A shore thing

Ocean City High School, set in a town known more for being one of the area’s favorite Jersey Shore destinations, is producing a steady stream of Major League Baseball prospects.

Story by Ray Dunne

The pop of the glove causes an eruption of screeches from nearby seagulls. They fly into the sea breeze falling over the Ocean City Intermediate School’s baseball field. Matt Nunan stands like a looming figure, even deep in center field, as he works through a pregame warm-up that includes throwing a softball and some long toss with his catcher. 

He’s the main event for today’s Red & White scrimmage for Ocean City’s High School baseball program. The Boston College recruit is one of four Red Raider pitchers committed to playing NCAA Division I college baseball, but the only one who will face live hitters on this early April afternoon.

“Okay, Nuner!” 

“Nunan is about to show out!”

Nunan’s fellow white team members are juiced up to watch the southpaw go to work. His red team counterparts let him know  he doesn’t quite have his best stuff. 

On that day, Nunan doesn’t look his best. No matter. He and older brother Dan, a pitcher in the Los Angeles Angels’ minor league system, are two parts of a bigger machine. 

Known as one of the Delaware Valley’s favorite shore points, Ocean City is quickly becoming one of the area’s most important producers of pitching talent through an ever-evolving baseball community and the legacy it continues to build. 

“This isn’t something that’s going to fall off the edge,” Ocean City High School Baseball head school Andrew Bristol said confidently, lauding the work done around his program. “This is a continuous process.”

The recent stretch of pitchers includes a laundry list of impressive resumes.

The Nunan brothers, the youngest committed to Boston College, the oldest in the Los Angeles Angels farm system; Connor Ortolf, pitched at Lafayette College; Sean Mooney, pitching in the Minnesota Twins’ farm system; Brandon Lashley, pitching at Stony Brook University; Jake McKenna, pitching in the Philadelphia Phillies’ farm system; Tom Finnegan, committed to Vanderbilt University; Gannon Brady, committed to Fordham University; and Duke McCarron, committed to the University of Maryland.

Three professionals, all Division I level pitchers. All since 2010.

One pitcher like that would be a pride point. Two would be impressive. Nine of that caliber is indicative of a greater system at play.

Those who showed up to the Red & White scrimmage at 3 p.m., its designated start time, are already late. Bristol is deeply in the midst of a fiery speech about expectations and greatness. The program he is running isn’t just competing in the Cape-Atlantic League or South Jersey, but has earned its place in the state conversation.

His intensity matches that level.

“We talk about a swagger on our program and [the pitchers] definitely have that,” Bristol said.

“I’m a very laid-back guy off the baseball field. But on the baseball field, I was kind of a gritty player, I was a leadoff guy, and ‘I’ll bite your knees off’ so they kind of get [the swagger] from me.”

Bristol is working on his 25th season as a coach in the Ocean City High School baseball program, the first 21 as an assistant to Craig Mensinger and now his fourth as the lead man. Mensinger certainly laid the groundwork, going 360-345-2 over 32 years and 154-77 in his final decade before retiring after the 2017 season. The team advanced to state title games in 2010, 2013 and 2016.

In retirement, Mensinger has remained as an assistant coach and a trusted voice to Bristol. He and fellow assistants Ed Terry, Anthony DeLeo, Frank LaSasso and Frank Coppenbarger, the latter of whom just finished a 30-year career in the big leagues as a clubhouse manager and advised the modernization of the school’s pitching mound, all have Bristol’s ear when it comes to decision making.

“You’re only as good as those around you,” Bristol said of his staff. “I watched a lot of programs over my time here and took and stole from as many quality programs, so that’s where our success came from. I noticed what they do and what makes them successful and kind of built from that.”

These coaches work in unison to put the pitchers on a strict schedule and plan. Nunan’s the only high level starter available for the scrimmage by design. Finnegan took his bullpen a few days earlier, and McCarron will throw tomorrow. Not even one of the team’s favorite traditions can change that up. 

The exact plan is kept close to the chest, honed through years of observation and adjusted as the assistant coaches, usually in conjunction with local trainers, see fit. In the era of elbow protection, the program’s prized assets will get their chance to battle it out against top-flight competition, but not at the expense of their future.

“Our schedule’s loaded with top talented teams this year,” Bristol explained. “That’s done on purpose so that every kid gets big moments. The pitching staff that I have, every kid that’s good is going to get the big moment.”

Midway through the Red & White scrimmage, a thin, older man appears beyond the backstop. Players perk up, walk over and have a word with him. 

Frank Fumo, the president of the local Little League, has seen plenty in his life.  He’s battled through health issues that have impacted his voice and how loud he can project it. Nonetheless, he captivates the attention of almost every player around that field.

Most of these players have their earliest baseball memories tied to Fumo, who has coached countless teams at the Little League level. They love him and respect what he has to say.

That makes his next conversation all the more important to the program. Bristol beams and walks toward his old friend. The two have coached alongside one another for decades, have children who are friends and work hand-in-hand with local baseball talent.

“You would be surprised what they can learn from when they are nine or 10,” Fumo said of his Little Leaguers. “It’s a lot in the sense of muscle memory … they listen and they learn. It’s drills, drills, drills and isn’t muscle memory. You’d be amazed to watch (the nine and 10-year-olds) pitch.”

Many school districts don’t get their programs organized until middle school with the first opportunity to mold the players of their future. In Ocean City, the expectations and practices of the Little League have been sculpted with the high school in mind. Fumo knows what it takes to play for Bristol, and Bristol knows that what Fumo does is paramount to his success. 

It takes a village to create an Ocean City pitcher. Fumo grooms them, the assistant coaches reign them in, and Bristol weaponizes them. 

But what makes an Ocean City pitcher?

“I’ve always said it, ‘I like my pitchers when I meet them for the first time that I look up to talk to them,” Bristol said with a laugh, further joking that his pitchers had the physical size of a basketball team.

“I would say competitiveness,” Nunan said. “You look at Mooney, the way he pitched on the mound, he was a competitor. That was something I looked up to and I think a lot of the other guys did too.”

“Good mechanics, we teach mechanics,” Fumo said, pausing to regather his thoughts. “And they’re mentally tough. They’re mentally prepared. It’s not just physical drills, we work with them on pitch counts, how to pitch in certain counts and when to throw a certain pitch.”

Tall. Competitive. Well-coached. And now, more than ever, trained year round.

More than 1,100 miles south of the Red Raiders’ field on Fifth & Bay, two of Ocean City baseball’s protagonists are bunking together in another shore town that has built a baseball community.

Former Ocean City left handed pitcher Jake McKenna and the man who trained him, Mike Adams, have made an extended stay in Clearwater, Florida as the two participate in their hometown Philadelphia Phillies’ minor league camp. McKenna signed with the Phillies as an undrafted free agent last summer following his high school career, while Adams was signed over the winter following a workout.

The roommates have a shared experience that not many minor leaguers can relate to. 

“I trained (McKenna) for four years and now we’re roommates at spring training together,” Adams said. “It’s crazy.”

A native of South Jersey himself, Adams would return to the area during his college days (he played at Wagner College, posting a 6.49 ERA in 60 appearances) and noticed there was not a high level place for baseball players to train. In an effort to help those coming behind him, he and fellow former local ballplayer Ed Charlton opened up the Baseball Performance Center (BPC) in nearby Pleasantville.

It was a perfect distance from Ocean City. Just a 20-minute drive away, the facility gave a place for year-round, full-blown baseball focus. Adams, however, realized he had to deliver on the product and earn the trust of the local community.

“We were doing things they weren’t really familiar with us personally, so when we first started, you know it was a little bit rocky, a lot of people questioned a lot of stuff,” Adams explained. “People hate change in general, so you know, whenever you get somebody that comes around and starts doing different things and ends up handling your players… it’s understandable.”

Enter Dan Nunan. 

“There were no real great training opportunities for pitchers in the South Jersey area and when Mike opened up, coach Terry reached out to my mom for us to go check it out,” Nunan recounted. “From the very first day I saw that it was going to be a great opportunity to practice everyday…and Mike, he has such an eye for guys throwing and their movements.”

“Dan was the perfect guy to start with, because he’s a really smart and talented kid. He’ll ask a lot of questions on why we’re doing things, what we’re doing things for,” Adams said through a smile. “Once he understood everything, he was a pretty good voice for everyone else we had that could explain to them why it’s important. He could explain to the coaches what he was doing and why, having him was huge for us.”

In the meantime, Adams was still participating in the Atlantic County Baseball League, throwing on his own and putting his teaching to work. He was working to better himself as a teacher as he did a player.

A southpaw who sat around 77 miles per hour, Nunan was not necessarily an MLB prospect when he first walked through The BPC’s doors. Not quite at his current 6-6, 215-pound frame, he had the build and the high IQ of a pitcher who just needed to iron out a consistent, powerful delivery.

Adams launched a game plan for the elder Nunan brother to dedicate himself to the craft, build his game from there, and go forward as a player. It took giving up his swimming career during his senior year to make it happen, a truly difficult decision for him.

“I swam from the time I was four years old,” Nunan said. “Senior year, when it came time to really be scouted, I decided to dedicate my time to working out at Baseball Performance Center. It was a really tough decision because I love swimming for Coach [Shane] McGrath and I loved those guys on the team.”

By working on a repeatable, efficient delivery that maximized spin and power behind the baseball, Nunan was able to add velocity to an advanced pitching approach for a high schooler. The result was a senior season in which he went 5-0 with a 1.49 ERA and 17.68 K/9 in 37 ⅔ innings. 

That was enough to get Nunan drafted in the 12th round of the MLB Draft by the Los Angeles Angels in 2018. Word was spreading, this new facility could take you places.

Nunan’s former teammate Sean Mooney, who graduated with the Ocean City record for wins, strikeouts and ERA, also turned to the BPC to bolster his arsenal towards the end of a career at St. John’s (NY) that got him drafted by the Minnesota Twins in the 12th round of the 2019 MLB Draft.

No one in the area had reason to doubt what Mooney could do. After undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2019 and eventually facing a canceled 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he was in the midst of looking to refine his game. 

His signature pitch, a fastball that rises on its way to the plate, was aided through the facility’s growing technological ability. The TrackMan and Rapsodo systems are both designed to quantify some of baseball’s previously unknown data. For Mooney, it gave a good glance at his fastball’s elite 2600+ revolutions per minute (RPM) and 24-inch vertical break. 

Weaponizing that data, the teaching revolves around having him be able to continue delivering that way while altering his mechanics. 

“(Post Tommy John surgery) was the first time he had been off from pitching in a while and it was a really good time for us to make some adjustments with his mechanics,” Adams said. “He had a little bit of a jump in his throw, so instead of rotating down the mound, he was jumping and it put stress on his arm and wasn’t as efficient as it could be. Basically we cleaned up his back leg and his foot strike and then from there he went from 86 to 91 miles per hour in college and now he’s 90 to 95.”

Results like this are becoming common. 

Jake McKenna pitched at Ocean City and trains at the BPC. He signed with the Phillies out of high school.

As for the Nunan brothers, one is in camp with the Angels and one is committed to play at Boston College. Both train at the BPC.

In fact, all four of the Division I-committed pitchers on the Ocean City roster right now are training at the BPC 

The two are now intertwined and for the betterment of each side.

“Other than good genetics,” Dan Nunan said when asked about what will keep Ocean City churning out baseball talent. “Baseball Performance Center is going to have a huge impact. If we have the kids that have the size and willingness to work hard, anything is possible…now that we have the resources in the area, the sky’s the limit.”

The day after the Red & White scrimmage, the team is back to work at a 10 a.m. practice.

Construction screeches on vacation homes down the street. Cars honk as they pass by. The ferris wheel looms beyond left field, the “Welcome to Ocean City” water tower stands tall over right field. 

Bristol runs to blast music. Luke Combs to Meek Mill to Guns N’ Roses, anything to keep the place loud. His voice, even with a mask on his face, still carries over all of it. 

The noise both inside and outside of this program is palpable. After years of talent, the expectations are starting to match it. Ocean City having four pitchers in its staff lined up for Division I baseball is the reality, not the dream.

Little Leaguers gather midway through the practice to watch how the “big boys” get it done. Bristol barks out to his players to “put on a show” for the kids.

“Let them know what we’re all about!” 

The kids are in awe of the size of Finnegan. The 6-7 right hander didn’t even have to throw his 90-plus mph fastball to turn heads. Some want to know what it’s like to really be that big and to be that good. Finnegan and his teammates chuckle.

Nunan spends a lot of time around the Little Leaguers. He calls out when he thinks someone’s showcasing potential. Gannon Brady’s cousin is in attendance, and Bristol jokes that the kid is already better than his Fordham-bound relative. 

A mother rushes to take pictures of the kids working out with the players. On one hand, it’s a moment of true community. On the other, she’s got great proof that she was around a couple of potential pro ball players. 

Somewhere on that field may be the next Ortolf, Mooney, Dan Nunan, Lashley or McKenna. At the same time, there stands Matt Nunan, Finnegan, Brady and McCarron. 

Bristol breaks from his intensity, if only for a minute and takes it all in. 

“Isn’t this awesome?”

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