By NICK KOSKO
Many of the top high school baseball prospects come from states such as Florida, Arizona, Virginia and Georgia. Where is the respect for New Jersey? And, more specifically, South Jersey?
Well, the South Jersey area can no longer be considered under the radar in terms of developing top high school talent and getting these gifted athletes to top colleges and the pros.
Arguably the best player in the Major Leagues — Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim — played at Millville High School, a school that has become known for producing talented players. Another former Thunderbolt, Aaron Cox, was drafted by the Angels in 2015 and currently is one of the organization’s top 50 prospects.
The South Jersey Sand Sharks, led by President John McColl, is a travel baseball organization that has produced some outstanding local talent. Since the organization features tryouts, the best of the best earn spots on the squad and go up against the best possible competition.
The Sand Sharks have teams in several different age groups, but the team that garners most of the attention is the college showcase team led by coach Ed Hayes. Hayes has been involved since the inception of the organization in 2000.
When top high school players in South Jersey earn a spot on the showcase team, they are able to demonstrate their skills and athletic talent in front of college recruiters up and down the east coast.
“Our goal is to get these kids in front of college recruiters and constantly give them chance at a scholarship,” Hayes said. “Even with our other teams with kids in middle school or high school, we are preparing them for high level high school competition and really want to make these kids varsity starters by their sophomore seasons.”
Hayes and other coaches are strictly volunteers and earn no money from coaching. Hayes said every single coach takes pride in his players and they do it for the love of the game.
“Our reward isn’t money. It is when we pick up a newspaper and see one of our players succeeding. We always want to keep contact with them and see how they are,” Hayes said. “As coaches in this organization, we pride ourselves on being able to prepare these kids for high school and college ball, but also life. That is our joy.”
Former pitching stars such as Mike Di Ianni and Matt Ardente will always cherish and appreciate the lessons and experiences they had while playing for the Sand Sharks, they said.
Di Ianni, a 2014 graduate of Holy Spirit, currently plays for Gwynedd Mercy University in Pennsylvania and attributes a lot of his success from the Sand Sharks program.
“I was real young when I first tried out for the team, around 10 years old. I just kept working my way up the ranks as I got older and better at the game,” Di Ianni said. “I will say it was a real honor being able to be a part of the program and the college showcase as well. Coach Hayes and everyone else do everything they can to help all players out and give everyone an opportunity to play in front of college scouts for a chance to play at the next level.”
“This team really shows what kind of competitor you are,” said Ardente, who now pitches at Seton Hall University. “You get to face the best competition all around and you are playing with the best kids in South Jersey. During school, those guys are rivals, but once you come together on this team, everyone is making each other better.”
Ardente is a 2015 graduate of Absegami High School and recently finished up his freshman year at Seton Hall, where he went 4-0 with a 1.71 ERA in 15 appearances, including three starts. He said he could not be more thankful of the coaches in the Sand Sharks program to help each player achieve his goals.
“Coach Hayes and all of the others really give you their time and attention and make sure you are practicing and playing to the best of your ability,” Ardente said. “When it all comes together, we put a great product out onto the field, and we’ve proven that time and time again by getting a lot of players to good colleges to play baseball.”
Sand Sharks players certainly have fun, but they work hard as well. It takes a lot of time and effort to develop skills that college coaches are looking for.
Every player is known for working extremely hard at practice, and many of them attend showcases and play games throughout the year. The hard work pays off for the players who earn their college scholarships. The level of competition forces players to bring their best, every day.
“These kids nowadays think it is easy, but when they go against better competition, they go into a shell,” Di Ianni said. “The Sand Sharks are always putting players against the best competition and you’re playing with the best players in this area so there is always room for improvement and plenty of chances to get better and polish your skills.”
“When we play, we really show off the hidden talent Jersey has,” Ardente said. “By constantly working hard, the Sand Sharks really show they can compete with teams from other states down the east coast that are able to play year-round while we have to practically sit out the winter.”
All of the competition aside, the Sand Sharks pride themselves on building a community — and lifelong friendships through the game of baseball. During the high school seasons, most players compete against each other, but when they come together to work to achieve the same goal, they are inseparable.
“Guys who have gone off to college still keep in contact,” Hayes said. “Even some of our guys who have gone off to the pros will still keep in touch with their former teammates. It’s amazing how this program can help build friendships for life.”
Mike Trout (L.A. Angels, MLB)
Luke Tendler (Rangers, A)
Cody Stashak (Twins, A)
Aaron Cox (Angels, A)
Josh Pennington (Red Sox, A)
Mike Adams (Independent)
Chris Scarlett (Independent)
Troy Sieber (Astros, A)
Current college players
Matt Ardente (Absegami/Seton Hall)
Steve Hewa (Absegami/Rowan)
Dom Lopez (Buena Regional/Cumberland Co.)
Drew Roesch (Absegami/Ursinus)
Zach Altieri (Ocean City/Hofstra)
Kyle Cox (Millville/Gannon)
Mike Di Ianni (Holy Spirit/Gwynedd Mercy)
Vince Terry (Ocean City/Ursinus)
Troy Dixon (EHT/St. John’s)
Beau Hall (Ocean City, Georgetown)
Tovine Potts (Vineland/Cecil College)
Justin Chasmar (Barnegat/Arcadia)
Anthony Lopez (Buena Regional/Campbell)
Alex Scarlett (Holy Spirit/Rutgers Camden)
Ryan Irwin (Absegami/Cecil College)
Vaughn Champion (Absegami/Stockton)
Justin Healey (Ocean City/Widener)
John Waters (Absegami/Rutgers-Camden)
Current high school, committed
Brendan Bean (Wildwood, Glo. Cath./Penn)
Brandon Jenkins (Sterling/ Campbell)
Sean Mooney (Ocean City/ St. John’s)
Kyle Gerace (Mainland/Rutgers)
Josh Arnold (Ocean City/Fairfield)
Dom Fiorentino (Ocean City/Ursinus)
Ryan Johnson (Oakcrest/Univ. of Sciences)
Ross Restuccio (Hammonton/Rutgers-Camden)
T.J. Neil (Absegami/ACCC)
Justin McFadden (Cendar Creek/Chestnut Hill)
Chris Sieg (ACIT/RCGC)
Jimmy Versage (Middle/Louisiana-Monroe)
By NICK KOSKO