Jackson Liberty High School entered the Ocean County Tournament baseball championship, on May 16 at Toms River High School East, riding an 18-game winning streak.
The streak had lifted the Lions to a 20-1 record and New Jersey wide prominence. Most pundits called the club a top five team in the Garden State.
But in that Ocean County championship, second-seeded Jackson Liberty was upset by fourth-seeded Point Pleasant Borough High School, 10-7. Point Pleasant broke a 5-5 tie with a five-run rally in the top of the fifth inning. The Panthers also ended the Lions’ astounding winning streak and dropped them to 20-2 on the season.
The loss was disappointing for the Lions. But luckily, they have no time to be sad about it. Instead, they have multiple chances to redeem themselves in the upcoming week.
Jackson Liberty is the No. 2 seed in both the Shore Conference Tournament and the NJSIAA Central Jersey, Group 3 sectional tournament, which are basically taking place simultaneously.
Coach Jim Rankin’s club will take on seventh seeded Wall High School in a Shore Conference quarterfinal on May 22 at home. The Lions earned a bye in the first round and beat Colts Neck High School, 12-10, in the second round on May 18 at Jackson Liberty.
“We haven’t solidified our pitching yet,” Rankin said. “We’ll try to map it out to be successful in both tournaments.”
“It will be a challenge but that’s what makes it fun,” he added.
Rankin only used two hurlers, right-handed starter Nick DeCarlo and right-handed reliever Shane Hickey, in the county title game. Before that game, thanks to a multi day rainstorm, the Lions hadn’t played in five days, so their staff is still pretty fresh going into the next two tournaments.
“The rain helped us in that regard,” Rankin said.
The coach has plenty of options. His staff includes five pitchers with earned run averages in the 3.00s or lower.
Junior right-hander Tim Duffy is 5-0 with a 2.19 ERA. Senior right-hander Scott Wierciszewski is 3-0 with an 0.64 ERA.
“We are getting contributions from everybody,” Rankin said. “That’s what makes this run special.”
The same logic applied to the coach’s lineup throughout the team’s winning streak, and again in the Ocean County championship. Even in defeat in the Ocean County final, the Lions laced eight hits and scored seven runs.
Seniors David Melfi and Kevin Ritz anchor a powerful lineup that is scoring 7.6 runs per game. Melfi and Ritz are batting .443 and .431, respectively. They have also combined for 12 home runs and 95 runs produced.
Behind those talented seniors, and a great senior class overall, the Lions have enjoyed a charmed campaign. Jackson Liberty debuted its baseball program in 2007, and this is easily its best season in 13 years.
Rankin has been coaching the team that whole time.
“It’s pretty cool,” he said. “These seniors lead themselves and set high goals.”
“They aren’t satisfied,” Rankin added. “They are hungry to go get more.”
Only one thing is missing for these Lions: a trophy. The program has never won a postseason tournament, according to Rankin. They fell just short in the Ocean County Tournament.
But they will have two more great chances to make school history this spring.
“Hopefully we can check off another box and get another goal accomplished,” Rankin said.