2013 Perfect Game High School Baseball Preview Index
In some abstract way, this might be similar to the situation Gene Bartow faced when he was named to replace John Wooden as the head men’s basketball coach at UCLA back in 1975. Wooden had coached the Bruins to 10 NCAA National Championships in 12 seasons from 1964-75, and the shoes he left for his successor to fill could have accommodated Big Foot.
But that’s not really the way Mike Rucci looks at the task before him as he prepares to take over for nine-time New Jersey state baseball championship coach Dennis Barth at Gloucester Catholic High School in Gloucester City, N.J. After all, Barth himself had to replace a legend in New Jersey Hall of Fame coach Al Radano, who won more than 300 games and six championships at GCHS in 18 seasons before Barth started his 19-year run, and he never so much as hiccupped.
Barth compiled a 495-95-1 record in 19 seasons at GCHS and won nine state championships, including the last three. His 2012 team finished 28-4 and captured the school’s 16th state championship, its third in New Jersey Division Non-Public A.
Rucci said “absolutely” that Barth leaves some big shoes to fill, and it is with that nearly unmatched history as a backdrop that he will take over as GCHS’s head baseball coach. Barth left to become the head coach at NCAA Division III Rutgers University-Camden.
“It’s something I didn’t think was going to happen, at least not for a few years,” Rucci told Perfect Game this week. “I’ve learned so much from Coach Barth that I kind of know what I’m getting into. I’m definitely not going to look to do the same things that he did, but I’m going to take a lot of the things he did and add my twists to it.
“There is no question that I’m a coach because of him, and going in here right after he (left) is definitely going be something that I’m not nervous about – I’m really looking forward to the challenge – but at the same time I don’t want to let him or the program down.”
Bartow went 52-9 and advanced to the NCAA tournament each of the two seasons he coached at UCLA, and then left. GCHS players, parents and alumni should expect Rucci to be around a lot longer.
“It’s not really a sad day,” Barth told Scott Chappelear from the South Jersey Times after an Aug. 27 news conference announcing Rucci’s hiring. “Gloucester Catholic was good long before I was here and it will be good long afterward, especially in (Rucci’s) hands. … I wouldn’t have left unless I knew they were in good hands.”
Rucci, a 2001 graduate of Gloucester Catholic, played for Barth on three state championship teams from 1999-2001, including the 2000 team that finished 33-1 and was named ESPN’s national champion. He went on to play at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J., where he was an NCAA Division III All-American three straight years.
This is Rucci’s second head coaching job at the prep level. He spent the last two years at nearby West Deptford (N.J.) High School where he led the 2011 team to the South Jersey Group 2 sectional championship.
“One of the biggest challenges will be taking over for Dennis after 19 years and that they’ve won three state championships in a row,” Rucci said. “Keeping things the way they are and getting them to an even better direction, and trying to get a fourth state championship will be the biggest thing we have to accomplish this year.”
Rucci’s first team at his alma mater begins its preseason workouts as the No. 43 team in Perfect Game’s National High School Team Rankings and the highest-ranked team in PG’s Northeast Region. The Rams are led by a pitching staff that returns senior right-hander Michael Shawaryn and four juniors and sophomores that threw at least 23 innings with ERAs all lower than 1.70.
Shawaryn, a 6-foot-4, 210-pound righty, was limited to 10 innings in 2012 but comes into this season healthy, happy and ready to re-establish himself as the Rams’ ace. He is ranked the nation’s No. 120 overall prospect in the 2013 class – he has not committed to a college – and the 268th overall (college, juco, high school) draft-eligible prospect in June’s MLB First-Year Player Draft.
“He’s been a varsity starter since he was a freshman, so he brings the experience of being around the program and he’s able to lead the way for the younger guys,” Rucci said.
Shawaryn pitched for Bob Barth – Dennis Barth’s nephew – and the Tri-State Arsenal at the 2012 PG WWBA World Championship in October and was simply terrific. With a fastball that sat in the low 90s, he threw four innings and allowed no runs, one hit and two walks while striking out 10.
Junior right-hander Steven Mondile Jr. is another top returner. Mondile was 4-0 with a 1.43 ERA for the Rams last season with 27 strikeouts in 30 innings. He also pitched for the Arsenal at the PG WWBA World Championship, and gave up a run, two hits and struck out four in two innings.
Incredibly, the Rams’ top returning pitcher is only a sophomore this season. Right-hander John Murphy enjoyed a sensational freshman campaign in 2012 when he went 7-2 with a 1.39 ERA in a team-high 60 1/3 innings. He had eight complete games in nine starts, surrendered 44 hits and walked 10, and struck out a team-high 46.
“We’re going to have to see how everything plays out,” Rucci said when asked if he’s going to need similar production from Murphy this season. “He threw 60 innings as a freshman, which is incredible; he was the horse of that staff. He’s going to go into it with probably the same mentality, wanting that many innings, but he won’t have to have all the pressure that he had last year, which is great. I look at it like we have two horses, two number-ones. Michael did it (as a sophomore) and John was able to do it as a freshman, which is amazing.”
Former coach Dennis Barth called on Murphy to start last year’s state championship game against nationally ranked Don Bosco Prep and Murphy came through with a complete-game three-hitter in the Rams’ 4-1 victory. “Nothing bothers him,” Barth told the SJ Times Chappelear after the title game. “He doesn’t think; he just pitches. … He ain’t scared of nobody.”
Junior right-hander Mike Mercer and sophomore left-hander Dante Scafidi provided valuable innings a year ago and will be counted on to so again this season.
The Rams graduated most of their offense from last season but return at least four solid bats: Senior Giovanni Gussen hit .444 (40-for-90) with 28 RBI and 27 runs; senior Frank Ragozzino was 15-for-35 (.429) with seven doubles; senior John Theckston hit .341 (14-for-41); and senior Tim Holder was 17-for-57 (.298), drove in 14 runs and scored 19.
Rucci feels like he has enough talent on his roster to make a run at a fourth straight state championship. It will take more than a change at the top of the coaching staff to alter the culture of accomplishment that engulfs the GCHS program.
“Being at Gloucester Catholic and being a part of it, when you go there you expect to win,” he said. “You go there expecting to work more than any other team in the state. The culture is just that; there are no questions that are asked in terms of how many times we’re going to practice, or the hours we’re going to put into it, or what are you going to do in the offseason. It’s expected.”
After the high school season is completed, all of the Gloucester Catholic players join the Brooklawn American Legion team which Dennis Barth will continue to coach. Rucci was a catcher on the 2001 Brooklawn team that won an American Legion World Series championship.
Technically, there are two American Legion teams, Brooklawn Red and Brooklawn Blue. The Red team consists primarily of the senior players and the Blue team is primarily underclassmen.
Because of the commitment to Legion ball, very few of the GCHS prospects play for travel ball teams during the summer, but many are starting to join travel teams to play in Perfect Game fall tournaments. As previously mentioned, Shawaryn and Mondile Jr., played with the Tri-State Arsenal at the PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., in October; Scafidi played with Farrah Builders Scout and Ragozzino with the All-Star Baseball Academy at the same event.
A team that called itself Brooklawn/Senators Nationals and boasted a roster made up entirely of Gloucester Catholic players took part in the 2012 PG WWBA Northeast Qualifier in Yaphank, N.Y., in early September. Shawaryn, Mondile Jr., Mercer, Holder and Theckston were all the roster of that team which finished 3-1 after a loss in the quarterfinal round of the playoffs.
“For us, it is tradition that in the summer you play for Brooklawn, and that’s what you do,” Rucci said. “If there’s a chance where the schedule allows you to (play travel ball) – it’s mostly in the fall when our guys will do that. Ultimately, we’re trying to get these guys seen as much as we can and (the Perfect Game events) help with that, but the one tradition we have is the Brooklawn-Gloucester Catholic thing.”
The Rams were to hold their first organized workout of the 2013 season Friday (March 1) and Rucci had them gathering at the school at 4:45 a.m. “This offseason has been great with the support of the alumni, the players and the parents,” he said. “They’re ready to go. … These guys are busting to get into and get the year started.”
And Rucci said his players shouldn’t really notice a whole lot of changes once they do get into it.
“The things that we did 10 years ago when I was here are still being done today; it’s amazing that tradition and that culture is still going,” he said. “It’s that respect factor that you don’t want to be the group of guys that kind of mess that tradition up; you’re trying to keep that tradition going.
“For me, taking this program over, that’s probably the special thing about it is that’s it’s kind of like a brotherhood and it’s really special to be a part of.”