Brookdale, baseball, JUCO

Brookdale Wraps Up Epic 41-Win Regular Season, Nick LoVarco Breaks Home Run Record

LINCROFT—Fielding one of its more complete teams in recent memory, Brookdale recorded its most wins in a season since 2009, when that team won the NJCAA DIII Region XIX tournament and went on to place third in the NJCAA DIII College World Series.

The Jersey Blues closed out the 2024 regular season with a 41-7-1 record and are currently ranked No.4 in the country in the most recent NJCAA DIII top 20 polls.

Leading the way was sophomore right fielder Nick LoVarco, who broke Brookdale’s single-season home run record, blasting 18 dingers this season, breaking the record of former All-American Keith Weinkosky, who was a member of that 2009 team and the 2009 NJCAA National Player of the Year.

This year’s team showcased a combination of elite hitting and pitching, posting off-the-charts numbers in the process.

The team's batting average was a remarkable .410, with an OBP of .520 and a slugging percentage of .655 for a staggering OPS of 1.175. There isn’t a soft spot in the lineup, with hitters one through nine capable of doing massive damage in any situation. They slugged 46 home runs, 37 triples, 166 doubles, and 519 RBI and scored 586 runs in 49 games for an average of almost 12 runs per game.

“We’ve had just as good hitters in the past, but we’ve never had the depth straight through as this team has,” said Brookdale’s Johnny Johnson, who is in his 25th season as head coach and picked up his 800th win earlier this season. We’re never out of the game with this team, from the top of the lineup with Ryan Schmidt to the three bangers right in a row: Ryan (Cole), Rocko (Brezezniak), and LoVarco. And then you have Devon Smith, who’s also having an All-American year. They’re really swinging the bat; I’ve never had a team that’s put up those numbers.”

Smith, a sophomore centerfielder from Howell High School, has a .464 batting average, one home run, and 53 RBI, along with a .601 OBP and .714 slugging percentage - super stats that are only overshadowed because of a couple of teammates' putting up astronomical numbers.

The pitching staff has come down to earth a bit, with the grind of the long season wearing on them, but it is still one of the top staff in the region.

Teams hit for an average of only .243 against them and managed a meager OBP and slugging percentage of just .336 and .342, respectively. The team ERA was a respectable 3.48 with a 1.32 WHIP, and the staff recorded 9.58 strikeouts per nine innings pitched. They tossed seven shutouts and gave up just 23 home runs in 49 games.

Brookdale’s top-of-the-rotation pitchers, Jake Burt (9-0, 2.60 ERA), Ryan Cole (7-2, 1.91 ERA) and Tyler Spencer (7-0, 4.50 ERA) combined to go 23-2 with an ERA of 3.00.

“Our pitching has been unbelievable,” said Johnson. The problem is our freshmen have hit the wall, and we're hitting a stretch where they’re getting tired because they’ve never played this many games in a row. So, they’re reverting back to their old way of high school throwing—they’re walking and hitting some guys with poor mechanics. That’s why Cole’s so important; hopefully, they’ll get their second wind.

Cole has been battling a wrist injury recently and has been shut down since his last start on April 27, when it was obvious something wasn’t right with him. Johnson hopes he’ll be ready to go this weekend for the first round of the NJCAA Region XIX DIII playoffs, but if he’s not, that’s a huge blow to Brookdale’s hopes of winning the region and securing a trip to the NJCAA DIII World Series.

As important as he is on the mound for the Blues, Cole’s equally important in the lineup, hitting cleanup behind Brezezniak. Cole is hitting .441 with five home runs, 60 RBI, and an OPS of 1.240.

“If Ryan’s not ready to go, that’s devastating for us,” said Johnson. He’s the best all-around player in this region, pitching and hitting. He’s so important for us because he hits behind Rocko, and that takes the pressure off Rocko so they can’t pitch around him, and Rocko always comes through. So, hopefully, he’ll be back.”

Brezezniak is a phenomenal hitter with ridiculous numbers. He’s sporting a .571 batting average in 177 at-bats and is second on the team with 73 RBI and 12 home runs with a .571 OBP and a .955 slugging percentage to give him a crazy 1.526 OPS.

On a more positive note, freshman John Goode, a former first-team All-Shore pitcher and one-time Rutgers recruit, is back from an early-season injury and ready to pitch. He pitched four innings in Brookdale’s last game of the season, giving up one run and four hits while striking out three and walking five.

“We shut Goode down. He had soreness in his elbow with tendonitis, but an MRI showed he was fine and just needed some rest. He’s back on track,” said Johnson. He has a lot of potential, and if he’s healthy, we’re going to need him, especially with Ryan down.”

LoVarco hit his record-tying 17th home run on May 1, then four days later, he smoked his record-breaking 18th homer of the season over the left-field fence, but the wait in between was burdensome.

“I tried not to think about it,” said LoVarco. Everyone was saying, “Keep doing what you’re doing,” but it was hard not to think about it when you’re in that situation. I just kept my head down and kept working. On the at-bat, the count was 2-2, and I fouled a ball off my foot and fell to the ground. At first, I thought I was seriously hurt, but I was okay. Then the pitcher tried to throw me a curve ball, and I got under it and sent it over the left-field fence. I knew it was gone as soon as I hit it and heard the guys cheering from the dugout.”

LoVarco was an All-Shore selection at Wall his senior season but didn’t receive the offers to play at the D1 level he was looking for. So, he elected to enroll at Brookdale and hasn’t looked back.

“I really didn’t have any offers that interested me much, but I heard a lot of people speaking highly of the Brookdale program,” said LoVarco. “So, I decided to come to Brookdale and trust Johnny (Johnson) with my next two years. I’ve seen plenty of guys come out of here and be successful at the next level, so I thought this was the place to be. I’m 100 percent happy with my decision.”

The right-handed hitting slugger hasn’t committed anywhere yet but has been in communication with Rutgers, Monmouth University, and the University of Delaware, to name a few.

After a solid freshman season with the Blues, LoVarco definitely turned his game up a notch this season. He credits a rigorous off-season training regimen for his power surge and the overall refinement of his game.

“I trained all off-season with my buddy Andrew Ficher; we got after it in the winter,” said LoVarco.

Fisher was a teammate of LoVarco at Wall and a 2022 first-team All-Shore selection. He’s the starting third baseman for the University of Mississippi, hitting .303 with a team-leading 19 home runs and 53 RBI.

LoVarco bats second for the Blues and boasts a .497 average, which is second on the team, while his 18 home runs and 78 RBI lead the team. In case you’re wondering, those are eye-popping numbers rarely seen.

“Nick’s a leader on this team and a great kid,” Johnson said of LoVarco. “He came in as a freshman and did a nice job, then this year he came back stronger and faster, and he’s really learned how to play this game at this level. He matured, improved his work ethic, and became a Division One baseball player.”

In search of its first Region XIX title since 2009, Brookdale is the third seed in the upcoming NJCAA DIII Region XIX tournament. Gloucester ranked No.1 nationally, is the top seed, while Northhampton, ranked second nationally, is the second seed. Brookdale will open the playoffs this Saturday against No.6 seed Ocean County in a best-of-three series. Region XIX appears to be the toughest path to the World Series, with three of the top four ranked teams in the country in it.

“We just got to play our game,” said Johnson about his team's chances in the tournament. “If our middle infield can make the routine plays and we play our A-game in all three phases of the game, pitching, hitting, and fielding, we can beat anyone in the country.”

“You have to take it game-by-game, pitch-by-pitch; you can’t look too far ahead,” added LoVarco. “We have the talent to make it pretty far in this thing, but you can’t overlook any opponent in the playoffs because playoff baseball is a little different in that anyone can win. I think we have a really good shot at winning this whole thing. One through nine, we’re just super dominant, and I think we have a really good chance of making it to the World Series.” 

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Photo by Mike Ready
Brookdale head coach Johnny Johnson with slugger Nick LoVarco

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