By Wayne Witkowski
Jackson Memorial High School baseball fans proudly sported their team’s colors and the Jaguars logo when their team took its home field for a key Shore Conference A South Division showdown April 29 against Brick Township High School.
The t-shirts they wore also read “Jackson baseball supports Retinoblastoma Research.”
Marisa Malta, the 13-year-old daughter of Jaguars head coach Frank Malta and an eighth grader at Hammarskjold Middle School in East Brunswick, again threw out the first ball for the 12th annual game and then headed to the concession stand to help with the hot-selling shirts funded by Dr. Robert Beam, who handles healthcare and sports treatment from his offices in Howell and Freehold. DependabiliTEES t-shirt designer in Howell produced the shirts at a nominal expense.
Marisa Malta was diagnosed with the rare affliction — a cancer that starts in the retina and occurs mostly in children — at 6 months of age. She went through treatment at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and Wills Eye Institute, which specializes in eye care. The care of renowned medical expert Dr. Carol Shields saved Marisa Malta’s eye from being removed.
Money raised at the game went to the Eye Tumor Research Foundation out of Wills Eye.
“It makes me really happy [doing this], knowing it can help kids going through the same struggles as I did,” Marisa Malta said.
The game generally draws about $2,000 for the cause, and $500 has been raised on the Maltas’ Facebook account. People can donate online or by mail to the Eye Tumor Research Foundation in Marisa Malta’s name.
She is too young to remember her recovery, but said she has been able to carry on her life pretty typically. She plays on defense in field hockey in a recreation program and competes for her school track and field team, with the 100-meter dash being her favorite event.
“I really don’t think much about [the illness] any more. It doesn’t bother me,” she said.
She said on occasion she loses focus when her vision trails off in her weaker eye.
“I always have to keep my eye protected and wear sports goggles and even contacts,” she said.
The mood remained upbeat before and during much of the game when senior left-hander Connor Takacs, who is headed to the University of Albany in the fall, took a 3-1 lead into the sixth inning before Brick Township rallied back, capped by a bases-clearing double by Chris Salsano in the sixth inning for a 4-3 victory.
Brick Township (8-3 overall, 5-2 division) had come off a loss to Toms River High School South in a showdown for first place in A South. Jackson Memorial (5-6, 4-4) needs to keep winning to stay alive for Shore Conference and state tournament berths, which eluded last season’s team for the first time in many years.
In a battle of left-handed starting pitchers, Takacs allowed hits to the first three batters for Brick Township’s first run, scoring off a single by starting pitcher Mike Saldo, and they were the only pitches hit off him out of the infield in that five-plus-inning span, along with an infield hit. Meanwhile, Mike Dimaio smacked a single that drove in two Jackson Memorial runs in the second inning after Tim Halasnik hit a single and Takacs doubled.
Jaguars pinch hitter Aaron McCullough reached on an error leading off the fifth inning, took second on Ryan Boyle’s topper in front of the plate and rode home on a line single to right by Alex Iadisernia.
That 3-1 lead seemed to be enough with the way Takacs had been pitching until he said he tired in the sixth inning — walking the first two batters on eight pitches. Coach Malta made a pitching change, and the next batter hit safely to set the scene for the double by Salsano.
Jackson Memorial went down in order in the seventh with two sharp catches of balls hit to the outfield, including a lunging catch by right fielder Cole Groschel, who is the son of Brick Township head coach Jason Groschel.
“It was really big for us to come back like that against a very good team like Jackson Memorial and coming back from a tough game the night before,” coach Groschel said.
“[Takacs] looked really strong, but it was a really hot day and he ran out of gas,” Malta said. “They had the bottom of the order, and we did not do enough. It’s all about staying focused and disciplined, and I don’t think we have enough of that to complete a game.”
Jackson Memorial hit the road against Toms River High School North May 1, Southern Regional High School May 2 and Brick Township May 3. It’s back home May 4 against Toms River North.