“Luck is the residue of hard work,” according to former Dodgers executive Branch Rickey, who would certainly know.
Seton Hall Prep coach Mike Sheppard, Jr. called himself lucky after his players showcased some serious lumber on the way to an 11-2 victory over Millburn that nailed down their coach’s career victory No. 800 on Monday.
The victory on a cool afternoon in Millburn enabled Sheppard, Jr. to join fellow scholastic baseball legends Kenny Frank of Toms River South and Marty Kenney of Christian Brothers Academy in the very exclusive Garden State 800 Club.
Anyone who has participated in or witnessed a Seton Hall Prep practice knows too well the hard work coach Sheppard puts in and the hard work he demands from his players. Sheppard’s attention to detail is legendary.
But when Sheppard, Jr. told his players after they had mashed 12 hits off of three Millburn pitchers that he felt lucky, it wasn’t for the lineup’s good fortune in, as Matt Monteleone put it afterward, “hunting fastballs.”
“I’m lucky,” he told his players in the post-game huddle, “to be coaching at such a great school with such great players. If you want to be successful in life, surround yourself with successful people. I certainly have that with my coaches, who are great baseball men. And God has blessed me with good health. I’m also lucky Msgr. Kelly offered me this job in 1985.” Assistant Frank Gately has been with Sheppard 31 years and has done an incredible job with Seton Hall’s pitchers and catchers.
Sheppard, Jr.’s career record improves to 800-210-5, which equates to a staggering .791 winning percentage. Sheppard, 62, is sure to pass the retired Kenney (832-349) sometime next season. His task in chasing down the irrepressible Frank for the top spot is complicated by a simple fact. The Indians’ longtime mentor is still charging forward at 74 years old. Frank, at 896-310-3, sits on the precipice of 900 wins.
Longtime Essex County scribe Steve Tober, now the Sideline Chatter website owner, asked Sheppard, Jr. if he had any intention of chasing down a 1,000th victory some day. That’s a number, by the way, that could put the all-time wins record to sleep for a very long time.
“I don’t know about that,” laughed Sheppard, Jr. “But I love coaching and plan to continue as long as I feel good. When it becomes a chore I’ll step aside.”
The chore, rather, has always been overcoming Sheppard’s Seton Hall Prep team. Since Sheppard won his 700th on April 20, 2016, his Pirates teams have gone 100-16-1, a winning percentage of .855. So, somehow, the old coach – 36 years in that third base box to be exact – may be getting better at this.
“Not to make coach Sheppard sound old, but when I was a player I knew Seton Hall stood for hustle, class and that his players played the game the right way,” said Millburn coach Brian Chapman (205-68), who won his 200th career game earlier this season and boasts a .751 winning percentage.
“We’ve had our battles but the underlining theme is that it has been good baseball. His teams play a little bit of old school ball, which is missing too much from the game today. He’s a legend and his teams play a brand of baseball that is the epitome of baseball at its best. And it is the kind of game worth emulating.”
The Pirates were certainly worth emulating on Monday when they extended their winning streak to nine games – they had opened the season at 1-2-1, including a 4-1 loss to Millburn on opening day. Monteleone, Seton Hall’s No. 9 hitter, delivered the first major blow to the Millers’ hopes for a regular season sweep against its Super Essex Conference rivals.
Ryan Sprock triggered the rally when he singled to right field with one out in the top of the second inning. Cole McGonigal drew a walk and Alex Kim dropped down a pretty bunt single to load the bases. Monteleone, who had hit a grand slam in a 7-6 loss to CBA on April 24, then worked the count to 3-2 on Millburn starter Drew Oppenheim (2-1).
“I was just trying to put something in play,” said the lefty-hitting Monteleone. “We like to say, ‘Hunt fastballs.’ I got one I liked and went hunting.” Monteleone drove the ball to deep right-center field and Millburn’s talented sophomore center fielder Henry Jacobs nearly chased it down. But Jacobs, despite charging over the waist-high fence, couldn’t reach it and Monteleone had his second grand slam of the season.
Seton Hall’s sudden 4-0 lead put it in the driver’s seat and the Pirates never backed off the gas pedal. McGonigal was hit by a pitch in the third inning, forcing home Karson Harcourt from third for a 5-0 lead. Harcourt started it with a one-out single to center field. Andrew Fernandez then laced a double down the left field line to send Harcourt to third. Sprock drew a walk to load the bases for McGonigal. But, after the hit by pitch, the Millers turned a pretty 5-4-3 double play to get out of further trouble.
Millburn’s third baseman Jake Zirlin had a terrific afternoon in the field, including making a diving stop and firing to first base for the first out of the fifth.
As one would expect, Millburn rallied in its half of the third when Matthew Weiner delivered a two-run single through the left side. Millburn had loaded the bases on a pair of walks to Steven Echavarria and Zirlin sandwiched around a hit by pitch to Matthew Hollender.
Seton Hall had other ideas, however, and it took the form of another booming hit. This time junior shortstop Chris Maldonado rocked a shot to deep left field that left fielder Alex Wilson got his glove on as he crashed into the breakaway fence. But the ball fell safely over the fence for a three-run home run and an 8-2 Seton Hall lead.
The Clemson-bound Maldonado explained he and his teammates’ urgency.
“We wanted to get that 800th for coach Shep,” said Maldonado. “We talked before the game about getting it done and getting it out of the way for coach. I said, we gotta’ get it today and there’s no better way than against a big rival like Millburn.” Maldonado is the third Maldonado brother to play for Sheppard. Brother Nick (2019) pitches for Vanderbilt University and brother Frank (2013) played at Pittsburgh.
“I’ve been around coach Shep for a long time, since I’ve been at his camps with his dad and brothers when I was young,” said Maldonado. “I feel happy and blessed to be a part of his 800th win.”
The Seton Hall lineup was an all-inclusive affair as all nine batters reached base and seven of them scored at least one run. McGonigal led off the fifth with a grounds rule double to center and Monteleone walked. After each moved up a base on a wild pitch, leadoff batter Sam Nomura brought them both home with a single to left field, boosting the lead to 10-2.
Maldonado led off the sixth and turned a single to left field into a double with some pre-game awareness and in-game hustle. “I saw the grass was pretty long in the outfield, so I thought if I had a chance, I could take an extra base,” he said. “We’re taught to always run hard out of the box. When I saw the ball not quite getting to the left fielder, I took a shot.”
That paid off when Harcourt slashed a double down the left field line to score Maldonado and extend the lead to 11-2. At that point, Chapman sent for the right-handed Weiner, who retired the next three batters in order.
The top pitching performance of the game went to Seton Hall reliever Sprock. The righthander entered to start the fourth and shut out Millburn over 3.1 innings on one hit, an infield single by Echavarria in the fifth. Sprock struck out six and walked none. Sheppard pulled Sprock after he struck out the leadoff batter in the seventh and his pitch count reached 50.
Both teams have a busy week of games ahead with the Greater Newark Tournament quarterfinals on Wednesday and the semifinals doubleheader set for Saturday at Seton Hall Prep’s Porcello Field. The GNT wraps up with the championship game at Yogi Berra Stadium in Little Falls on Saturday, May 22. Unranked Seton Hall (10-2-1) and Millburn (9-3), No. 20 in the NJ.com Top 20, are on opposite sides of the bracket, meaning one more meeting this season is possible. That could be in the GNT final.
“We were struggling a bit at the plate,” said Sheppard, Jr. “We’ve been trying to get the guys to focus on hitting the other way and to make adjustments. The bats have been coming around.”
As one can see, it’s back to work for Sheppard, Jr. and the Pirates.
NOTES: Sheppard, Jr.’s Seton Hall Prep teams have won 20 conference championships to go with 15 Greater Newark Tournament titles, 10 NJSIAA Non-Public A North crowns and seven Non-Public A state championships. Seton Hall has finished No 1 in The Star-Ledger Top 20 six times and finished the 2007 season ranked No. 1 in the nation by Collegiate Baseball Newspaper.
… Sheppard has sent players to 40 different Division 1 baseball programs and he’s coached 17 players that have gone on to play professionally. Three ex-Pirates have made it to the big leagues. They are pitchers Rick Porcello, Joe Martinez and Nick Christiano. Porcello, of course, won the 2016 AL Cy Young Award and the 2018 World Series championship, both with the Red Sox.
…The top three photos in this story were provided by Seton Hall Prep’s Richard Morris.