Mike Murray is a young man, in his early 30s. But he’s also jaded.
Going into his fourth season as Saint Joseph Regional High School’s baseball coach, Murray knows how hard it is to win the NJSIAA South Jersey, Non-Public A Tournament title.
The program at the Metuchen school has been solid each year under Murray, but the Falcons have never been past the state semifinals.
Saint Joseph lost to Red Bank Catholic High School, 7-2, in the South Jersey, Non-Public A state quarterfinals last year.
But this year’s Falcons, with seven collegiate commits on their varsity roster, have the talent to win the state trophy.
Murray, though, says that still may not be enough.
“(South Jersey, Non-Public A rival) Saint Augustine (Preparatory School) has nine Division 1 pitchers,” Murray said. “So it’s great that we have three, but to beat teams like that, we’ll have to be pretty good.”
With that statement, Murray outlined his challenge for 2019: molding chemistry from his talent. But even he won’t deny that the talent is there.
“We’re a good team,” Murray said.
Saint Joseph is 1-2 through two games, though it did beat Sayreville War Memorial High School, 10-0, on April 2 at home.
Murray’s talent starts with his pitching staff.
Senior ace Jake Hellwig is the coach’s most reliable arm, going 11-4 with a 1.24 earned run average over the last two seasons. Hellwig averages more than a strikeout per inning, but he only throws in the low 80s. He keeps hitters off balance with a short, quick motion and a weird repertoire that includes a sinker and a slider.
“Hitters never get good hacks,” Murray said. “Jake just knows how to pitch.”
Junior Adam Boucher, a Duke University recruit, is the opposite of Hellwig. Boucher blows hitters away with a low 90s fastball.
Freshman Donovan Zsak is like Boucher, a power pitcher with a big fastball. He also has a developed curveball and changeup. The freshman is so precocious that he is already committed to a Division 1 baseball powerhouse, the University of Virginia.
But Murray is making Zsak earn his spot. The Virginia commit is starting the season as his high school team’s third starter, behind Hellwig and Boucher.
“They’ll shoulder the burden and he’ll learn what high school baseball is all about,” Murray said. “But we expect him to be as competitive as anybody.”
The pitching trio could carry the Falcons far in 2019. But even if they struggle, like they did in the first game, Murray’s lineup could pick them up.
It is highlighted by two standout hitters in Tom Faggioni and Sebastian Mueller. Faggioni batted .339 and produced 24 runs last spring. Mueller hit .384 and produced 43 runs.
“Those are our two big returners, but we return quite a few key guys,” Murray said.
Eight of Saint Joseph’s nine regulars slammed a hit in the team’s season opening loss to Sayreville on April 1.
The Falcons, like their coach said, just need to put it all together. He is confident that they can, but he is also measuring his expectations.
“I think we’ll compete for the GMC title,” Murray said. “But to win four in a row in late May or early June, we’ll have to go to another level.”