a single through the left side.

The four Senior All-Star teams lineup for pre-game introductions on Tuesday at Diamond Nation.

Roxbury’s Jack Findlay is bound for Notre Dame and one can see why. He handled three very good Central hitters in a 1-2-3 bottom of the third inning for the Northwest.

Findlay induced Immaculata’s Alex Duffey to ground out to first on a 3-2 pitch. He got Edison’s Walker Zampella looking at a 2-2 curveball for strike three. Then he got Wall’s Max Kaplan to fly out to right field.

“I’m exciting to playing with the best guys in the state,” said Findlay. “I pitched a week ago, so was on normal rest and felt good.”

Findlay threw three straight balls to leadoff batter Duffey. “I had a lot of adrenaline going there. I had to calm myself down. It was a lot of fun.”

Catcher Brock Mercado of St. Joseph’s Academy had a terrific sequence behind the plate in the fifth inning for the South team. Mercado snared a chopper high above home plate and fired to first for the out. He then threw a laser to second to catch a runner attempting to steal. Finally, he pounced on a swinging bunt on the left side and gunned the runner out at first base.

“It’s always fun to play baseball,” said Mercado, who had also played Tuesday afternoon in the Carpenter Cup with his Tri-Cape Conference teammates. “This is a treat playing here. I know guys on the team I’ve played travel with.” Mercado played last summer for Baseball Performance Center.

Former CBA coach Marty Kenney, center, receives NJSBCA Hall of Fame plaque from NJSIAA’s Jack DuBois and Frank Malta.

Jack Coriddi of Delaware Valley was a pain in the neck to get out all season as the Northwest team found out in the All-Star Game. Coriddi hit a hot grounder toward the middle that was knocked down by the diving second baseman. Coriddi, nonetheless, beat it out for an infield single in the bottom of the eighth.

Millburn’s Dan Cifu’s reputation is secure for his clutch pitching this season. Cifu went 8-0 and defeated such high flyers as Cranford – in the North Jersey, Section 2, Group 3 final – and Seton Hall Prep. Cifu was tough to get to this spring with a severe overhand delivery that causes his fastball a rise. His curveball is quite a complement to it.

But at 5-8 and 150 pounds, Dan is not what one expects to see on the mound at an All-Star game. Cifu, however, is a man of many talents. Besides his skills on the diamond, Dan carries a 1-handicap at his home course, Trump National, and has run the 5K in 19 minutes for his school’s cross-country team.

The golf and cross-country may explain the Cifu’s following statement.

“I’ve never been here. It’s pretty cool,” he said. Yes, Cifu was likely the only player in the Senior All-Star Games to never play a baseball game at Diamond Nation. “I never really played travel. It’s a nice field. I’m not a big turf guy.”

Cifu, bound for Michigan, certainly got his money’s worth, as the saying goes, in his one inning of work for the Northwest team. He threw a total of 40 pitches while striking out the side. But he did allow three runs on two hits and three walks.

“It was cool,” said Cifu after his marathon inning. “I never faced any of these guys and some of them are the best players in the state. I didn’t have my best stuff. My arm felt dead. But it was fun.” Cifu’s next stop is Michigan.

Westfield coach Bob Brewster was named the Joseph B. Hartmann Baseball Man of the Year. Brewster told his players on Monday he had decided to retire after a remarkable 38-year career that placed him No. 1 in Union County and ninth overall in career victories in the state.

Brewster passed both Gordon LeMatty (641-272-4) and Ray Korn (651-308-1) this season as his Blue Devils went 14-12 and reached yet another Union County Tournament championship game.

“I coached against both of those guys,” said Brewster, who witnessed Westfield’s first UCT championship as a middle school student and was the catcher on Westfield’s 1966 and ’68 UCT championship teams. He then, as an assistant, coached first base during the Blue Devils’ 1978 championship victory. And he’s been the head coach for the other 11 UCT crowns, so Brewster has been present for all 15 of Westfield’s UCT titles.

Brewster’s teams reached the county championship game 20 times. His teams also played in three NJSIAA Group 4 championship games, won four sectional titles and played in six sectional championship games.

All that success still found him a bit humbled in the presence of his high school baseball peers at Diamond Nation on Tuesday night.

“When you hear some of those names, it’s impressive,” said Brewster. “There were 1,300 wins out there.” Brewster was referring to two other honorees, Marty Kenney of Christian Brothers Academy and Dennis Barth of Gloucester Catholic. Kenney and Barth were inducted into the NJSBCA Russ Spicer Hall of Famer. The retired Kenney is second all-time with 832 career victories. Barth has 507 career wins.

There were a lot more wins in front of Brewster, including awards presenters Frank Malta and Sam Tropiano. Malta, the former Jackson Memorial coach and now the East Brunswick athletic director, won 364 games. Longtime Bishop Eustace mentor Tropiano is sixth all-time with 707 victories.

Bill Gore, right, presents NJSBCA Hall of Fame plaque to Gloucester Catholic coach Dennis Barth.

The other Hall of Famers were Dennis Arnold of Pompton Lakes, who won 407 games in a 26-year career, and the late Dave Minsavage of Hanover Park, who boasted a 335-173 career mark that including the 1997 and 2006 NJSIAA Group 2 championships. Dave was also named The Star-Ledger State Coach of the Year in 2006. The entire Minsavage family was on hand for the presentation. Dave’s two sons played their high school ball for Immaculata and son Pete is a Diamond Jack coach at Diamond Nation.

Longtime NJSIAA assistant director Jack DuBois was his affable self at the Senior All-Star Games, an event he was very much involved in organizing over the years.

DuBois announced his retirement in December after 52 years in high school athletics and seemed to be thoroughly enjoying his last Senior All-Star Games. DuBois’ baseball and athletics experience began as an athlete at St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark. He later coached and was the athletic director at St. John Vianney. He moved on to A.D. spots at Manchester Twp. and Morris Hills before landing at the NJSIAA 20 years ago.

Matt Manley and J.R. Parachini, two baseball-loving sportswriters, received the Mike Stang Service Award.

Manley is very much familiar to players and coaches in the Shore area for his excellent coverage for Shore Sports Network. It’s a busy beat all school year covering 48 Shore Conference teams in multi sports, but it’s baseball that is Manley’s first love.

Gov. Livingston coach Chris Roof, center, presents NJSBCA Hall of Fame plaque to the family of the late Dave Minsavage.

The former Asbury Park Press reporter and Rutgers grad has been with All-Shore Media since 2009.

“I love baseball,” said Manley, “So to have people entrenched in the game recognize your work is pretty nice. You grow up loving a lot of sports. I certainly remember Michael Jordan’s years well, but my love for baseball in unconditional. There is just so much to latch onto.”

Parachini has covered high school sports since 1982 and Union County in particular since 1991. He has been the Union County sports editor since for Worrall Community Newspapers since that time and is also a fixture with Sidelinechatter.com since 2004.

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