Brian Boyce is in his 13th season as Manalapan High School’s baseball coach, so he knows a good scholastic ball club when he sees one.
It’s hard to tell how Boyce truly feels about his 2019 Braves.
“If we continue to pitch and defend, we can compete in the Shore Conference,” Boyce said.
But he did qualify his optimism moments later.
“But from one day to the next you just never know with high school kids.”
The coach is cautiously optimistic because it’s still early, though his Braves look really good so far. They are 7-0 this spring.
Manalapan’s two most salient qualities are also the two most important features for a championship high school baseball team: dominant pitching and relatively clean defense. The average high school club gives up baserunners through walks and errors.
The Braves walked just eight batters in their first five games. They also made no errors in their 5-0 victory over Freehold High School on April 8.
“Our strength is pitching,” Boyce said. “And good defense behind those guys.”
“Those guys” are not just guys. Manalapan has a big three of starting pitchers who have sparked the fast start.
Manalapan’s senior ace, Ben Levine, bears a bit of a resemblance to New York Yankees pitcher C.C. Sabathia. The 6-3, 240-pound left-hander combines a brawny frame with a stoic expression and high leg kick.
It’s all very intimidating, and it has been for the Braves’ opponents, too. Levine is 2-0 with an 0.54 earned run average in 2019.
If you listen to Boyce describe his ace, it becomes clear that Levine is a Pitcher.
“He commands the zone, gets ahead and doesn’t put guys on,” Boyce said. “He also throws three different pitches for strikes.”
“I just get in there and do what I do,” Levine said. “Throw strikes and pound the zone.”
Levine played a similar role for the Braves last year. But his fellow 2019 starters, senior right hander Aaron Ayers and sophomore lefty Joe Mazza, were only marginal players in 2018.
In the offseason, Ayers worked with pitching coach Greg Short, who owns BioPitch in Toms River, to develop his curveball and spot his fastball. He showed up for practice in March as a new pitcher.
Between four scrimmage appearances and two regular season starts, Ayers has allowed just two earned runs.
“He’s pitching with good command,” Boyce said.
Mazza didn’t need to reinvent his game in the fall and winter. With his strong fastball-changeup-curveball repertoire, Boyce already viewed him as a future ace. The sophomore just needed a spot to open up, and it did after a few 2018 graduations.
In his first regular season start at Freehold Township High School on April 4, Mazza allowed no earned runs in 4.1 innings. Manalapan won, 4-2.
“He has come in and done a nice job,” Boyce said.
Behind the big three, Boyce has a lineup of experienced fielders. The senior middle infielders, shortstop Jake Pellecchia and second baseman Billy Watters, are third year starters. The centerfielder and catcher, Mike Kuver and Nick Serrentino, are second year starters.
“I know when I pitch I don’t have to worry about doing everything myself,” Levine said. “I let them hit it and let the guys behind me make plays.”
Under Boyce, Manalapan won the NJSIAA Group 4 championship in 2011 and 2012. With so much talent on the mound and so much experience in the field, the ’19 Braves could join their predecessors on the painted wooden walls next to Manalapan’s practice field.
Boyce, of course, would neither confirm nor deny this expectation.
“It’s hard to tell if this team compares,” he said.