WASHINGTON TWP. – It has been a long, rough winter across South Jersey; the snow has refused to let its grip go on the region. But the high school sports calendar says its spring despite old man winter’s last gasp late Tuesday. It was more like football weather as two of the area’s top high school baseball teams faced off in a scrimmage game that ended as flurries were falling Tuesday afternoon.
Gloucester Catholic faced Washington Township in what was the Rams’ last scrimmage before regular season play cranks up with the season opener on Tuesday April 1. Conditions were tough with a cloudy grey sky, temperature under 40 degrees and snow coming down in the late innings.
But the players for both teams were undeterred; playing through the elements in an effort to get ready for the start of the regular season.
For Gloucester Catholic coach Mike Rucci, this preseason is the worst he has ever dealt with. “The weather has made it tough to extend pitchers, and hard to judge offense. We can’t get in any kind of a groove.”
For the second year head coach, this is an added element he didn’t want to deal with. Rucci took the helm of the Rams from legendary coach Dennis Barth, who became the head coach at Rutgers-Camden prior to the 2013 season. Barth built an empire of baseball at Gloucester Catholic and in Brooklawn’s American Legion program, the latter which he still runs. Many of the players are on both the Brooklawn and Gloucester Catholic rosters.
Last season, in Rucci’s first as Gloucester Catholic’s head coach, he filled his predecessor’s shoes well, winning the school’s fourth consecutive state championship.
But the pressure is on the Rams this year to do it again, and getting to five in a row will be no easy task. The South Jersey Non-Public A field is rife with talented teams. Inevitably, Rucci’s squad will have to face the likes of Bishop Eustace lead by top Major League pitching prospect Devin Smeltzer, a senior lefthander who has one of the best arms in South Jersey.
Joey Gatto of St. Augustine and Joey Craig from Camden Catholic are poised to try to stop Gloucester Catholic from lifting that trophy yet again. Rival Paul VI always gets up to play the Rams. With an offense lead by Devin Ruiz and Matt McKeown, the Eagles will be tough to get through.
Rucci acknowledges those teams are very good and will each pose challenges, but the young talented coach is up for the task. He plans to lead the team offensively by maintaining his role as third base coach where he clearly commands the batters and base runners.
The Rams ace is junior John Murphy, who faced 9 batters and got 8 strikeouts in Tuesday’s scrimmage. Murphy went 8-1 last season and enters this season with 15 wins. He brings an ERA of 0.61 and has a career record of 77 strikeouts. The Division 1 prospect is closing in on a Rams record of 22 wins held by Cody Brown, a 2011 Gloucester Catholic grad.
Joining the rotation is Tyler Mondile whose fastball has been clocked at over 94 miles per hour. The talented sophomore went an impressive 9-1 last summer in Brooklawn’s World Series run. Seniors Steve Mondile, Mike Mercer and junior Dante Scafidi will round out the pitching staff.
Phil Dickinson will lead the offense coming into the season with a .441 batting average, 20 RBIs, 31 runs and 26 steals.
With all this talent returning the one hole that needs to be filled this season is behind the plate, a position near and dear to coach Rucci’s heart – he was a catcher in the program.
“Replacing John Theckston will be very difficult, he was an outstanding catcher but we have two players battling it out for that spot,” Rucci said.
Rucci was a standout player for the Rams, leading them to three straight titles under Barth.
As a head coach he continues to make his mark on the program and is hoping to take it to its fifth straight state title. It will be a very interesting season for the players and fans as they watch this group of players as they strive for five.