Decade’s best No. 7: Matt O’Brien and Steve Waldman made sure Jersey Shore’s baseball program flourished
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the latest in a series looking back at the top 10 baseball teams, coaches, games and players from last decade
The year 2006 began a baseball renaissance at Jersey Shore. After years in the dark, the program basked in the championship glow, capturing its first district championship before winning four straight league titles from 2007-10.
Previous coach Shawn Weaver helped ignite that resurgence and offered Matt O’Brien some advice upon the latter becoming coach in 2011.
“When Weaver passed the torch he said, ‘don’t mess it up,'” O’Brien said. “I’m doing my best not to.”
He didn’t. Neither did Steve Waldman.
In fact, those two coaches took Jersey Shore’s program to another level.
Starting with O’Brien’s debut season, Jersey Shore captured a record five straight District 4 Class AAA championships. Twice in those five years, Jersey Shore set the program record for wins and twice it reached the state quarterfinals, being robbed of a Final 4 appearance in 2014 by an incorrect call.
O’Brien coached from 2011-13 and began the 2014 season before having to leave for New York for 16 days when his newborn Declan was fighting for his life. Declan survived and flourished and Waldman and O’Brien switched roles. Waldman coached through the 2016 season as the Bulldogs won two more district championships. From 2006-15, Jersey Shore was the only District 4 team to win a district and/or league crown every season. And during the six seasons O’Brien and Waldman coached, Jersey Shore went 95-36, compiling a .725 winning percentage.
Winning no longer was hoped for at Jersey Shore. It was expected.
“They’ve been taught that way all the way up,” Waldman said following the fifth straight district title in 2015. “A lot of these guys played for Matt O’Brien for three years and they know what they have to do to get through and they work hard at it.”
“With us coming in it was kind of always expected us to be top of the line,” first baseman Zach Miller said that same night. “I’m not very amazed that we won again, just happy. We work hard.”
O’Brien helped set that hard-nosed mentality when he took over in 2011. The Bulldogs lost their first two games, but a young team progressed throughout the season and won the program’s second district championship, defeating Selinsgrove 1-0 in the final before giving eventual state finalist Tunkhannock a battle in the opening round of states.
That season offered a preview of greatness to come and Jersey Shore made 2012 the best year in program history at that point. The Bulldogs featured a powerful offense, deep pitching and solid defense, romping to the HAC-I title and blanking Milton, 5-0 for the district championship. Jersey Shore made history in its next game as Tellef Notevarp threw a one-hit shutout and it won its record 18th straight game, blanking District 2 champion North Pocono. Perennial state title contender Lampeter Strasburg defeated Jersey Shore in the state quarterfinals, but the next step in this program’s progression had been taken.
“From the beginning of the year these guys grew a lot as a team,” O’Brien said. “We got better and along the way these guys became bigger than baseball. These kids grew up which is important.”
That growth continued in 2013 as Jersey Shore won 17 more games, repeated as league champions and 3-peated as district champions. The Bulldogs pounded opponents throughout the regular season but revealed their toughness in districts winning hard-fought 2-0 and 1-0 decisions against Shamokin and Midd-West. Travis Eiswerth threw a nine-inning shutout and Zach DePasqua hit a walkoff single in the championship against Midd-West.
Winning championships is difficult, especially in a sport as unpredictable as baseball. But Jersey Shore seemed like it played with an aura of invincibility as the championship streak increased, never doubting it would prevail, no matter how precarious the situation.
“I think sometimes you get caught up when you haven’t had anything but success, but you remember what it was like to be a high school athlete and it’s not a given you win the district title every year and get to the state tournament every year no matter what type of talent you have,” O’Brien said. “It’s all about the kids and what they do.”
A year later Jersey Shore faced a unique and daunting challenge. O’Brien addressed the team that preseason and said he had to step away for a while as Declan’s health deteriorated. Hearing about Declan was devastating news and losing their coach was difficult, but the Bulldogs rallied around Declan and Waldman and gave the entire O’Brien family quite a tribute.
For the second time in three seasons, Jersey Shore set a new record for wins, going 21-3. It again won HAC-I and district championships and featured one of last decade’s top area offenses as well as a deep pitching staff. All those qualities helped it beat Abington Heights, 4-3 in the state tournament’s opening round.
“It’s a great feeling and they just go out there and compete hard,” Waldman said. “They’re good kids and it’s fun to watch these kids play and practice because they all play so hard.”
That was evident in the quarterfinals against Tamaqua when Jersey Shore erased a one-run deficit with two outs in the top of the seventh, scoring twice and going up, 3-2. Tamaqua threatened in the bottom of the inning, but center fielder Boone Costa made an incredible play on a ball hit deep into the left-center field gap. Costa caught the ball, but as he rolled on the ground it popped loose. A television replay showed the ball never hit the ground and popped through the air into left fielder Christian Rishel’s glove for the final out. But the second-base umpire incorrectly said the ball hit the ground and Tamaqua won 4-3 as two runs scored. It was a bitter and frustrating way for the best season Jersey Shore ever experienced to end, but it did not break the Bulldogs.
Even when they started the 2015 season 8-7 and lost five one-run games, the Bulldogs stayed together and believed. Jersey Shore then won its next eight games and entered districts as the No. 5 seed in a six-team field. Jersey Shore hammered Montoursville and Athens in the first two rounds before taking a 4-0 sixth-inning lead against Shikellamy. The Bulldogs were a strike from winning in the seventh but an error brought in the tying run. Again, instead of breaking, Jersey Shore thundered back. Costa hit a go-ahead RBI single and retired the side in order in the bottom of the eighth. Once again and against the odds, the Bulldogs were district champions.
“It’s coming in and having a lot of confidence. Being here the last few years we have a lot of confidence,” Miller said after going 2 for 4. “We know how to play under the lights. It is a little different with the lights, but we know how to do it and it’s just a great feeling.”
O’Brien and Waldman certainly had a lot to do with all those great feelings Jersey Shore experienced last decade.