The John F. Kennedy High School baseball team wrapped up the 2009 season in style by winning its first state championship in school history. Led by a historic tournament run by senior hurler Brian Schroeder, the Mustangs ended their quest with a 5-2 victory over Shawnee in the NJSIAA Group III final.
Schroeder became just the second pitcher in state history to win all of his team’s state games by going 5-0. As if that wasn’t special enough, Schroeder also managed to record a save for one of his own victories. In the team’s 11-8 victory over Nutley, Schroeder started the game and left the mound after the Mustangs jumped ahead 11-4. When Nutley pulled to within four runs, Schroeder took to the bump for a second time to slam the door on Nutley and earn the save.
“In what was an amazing year, Brian’s feat of winning all five of our state games was most impressive,” Kennedy head coach Jerry Smith Jr. said. “His slider is just too good. You don’t often see a pitch like that at the high school level.”
In addition to dominating the tournament from the mound, Schroeder proved nearly impossible for opposing teams to retire at the dish. In tournament play, he went 9-for-11 with eight walks. He reached base in 17 of his 19 plate appearances for an on-base percentage of .895. Of Schroeder’s nine hits, six were home runs.
“He’s a complete player, and that’s what makes him so special,” Smith said. “The GMC coaches named him the Player of the Year, and he was named the Pitcher of the Year by the Star-Ledger. What’s amazing is that prior to this season, Brian considered himself more of a hitter than a pitcher.”
Schroeder’s prowess at the plate garnered the recognition and respect from a pair of hurlers headed to Division I schools next season. In the state tournament, Kennedy went up against Old Tappan High School’s Alex Carvella and Shawnee High School’s Anthony Montefusco, who are headed to the University of Pittsburgh and George Mason University, respectively. Against two of the state’s best pitchers, Schroeder went 3-for-5 with a pair of round-trippers and four intentional walks. Old Tappan has won a state sectional title three of the past four seasons.
Prior to this season, Schroeder mainly came out of the bullpen as the Mustangs’ closer. When starter Chris Grimes went down with an injury during the state tournament last year, Schroeder jumped into the starting role. He went 12-0 this season with six saves to help the Mustangs go 24- 4 on the year. He ended his career at Kennedy with a 17-2 mark and 10 saves. Schroeder is headed to St. Peter’s College in the fall.
“We were at a crossroad up until this year because Brian was our catcher,” Smith said. “With Jayson Stolz developing into a very good catcher, we decided to maximize Brian’s innings. We used him sparingly at the start of the season, and he picked up his innings once the weather turned nice. We knew we would need him later, and everything worked out to our advantage.”
The late-season weather, although far from optimum, also proved to be fortuitous for the Mustangs. After the Nutley win where Schroeder earned both the victory and the save, a rainout enabled the team to go with Schroeder in the title game, and the rest is history.
The Mustangs won sectional titles back in 1992 and 1997 but came up short to win a group championship until this year. The last Middlesex County teams to win group titles were Spotswood and Middlesex. Both accomplished the feat in 2007.
“We had a really great team atmosphere this season,” Smith said. “As good as Brian was, he never thought of himself as bigger than anyone on the team. He was just one of the guys, and he knew how much everyone did for him, and all of the players were appreciative of one another.”