Best teams loaded with arms

Three of South Jersey's top pitchers this season will be (from left) Gloucester Catholic righthander John Murphy, Bishop Eustace lefthander Devin Smeltzer, and St. Augustine righthander Joey Gatto. RON TARVER / Staff Photographer
Three of South Jersey's top pitchers this season will be (from left) Gloucester Catholic righthander John Murphy, Bishop Eustace lefthander Devin Smeltzer, and St. Augustine righthander Joey Gatto. RON TARVER / Staff Photographer
Posted: March 31, 2014

The Non-Public South A tournament will be decided by a championship game June 3.

That's how it works in high school baseball.

But the remarkable thing about the top three contenders for the title - who also are the top three teams in The Inquirer's preseason Top 20 rankings - is that they all would be better equipped to settle the matter in a best-of-five series.

Or a best of seven.

"We could do that," St. Augustine senior righthander Joey Gatto said, considering the pitching depth that marks his team as well as perennial powerhouses Gloucester Catholic and Bishop Eustace.

On the brink of another baseball season, South Jersey is teeming with terrific arms, with 15 senior pitchers committed to NCAA Division I programs and a vast array of talented underclassmen.

Five seniors - Gatto and lefthanded teammate Zach Warren along with Bishop Eustace lefty Devin Smeltzer, Delsea righthander Bryan Dobzanski, and Lower Cape May righthander Josh Pennington - have drawn strong interest from major-league scouts and likely will pitch this spring in front of a thicket of radar guns.

One major-league scout who asked not to be identified raved about the 6-foot-4 Gatto's physical makeup and pitching stuff and said Warren at times looks like "a young Cole Hamels."

The scout said Smeltzer was "super projectable" because the Crusaders star is a "tall, loose lefty," and thinks Pennington might turn out to be the best of the bunch because of his "hand speed."

The scout rates Dobzanski, a two-time state-champion wrestler, a bit behind the others because of the athlete's dedication to another sport, but believes the Delsea standout could make a big jump now that his focus is baseball.

"It's amazing how much pitching we have around here," veteran Bishop Eustace coach Sam Tropiano said. "I've had scouts say to me, 'Where have all the [draftable] hitters gone?' The pitchers are dominating."

Gloucester Catholic junior righthander John Murphy, a Maryland recruit, is halfway through what could be one of the most accomplished pitching careers in South Jersey history, and Rams sophomore Tyler Mondile has been rocketing up recruiters' and major-league scouts' rankings behind a fastball that has been touching 94 m.p.h. on radar guns.

But while the pitching talent is spread across South Jersey, St. Augustine probably has the greatest concentration of top arms.

Or maybe Gloucester Catholic.

And Bishop Eustace is not far behind.

"We all know each team has great pitching," Smeltzer said of the Crusaders and their top rivals. "There's a lot of respect for those teams and those programs. But at the same time, we're all fighting for the same state title."

This three-way rivalry has risen to a new level because of the quality of the teams and also because all three squads are classified in Non-Public South A. That loaded group also includes strong South Jersey clubs such as Camden Catholic and Paul VI as well as solid Central Jersey programs such as Christian Brothers, Red Bank Catholic, and St. Joseph of Metuchen.

Gloucester Catholic has won four state titles in a row and 18 overall, by far the most in New Jersey history. The Rams' current run has been fueled by dominant pitching that has included sensational work from current Maryland freshman Mike Shawaryn as well as Murphy, who threw the final pitch in the last two Non-Public A state finals.

This year's rotation will feature Murphy, who was 8-1 last season with a 0.61 ERA and 77 strikeouts and 12 walks, along with Mondile (2-2, 1.56 ERA) and his older brother Steve Mondile (4-0, .251 ERA), a Longwood recruit.

The Rams also will rely on junior lefthander Matt Parr (3-0, 1.12 ERA) and junior righty Pete Farlow, who went 7-1 for the Brooklawn American Legion team that won the World Series title last summer.

Farlow's fastball has been hitting 88 m.p.h., according to Gloucester Catholic coach Mike Rucci.

"It's friendly competition" within the staff, Murphy said. "We push each other to get better. We want to prove that we're the best staff in South Jersey."

Bishop Eustace, which has won eight state titles and has been a rival of Gloucester Catholic's for years, has been among South Jersey's top teams in recent seasons with a pitching staff that included Keith Wallace, who won nine games in 2012, and Zac Gallen, now a standout freshman at North Carolina.

This season, Smeltzer will be the Crusaders' ace. The athletic lefthander who has committed to Florida Gulf Coast was 8-3 as a junior with a 1.38 ERA and struck out a South Jersey-best 109 in 66 innings.

"My whole goal this year is to help us win a state championship," Smeltzer said.

Eustace's pitching staff also features highly touted junior righthander Justin Hagenman (4-4, 3.62 ERA, 44 strikeouts), who also is a top hitter, and senior lefty Dan Marano (2-0).

And the Crusaders could get a big boost from junior righthander Tyler Phillips (2-0, one save), who has electric stuff and could be on the brink of a breakout season.

"I really like our pitching," Tropiano said. "But I think we're probably behind those other two," St. Augustine and Gloucester Catholic.

St. Augustine won its only state title in baseball in 2011, taking the Non-Public A championship as Gloucester Catholic won the Non-Public B crown. The last two seasons, the Hermits have lost to the Rams in the Non-Public South A final.

While St. Augustine has been a solid baseball program for years, it has been the Hermits' emergence as a South Jersey power in recent seasons that has created the three-sided rivalry with Gloucester Catholic and Bishop Eustace.

The Hermits' Keith Baxter won nine games as a senior in 2012, and last year's top senior pitcher, Chris Oakley, earned a scholarship to North Carolina. But St. Augustine might have its best staff in 2014.

Leading the way is the righty-lefty, one-two punch of Gatto, a North Carolina recruit, and Warren, a Tulane recruit.

Gatto, who also is a top hitter, was 5-3 last season with a 2.35 ERA and 52 strikeouts in 45 innings. He has a fastball that regularly rises to more than 90 m.p.h.

Warren was 6-1 last season with a 1.26 ERA and 68 strikeouts in 50 innings. He has what scouts call "pitch-ability," a knack for changing speeds and location, and a sense of how to set up hitters.

But what makes this Hermits pitching staff so imposing is the presence of sophomore righthander Mike Vasturia (1-1, 1.84 ERA) and sophomore lefthander Billy Chillari, who started four games as a freshman before a non-sports injury ended his season.

"What's great is that we have the lefty-righty action with all four of us," Gatto said. "We can change it up when we bring guys in to relieve other guys.

"We don't look at it like we have a 1-2-3-4 in the rotation. We feel like whoever is pitching that day is the No. 1."

Rare is the high school team that can boast of multiple No. 1 pitchers.

But that's St. Augustine.

And Gloucester Catholic.

And Bishop Eustace.

It's likely that one of them will be left standing after the sectional final, a single battle for all the South Jersey marbles.

But it sure would be fun to see them in a series.


panastasia@phillynews.com

@PhilAnastasia

www.inquirer.com/

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