There is not much pressure on the Allentown High School baseball team this year.
The 2019 Redbirds are only trying to continue the most successful run in the history of the program.
In 2017, Allentown went 26-2 and won the NJSIAA Group 3 championship. The Redbirds defeated a perennial power, Cranford High School, 5-1, in the Group 3 state final.
Last spring, the Redbirds finished 22-7 and got back to the Group 3 title game, falling to Somerville High School, 3-2.
The class of 2018 played a central role in both campaigns. But all 11 of those players are gone now.
In 2019, Allentown will try to sustain high level success with a much younger squad. So far, it’s going. The Redbirds are 4-3 after seven games.
Their offense has been electric in all four victories, scoring a combined 48 runs. But it was also shut out in two of the team’s three defeats.
“We got beat up a little bit. We have to get better,” said Allentown coach Brian Nice. “But we’re going to grow as the season goes on.”
Nice lost a lot of talent from last spring, but not all of his talent. Four players who started the 2018 group title game are back for 2019.
Freshman Dan Merkel started in centerfield on June 10, 2018, the day of that game. Now he’s a sophomore, and he has three stolen bases and a triple this year. The football quarterback can really run– and throw.
Nice views him as a potential varsity starting pitcher as well, if he can heal an arm injury that is preventing him from pitching.
“It’s a little issue but he should be fine,” Nice said.
Sophomore hurler Jack Nitti got the start in that group championship game, a rare assignment for a player that young. He pitched pretty well too, allowing just three runs in the narrow defeat.
It was the conclusion of a strong campaign for the sophomore, in which he went 7-3 with a 2.29 earned run average. As a junior now, Nitti is Allentown’s undisputed ace, and he is off to a solid start, with a 3.87 ERA in 12.2 innings.
Nice is confident that Nitti will get it going.
“I expect big things,” the coach said. “He’s been in big games before.”
Freshman Matt Bethea started the Somerville game as Allentown’s designated hitter. He hit .324 in 2018. Now a sophomore, Bethea is contributing on the mound as well, with a 2-0 record and a 3.15 ERA this spring.
“We got some good young arms,” Nice said.
The fourth returning starter, shortstop Matt Tannenbaum, is the only senior in the group, and he is hitting like a senior should. With a .524 batting average, eight runs scored and eight runs batted in, all team highs, Tannenbaum is sparking Allentown’s prolific offense.
But he has had help from junior infielder Danny McCormick, who has a .417 average and a team leading eight RBIs.
This Allentown team, like its predecessors, is talented. But unlike its predecessors, this club won’t play like a championship caliber squad from start to finish. There will likely be ups and downs throughout the spring.
Nice, a 14th-year coach, will just have to figure out how to get the Redbirds clicking come playoff time.
“We got the pieces,” he said. “We just have to put it all together.”