Lions pick up key victory ahead of conference, state tournaments

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By Wayne Witkowski

Jackson Liberty High School’s baseball team picked an ideal time to get a signature victory for this season with the Shore Conference and state tournaments looming.

The Lions raised their record to 13-7 at the cutoff for Shore Conference Tournament play when they beat perennial Shore power Toms River High School South, 3-1, May 12. Matt Pickus held Shore Conference A South Division champion Toms River South to three hits in suffering only its second loss in 18 games and ending a nine-game winning streak, while Kyle Tavaska collected three hits and drove in a run for the Lions. Matt Hickman smashed two hits and Shane Hickey drove in a run when Jackson Liberty erased a 1-0 deficit with two runs in the fifth inning and scored an insurance run in the seventh.

The victory serves notice for the Lions in the Shore Conference Tournament, which completed seeding May 15.

Jackson Liberty, which finished in second place in the B South Division, rebounded from an 11-0 loss in the previous game to A South’s Southern Regional High School (12-6 overall, 8-6 division) in the Ocean County Tournament quarterfinals, which had snapped the Lions’ five-game winning streak. Jackson Liberty had two hits in the game.

“Southern did everything well, and we didn’t really do much right in that game,” Jackson Liberty coach Jim Rankin said. “It was the perfect storm. But that’s high school sports, and it will happen from time to time.”

It was a departure from the five-game win streak in which Tavaska hit 7-for-13 and David Melfi went 8-for-15 with eight RBIs.

“It was timely hitting and solid pitching performances in that streak,” Rankin said. “David Melfi, Shane Hickey and Kyle Tavaska have been swinging a hot bat, while we’re getting solid performances on the mound lately from Matt Pickus, Kevin Ritz, Nick DeCarlo, Matt Piro and Andrew Ludovico.”

Rankin felt his team could rebound from the loss to Southern Regional, as it had done from an up-and-down, 7-6 start.

“It was regaining confidence after an extremely tough day [against Southern Regional],” Rankin said. “These players have been resilient all year, so I fully expected them to bounce back and get us back on a roll. We are capable of beating anyone when we are playing confident.”

It can make up for the frustration of finishing in second place in B South.

“We are not necessarily happy about finishing second in the division but considering we began the division season 4-3 and were able to finish 6-1 was nice to see,” Rankin said. “This showed a lot of character from our kids. Lacey (17-3, 12-3), who won our division, deserves all the credit for what they did in the B South. They deserve it.”

Jackson Memorial High School beat Lacey Township High School, 4-2, after suffering a 7-1 loss earlier in the season. Aside from the loss to Southern Regional, Jackson Liberty has not allowed more than three runs in any of the last 13 games.

Now, the Lions hope to sustain what they showed against Toms River South in what looks like a more wide open Shore Conference Tournament, especially after that game, followed by the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association Central Jersey, Group III tournament.