Less than a minute after hanging up the phone with Middlesex High School baseball coach Mike O’Donnell, who said his entire baseball team spends virtually all its time together off the field, a reporter called one of a dozen upperclassmen on the roster for an interview.
Senior catcher Kyle Dotey answered his cell phone and politely asked for a minute so he could walk outside a noisy Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant on Route 22, where he and the rest of the Blue Jays happened to be dining last Monday night.
“During baseball season, and even when it’s not, we always hang out all the time,” Dotey said. “If we go out, the team is always together, no matter what.”
O’Donnell, who has never had to worry about petty jealousies or in-fighting, said the unique camaraderie that exists at his Group I school is a big reason why this current senior class, which owns a 65-16-1 record with three division titles, has been so successful.
“To me that’s a huge factor,” said O’Donnell, whose Blue Jays matched a single-season school record with 25 wins a year ago. “I think any coach you talk to would tell you one of their objectives is to unify their team, and when you are getting that before you even start, that’s definitely a major advantage, I would think. The kids are all best friends. They are like brothers.”
The defending Greater Middlesex Conference Tournament champion Blue Jays, who were classified as a Group II school last season, are looking to become the first Group I team in the league’s 27-year history to win a conference title (only one other Group II school – Spotswood – won a GMCT crown, while only one Group I school – South Amboy – ever reached the final).
Middlesex opens the 2013 campaign where it ended last season – ranked No. 1 in the Home News Tribune Top 10.
“At the beginning of the season we agreed not to look at any of the rankings,” Dotey said of himself and his teammates. “We just want to be the same team we were last year. All we want to do is win a championship again.”
Almost all of the current seniors, who are products of the borough’s Little League system, have been playing together since they were eight years old (two other outstanding players – Immaculata shortstop Jimmy Rice and Rutgers Prep catcher Colby Smith — were also groomed in the same feeder system).
“Our Little League system is so good,” said O’Donnell, a former All-State shortstop at Middlesex who reached the state final as a player and won a state crown in his first year (2007) as the Blue Jays’ coach.
“With this particular group, the parents were so involved,” O’Donnell continued. “They took them all over the place in tournaments (against older competition). By the time they got to high school, they were used to seeing good pitching.”
Middlesex has developed a reputation during O’Donnell’s tenure as a hitting machine. The coach is playfully but genuinely reluctant to discuss the team’s training habits.
“I don’t want to give away exactly what we do,” O’Donnel said, “but we do hit a lot.”
The results speak for themselves. Middlesex amassed 75 extra-base hits, including a league-best 27 homers, while batting a conference-leading .344 and scoring 220 runs (just under eight per game) last spring.
Middlesex returns its entire cast with the exception of slugging designated hitter Chris Petiya, who was among the state’s leaders with 13 homers and 44 RBI a year ago. In addition, Brennan Price, the hero of last year’s GMCT final with a pinch-hit grand slam, has fully recovered from reconstructive elbow surgery.
Seven Blue Jays will continue their careers in college including centerfielder Tommy Marcinczyk, a four-year starter who will play on a partial baseball scholarship at Rutgers University.
Prior to last season, Middlesex never previously advanced beyond the first round of the GMCT under O’Donnell, and the Blue Jays’ furthest prior advancement was to the conference tournament quarterfinals.
Unlike almost all of the other teams it faced, Middlesex won 25 of 28 games without a dominant hurler.
The Blue Jays pitch to contact, a fact best exemplified through their regular-season and GMCT quarterfinal wins over a solid-hitting South Plainfield squad that batted .312 as a team and featured two of the league’s most feared sluggers (Mark Tomei and Stephen Petriello).
South Plainfield scored just one run in both games combined as Middlesex’s pitch count was a miserly 66 in the first meeting and 78 in the second (10.3 pitches per inning).
“We rely an awful lot on not walking guys and just fielding the ball,” said O’Donnell, whose team’s ERA actually rose to 2.00 in Middlesex’s final game – a 10-4 victory over Sayreville for the GMCT title.
Anthony Keri was the staff’s strikeout king, fanning 38 batters in 54 innings. Compare that to 2012 Home News Tribune Player of the Year Christian Campbell of Sayreville, who will join Marcinczyk at Rutgers University in the fall. Campbell, the losing pitcher in the GMCT final, whiffed 87 batters in 66 innings.
Middlesex, as it always has under O’Donnell, will continue to test itself against a tough out-of-division schedule that includes Weehawken, Marist, Toms River North, Watchung Hills, Millburn, Monroe, North Brunswick, South Plainfield, Pope John and Dunellen.
A little more than a decade ago, the GMC athletics directors voted on splitting the conference baseball tournament into two – one championship bracket each for small schools (Groups I and II) and big schools (Groups III and IV).
O’Donnell, who is glad the split never occurred, said winning the GMCT may be more prestigious than winning a state title considering the quality of competition. Following last year’s victory over Sayreville, the coach needed some time to absorb what his club had accomplished.
“You’re not thinking about it while the game’s going on,” he said. “After I had a chance to sit back, I was shocked. I knew we were good. I knew we had a chance. But you’ve got to understand, for a small school to win our county tournament …”
O’Donnell, who ran out of words, will now let his team’s performance speak for itself on the field.