"When I first got started, somehow we got involved with South Jersey players," said Ehehalt (pronounced E-halt), who is 158-173 at Monmouth and has upgraded the schedule. "We got some good guys and then realized that there were a lot of talented players in the area."
One by one, he began recruiting players from South Jersey. Monmouth, once nearly a baseball graveyard, started gaining respect, and finally earned a berth in the NCAA Division I tournament in 1998.
Now the Hawks, who had never appeared in the NCAA tournament before '98, are aiming for their third consecutive appearance. They will begin play today as the third seed in the four-team Northeast Conference tournament at the Sandcastle in Atlantic City. The tournament winner will earn an automatic NCAA berth.
After a slow start, Monmouth appears to be hitting its stride. The Hawks are just 22-25 overall, but they finished 15-7 in the Northeast South, just one game behind division champion Maryland-Baltimore County.
The roster includes 13 players from South Jersey, including 11 who have seen action. The Hawks' ace is senior lefthander Dan Severino from Audubon, who will start in today's game against Long Island University. Severino is just 3-4 this season, but he has a 2.73 ERA.
Severino is the only high school player in state history to be the winning pitcher in three consecutive state title games. Ehehalt saw him pitch as a sophomore and quickly targeted him.
"When I saw Dan win his first state title as a sophomore, I said that we had to have him," said Ehehalt, a 1987 graduate of East Carolina. "He pitched with such determination."
Ehehalt said it was that type of intensity that attracted him to South Jersey players from the beginning.
"In the seven-county South Jersey area, baseball is so community-oriented and gets a lot of exposure," Ehehalt said. "Plus, the summer leagues are so competitive. I found that the intensity level is a little higher in South Jersey."
He also discovered that it would be a little easier in many instances to recruit players from South Jersey to the West Long Branch campus than to get players from North Jersey. After all, in the North, Monmouth has to compete with Division I programs such as Rutgers and Seton Hall.
"In the South, we are recruiting many times against Philadelphia schools," said Ehehalt, who has received a commitment this year from Pennsauken senior catcher Matt Clark. "If a kid doesn't want to play in the city, we feel we have a chance at him."
Ehehalt's first three South Jersey recruits were infielder Nick DelGozzo from Audubon and two players from Buena, outfielder Bob Torres and infielder George West.
"I really liked the campus, and one of the reasons I went there was also a chance to play right away," said West, currently the starting third baseman for the minor-league Atlantic City Surf. West holds the Monmouth career record with 30 home runs. "I thought it was great because we helped put South Jersey on the map up there."
The success of DelGozzo, Torres and West helped pave the way for others to go to Monmouth.
"Nick DelGozzo was a big factor in having me go to Monmouth," Severino said. "It opened my eyes to Monmouth."
That's exactly what happened with senior catcher Dan Coia from Buena. After seeing the success of Torres and West, he was sold.
"Before Bob and George went there, I didn't know much about Monmouth," said Coia, the only player on the team who has started all 47 games this season. "Seeing the success those two had played a big role in my decision."
Not everybody Ehehalt has recruited knew players from the program. Junior lefthander Brian Gismonde, a closer from Cherry Hill West, wasn't aware that the South Jersey pipeline even existed.
"I thought they had an up-and-coming baseball program with a lot of potential," Gismonde said.
Monmouth has prospered by recruiting many players considered questionable by the major powers. For instance, Severino stands just 5-foot-10, not the ideal size for a college pitcher.
Another example is Gismonde. Some college coaches thought he didn't throw hard enough. A starter throughout high school, Gismonde became a reliever at Monmouth after he was shelled in his first start as a freshman.
The move has paid off tremendously. Last year, while competing on a more talented team, he went 5-1 with a 1.96 ERA and 12 saves. This season, he leads the team with six saves and is 7-5 with a 3.23 ERA.
Monmouth also hit the jackpot on Paul Grasso, a sophomore leftfielder from Mainland. Grasso had a stress fracture in his back as a senior at Mainland, and most schools didn't want to take a chance on him. Monmouth did.
Last season, Grasso was still recovering from the injury and hit .267 in only 30 at-bats. This season, he is batting a team-best .339 and has 13 doubles, two home runs, and 32 RBIs.
"The fact that he was injured probably helped us in recruiting," Ehehalt said.
Severino, who will graduate this spring with a degree in business management, doesn't have illusions of a professional career. He says that after this season he will look for a job, just as most of his teammates will. Monmouth, he said, gave him exactly what he was looking for: an education and a chance to play Division I baseball.
"I have two NCAA tournament rings, have gotten a good education and played a competitive level of baseball," Severino said. "I know I'm not going to get drafted and chase a pipe dream of playing professional baseball. Right now, I'm savoring it. Every time I go out, I know it could be my last time."
As for Ehehalt, he is savoring the South Jersey pipeline.
"We don't like to single out one area, but South Jersey has been really good to us," he said. "We just hope that it continues for a long time."
Marc Narducci's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org