Consistency. That has not only been a motto, but the reality of the Pope John baseball team for the last two decades. Under Vin Bello, Pope John became a yearly threat in the NJAC, before blooming into a statewide power in the past several seasons. When the news came out that the Bello family would be moving to Florida, it sent shockwaves throughout the entire Pope John community. Needing a new coach to continue building and leading this program, Pope John went searching to find the man for the job. Insert first-time head coach Sean Bierman. Bierman is a well-known face to this Lions team, as he has been an assistant coach for the team, runs Biermans Baseball Gym in Wayne, and was a head coach for the New Jersey Bulls baseball club. His players will be learning from an accomplished player, who was a top high school recruit out of Kinnelon before pitching at Vanderbilt and University of Tampa, being taken in the tenth round of the MLB Draft, and playing a few years in the minors. He’s got a big job in front of him, but he’s definitely up to the challenge.
This team has taken a lot of big losses to graduation, and are looking for players to step up and fill the holes the Lions need to be a Top 10 team in the state again. Among those losses were power hitting first baseman Nate Pallotta, dependable catcher Jimmy Brennan, top pitchers Will Tierney, Connor Grotyohann, and Ben Weber, and the season long loss of senior RIT-commit Joey Bonifiglio to a torn labrum. Along with this mass departure comes the obvious exodus of the entire Bello family. From Coach Vin who has been the face of the program for years, to one of the top players in the state in Mike who is now tearing up the SEC as a freshman at Auburn, and finally to one of the best underclassmen Pope John had last year in Dom, who was to be an integral part of the team this year. They lost not only a phenomenal coach and two top players but three men that were leaders on and off the field.
Despite all these departures, Pope John is well set up for a quick retool behind Coach Bierman and his squad. There’s a lot of connecting backgrounds on this coaching staff, made up of Bierman, Jamie Manco, Dan Cunico, and Bernie DeCristofaro. Manco coached Bierman at Kinnelon High School, and also has his son on the team. Cunico is a Lions baseball alum who is paying it back to his former school by coaching after pitching for UMass-Lowell. They are joined by DeCristofaro who is the team’s pitching coach.
With this new, yet familiar, staff comes the returning players that have been instilled with the values of Pope John baseball and are coming into a system they already know. The transition won’t be easy, but they are well equipped to deal with any adversity that may come their way. Every position will be filled, and this lineup is full of versatile athletes that can, and will, play all over the field.
On the mound, they return two of their top players in Marist-bound Nick Buchman and St Joes commit Frank Ciccone, who combined for 48 strikeouts. Both will be tasked with eating innings, and it shouldn’t be a problem for either. Another senior joining them on the mound is 6’9” Roger Williams commit Nolan Niziol after strong work last season in relief, he will also be the regular first baseman. Junior Ayden Alexander, newly committed to George Washington, will look to build on a very solid sophomore season as he will be a consistent starter this year. All four of these players are pure athletes, and they will be playing around the field when not pitching and bring a presence at the plate. Joining this staff in a pure pitching role only is junior Anthony Bubba who saw limited varsity time last season, but will be called upon often in a relief role. Sophomores Parker Rutkowski and J.C. Franconere have made noise early and will look to press for innings.
Shifting over to the field, this team has a lot of potential at the plate. Speedy outfielder and Fairleigh Dickinson commit Nick Morro brings back a .309 batting average and 9 stolen bases and will be depended upon to help propel this team. He will be joined in the outfield by junior Chris Manco who brings a steady bat to the lineup after some varsity action last year as an underclassman. In the infield, Nolan Niziol will continue his duties as a first baseman and pitcher. Junior Brian McKenna steps up to varsity at second base with high expectations, along with returning sophomore shortstop Mac Tufts who looked like a regular in just his freshman year with high expectations of his own. Third base will be platooned by sophomore Brandon Weir and senior Frank Ciccone. Playing around the infield and designated hitting will be Arcadia commit Pete Trendafilov with his presence at the plate. Behind the plate is the biggest question mark, as Eastern commit Gabe Weir will handle duties, but heavily touted transfer Mikey Gallaway will return after his 30 day sit with his 0.435 batting average to battle for time behind the plate and obviously at it. Freshman Jack Portman made varsity and will be working hard to crack the starting lineup and be a reliable player off the bench.
After looking at what Pope John is bringing to the mound and plate this year, the losses will hurt but this Lions team should be in a good position to continue their dominance of the NJAC, HWS, and the state as a whole. This is a determined and hungry team that wants to set the tone early for the next era of Pope John Lions baseball. The Lions are looking at a tough schedule, with matchups against the best in the state night in and night out. They will be tested early and often, but Pope John will go as far as Coach Bierman and their players push and strive for.