In 2017 and 2018, the Allentown High School baseball team reached the NJSIAA Group 3 championship game.
Allentown won the Group 3 state title in 2017 with a 5-1 victory over Cranford High School. The Redbrids were defeated by Somerville High School, 3-2, in the title game last year.
In 2019, though, the Redbirds fell well short of that benchmark, losing to Jackson Liberty High School, 5-4, in the Central Jersey, Group 3 sectional tournament quarterfinals on May 24 in Jackson Township.
So on paper, this was a year when Allentown fell back to Earth. But in reality, coach Brian Nice’s team probably exceeded expectations.
Nice estimated that the Redbirds returned “two and a half” starters from their 2018 club. That made 2019 a rebuilding year. Except the Redbirds didn’t have to rebuild, exactly.
It was more like a retooling.
Allentown finished 14-10 overall and made the quarterfinals of both the Mercer County Tournament and the state sectional tournament. It lost to Hopewell Valley Central High School, 3-1, in the Mercer County quarterfinals on May 8 in Pennington.
“We were very successful in terms of developing the team and coming together,” Nice said. “We went from not being able to do a good infield-outfield (drill) to almost beating one of the best teams in the state (in Jackson Liberty) come tournament time.”
Allentown improved quickly because of its pitching staff. Nice relied primarily on three hurlers.
One, senior right-hander Ben Mashkevich, pitched like an ace all year. As a senior, Mashkevich knew who he was.
He was fully aware that he couldn’t just overpower guys, and that he had to actually pitch. The senior mixed in changeups and curveballs in various counts, which kept hitters guessing.
Allentown’s program earned run average record is 0.71, and Mashkevich “flirted with it all year,” Nice said. But ultimately, the righty finished with a 1.72 ERA in 36.2 innings.
“He was awesome for us,” Nice said.
The other two hurlers, sophomore right-hander Matt Bethea and junior right-hander Jack Nitti, had to mature as mental chess players on the bump. Both guys came into the season relying on what they had always relied on: talent and velocity.
But at the high school varsity level, you can’t just overpower hitters. They are too good.
Once Bethea and Nitti internalized that, they flowered into mental chess players who maximized their arsenal of pitches. Bethea developed a changeup that complemented a fastball that was “live and ran like crazy,” Nice said. Nitti cultivated a secondary slider and a tertiary changeup.
Bethea, Allentown’s top reliever and spot starter, went 4-1 with a 1.17 ERA and 26 strikeouts in 24 frames. Nitti, a starter, recorded three victories and a 2.39 ERA.
“Once those guys figured it out you could see the change from throwers into pitchers,” Nice said.
The good news for Nice and the Redbirds is that Bethea and Nitti will be back to lead the rotation next spring. So will sophomore right-hander Dan Merkel, who posted a 1.31 ERA in 21.1 innings as a freshman in 2018. But Merkel couldn’t pitch this year because of elbow issues.
With those three players, Allentown should have a strong pitching staff in 2020, and possibly a great team, too.
“Two teams in our section, Jackson Liberty and Wall (High School), had a lot of juniors last year and made a big jump this year,” Nice said. “Hopefully we can do the same thing.”