On May 29, the Jackson Liberty High School baseball players walked off their home field slowly–and in stunned silence.
It wasn’t supposed to end this way for the 2019 Lions, with a 5-3 loss to Northern Burlington County Regional High School in the NJSIAA Central Jersey, Group 3 sectional tournament semifinals.
After all, the Lions were the No. 2 seed and the visiting Greyhounds entered as the No. 11 seed. But Northern Burlington got a few more timely hits and outs. In the bottom of the seventh inning, Jackson Liberty had runners on first and second with one out.
But Northern Burlington reliever Ryan Dromboski retired the next two Lions hitters.
Jackson Liberty went down fighting, which was fitting for a proud club that finished 23-4 this year, and as the Shore Conference’s B South Division champion. The loss also did not change one essential fact about this Jackson Liberty baseball season: it was the best campaign in the program’s 13-year history.
No one would know that better than the Lions’ coach, Jim Rankin, who started the program in 2007.
“They fight, they scratch, they claw,” Rankin said. “They are a great group of kids.”
Rankin was referring to his entire varsity team, but especially to his senior class. When the group arrived in the spring of 2016, Jackson Liberty was coming off a rare losing season.
Over the ’19 class’s first two years, 2016 and 2017, three of them earned starting spots as freshmen and three more landed starting jobs as sophomores. Catcher David Melfi, outfielder Connor Keenan and outfielder Charlie Rudderow were the freshmen starters. Right-handed pitcher Nick DeCarlo, right-handed pitcher/first baseman Kevin Ritz and right fielder/right-handed pitcher Scott Wierciszewski joined them in the lineup the following spring.
By 2017, the Lions were a contender again, going 17-10 and reaching the Central Jersey, Group 3 state sectional semifinals, where they lost to Neptune High School, 8-7. One year later, the Lions became a central New Jersey power, finishing 20-5 and again making the state sectional semifinals, bowing to Allentown High School, 12-4.
But the class saved its best performance for its final season. Melfi, Keenan and Rudderow sparked a powerful offense that scored seven runs per game. DeCarlo earned four victories on the mound. Ritz and Wierciszewski contributed on offense and as pitchers.
During their high school careers, and especially in 2019, these seniors transformed Jackson Liberty from a solid program into a state title contender. They just weren’t quite able to break through in the state sectional semifinals.
That is still a much better run than most senior classes enjoy.
Talent had a lot to do with their success. But it was their leadership that took the program to that next level.
“This was the most player driven team that I’ve had,” Rankin said. “I was just a guy trying to steer the ship in the right direction.”
Rankin will have to do more than man the wheel in 2020. He will have to rebuild the ship.
“I don’t like to use the word rebuild because that insinuates that you’ll have a down year,” he said. “We’re going to reload.”
“But there’s no replacing the seniors that are graduating,” Rankin concluded.