Back in early April, right before the baseball season, Jim Rankin kept his expectations modest for his Jackson Liberty High School team.
The coach was returning seven position starters and a bunch of pitchers from a team that went 20-5 in 2018. You would expect a coach in that position to talk confidently about competing for conference and state titles.
But instead, Rankin focused on the smallest figurative trophy out there–the Shore Conference’s B South Division title, which the Lions also won last year.
“I would love to repeat as division champs,” he said at the time. “But it won’t be easy.”
Actually…well…the 19-1 Lions are kind of running away with the thing, with a five-game lead as the regular season draws to a close. Jackson Liberty is on a 17-game winning streak.
In early April, Rankin did hint at competing for bigger trophies.
“The Shore Conference Tournament, the (NJSIAA Central Jersey, Group 3) sectional tournament,” Rankin said. “Get in all of them and make as much noise as we can.”
The Lions should do more than make noise. They look capable of winning everything. The squad’s goalposts have definitely moved since the early spring, even though they already expected to be really good.
“We’re just taking it day by day,” said David Melfi, the team’s senior catcher. “Every day it’s a new goal to win that game or have a good day at practice.”
Whatever the Lions are doing, it’s working…in all areas.
Melfi, a fourth year starter, is the anchor of a loaded lineup. The senior sports a .444 batting average, six home runs, 33 runs batted in and 22 runs scored this year. He is arguably the best hitter in New Jersey.
“He has broken every offensive record in his four years here,” Rankin said.
Melfi bats third in Rankin’s order, where the best hitter usually bats. As evidenced by his lavish RBI number, the guys in front of him, senior leadoff man and outfielder Connor Keenan and junior two hole hitter and third baseman Shane Hickey, are giving Melfi plenty of opportunities with men on base.
Keenan is hitting .429 with eight walks and 21 runs. Hickey is batting .412 with 12 walks and 14 runs.
“I have my three best guys at the top,” Rankin said. “I would say it’s worked out pretty well, and I would hope it continues.”
The guys below them have not exactly been slouches either. Sophomore outfielder Daniel Keenan, junior infielder Brandon Kinsman, senior first baseman Kevin Ritz and senior outfielder Scott Wierciszewski all have double digit RBI numbers this spring.
“Hitting is our strength,” Rankin said before the season.
But pitching has turned into a strength as well.
Right-handed junior Tim Duffy is 5-0 with a 1.87 earned run average. Hickey and Wierciszewski double as hurlers, and they have both recorded 3-0 records with ERAs of 2.02 or lower.
This is a team without a weakness, and with depth across its roster.
Jackson Liberty will enter the state sectional tournament as the No. 1 seed. It lost in the state sectional semifinals in each of the last two years, 12-4 to Allentown High School in 2018 and 8-7 to Neptune High School in 2017.
“We’re right there,” Rankin said. “Hopefully this is the year.”