by Andrew Garda
For the 23rd year in a row, the Montclair Kimberley Academy boys baseball team spent some time down in Florida to avoid the usual poor New Jersey weather as well as take some time for team bonding.
“We got in a bunch of baseball scrimmages, we got to practice, and see a lot of other baseball teams who are a lot more seasonsed than we are,” said head coach Ralph Pacifico during a recent phone call. “So that always helps to show the kids where we need to be and where we need to get.”
While the team — along with girls lacrosse and softball — may travel out of state to find some dry and warm weather, they’re finding talent much closer to home.
Right in Montclair, to be exact.
“I can’t really go out and solicit kids and skirt the fact that it’s a heavy tuition and academic load,” Pacifico said. “So the kids I have, have got to be home grown and developed from within. And I think we’re doing a good job of that.”
This year’s baseball team will feature eight local Montclair kids, some of whom came up in the MKA system, and some who transferred out of the Montclair public schools. Five will be regular starters out in the field, and a sixth, Andrew Rosamilia, will be a regular fixture on the mound.
Will Blake will start in left field, Jack Wilkin will be opposite him in right field, and Aaron Jacobowitz is going to start at second. Both he and Wilkin will also pitch for the Cougars.
Luciano Calandra spent much of his 2018 season at first base, but now will be shifting behind the plate.
Pacifico said the switch from first to home plate is going well for the junior.
“He’s a talented hitter, and a talented hitter,” Pacifico said. “He’s working hard on defense to get where he needs to be.”
Third base isn’t settled yet but beyond that, the final local piece of the puzzle is freshman John Testa. A product of the Montclair Public School system, Testa will be taking over full time duties at shortstop, and Pacifico has high hopes for the ninth grader.
“The kid is phenomenal,” the coach said. “He can run, he can hit he can throw. He’s gonna be a really welcome addition to the team. Moving forward, I see him as a real solid player, as he gets stronger and develops.”
Of course, it’s not all kids from in town who Pacifico depends on.
Senior Rolando Quintana will start at first base and step in as a left-handed option on the mound, while junior Ben Ribikoff takes over in centerfield.
Ribikoff, who has interest from several Division III schools, was red-hot in Florida, generating a lot of extra-base hits.
“He runs well and can go get it in centerfield,” Pacifico said. “And he’s a very talented hitter.”
Hitting well is a critical piece for this team. The Cougars can send the ball deep, but they rarely have a big bat who can change the face of the game with one swing of the bat.
That means they’ve got to make contact consistently, something that’s been a focus all preseason.
“We spent a lot of time on situational batting practice, moving runners over, sacrificing, and I think it’s going to help,” Pacifico said. “Manufacturing runs is going to be a big part of our season, because we don’t have that real big bat in the lineup other than maybe one of two guys who can run into a fastball or offspeed pitch. We’re going to count on people trying to move runners over.”
That’s how the Cougars will compete in a tough division against schools who have a bigger pool of kids to pull from.
“I think our division is very competitive. We play Bloomfield, Caldwell, we play Montclair High, Columbia, West Essex,” Pacifico said. “Schools that are Group 3 and 4 schools and have 900-1100 boys in their buildings, while we have 230 boys. And it’s not like Don Bosco situation where I can go out and hand-pick guys or Seton Hall Prep where they come to you in droves.”
Still, Pacifico likes his team and their chances.
“Anything can happen in baseball if you play defense, try to put the ball in play and make teams make mistakes. It’s a game definitely played between the ears more than anything and I’m trying to teach the kids that and they’re doing a good job of understanding the concepts.”