CALDWELL--Montclair Kimberley Academy baseball coach Ralph Pacifico has liked what he’s seen from his strong, deep core of hitters early on in the 2018 season. But the veteran head coach is well aware that the Cougars’ championship hopes this spring will rely on a promising pitching staff.

On that front, senior pitcher John Sweetwood put an excellent foot forward Saturday night, pitching five brilliant shutout innings to lead MKA to an 8-0 victory over Belleville in Super Essex Conference-Liberty Division action at the Kiwanis Oval.

Sweetwood struck out five batters while allowing two hits and three walks in his inaugural start, finishing with a flourish by retiring the final eight batters he faced. The senior walked the first two batters he faced, but was otherwise in total control of his pitches, locating his fastball on both corners of the plate and using a big looping curveball to induce early, off-balance swings from the Belleville batters.

“John’s a go-getter centerfielder for us normally,” said  Pacifico, winner of more than 450 games in his 27th season with MKA. “He hasn’t pitched much for us, other than closing some games down for us last year. He’s learning how to pitch, and he’s been working with [former pitcher] Mike Sasso to improve. He’s got really good stuff. His own worst enemy is going to be himself, when he overthrows the ball. He settled in nicely tonight.”

Sweetwood fits into what should be an intriguing rotation of pitchers for Pacifico, whose squad went 9-13 a year ago. Among the top names who will be expected to carry the load for MKA this year are ace Aidan Okamoto-Wolf, Chris Lewis, Brendan Powell and Robbie Hollander, all seniors, along with junior Andrew Rosamilia and sophomore Aaron Jacobowitz. Lewis finished up Saturday night’s win with two excellent innings, striking out the side in the sixth before retiring the Buccaneers in the seventh without giving up hard contact.

If the pitching comes together, then the Cougar hitters should make this team a contender in the SEC-Liberty, Pacifico believes.

“This team’s pretty focused,” Pacifico said. “We have a lot of seniors on this team, and great leadership. They keep the levity going, they keep everyone in a good way. But they’ve put in a lot of work in the offseason, they want this to be a memorable year.”

Senior catcher Dom Flocco had the best night of the MKA hitters, going 2-for-3 with a triple and a pair of RBI. He batted in the Cougars’ first run with a two-out line drive single to right in the bottom of the first, scoring Sweetwood. 

Flocco was an all-around contributor Saturday night, making the defensive play of the game to save a run in the top of the third with MKA clinging to a 3-0 lead. With runners on second and third and two out, a Sweetwood pitch went past Flocco and to the backstop. The agile catcher managed to scoop up a friendly bounce and sprint back to home plate, where he dove just in time to tag the sliding Belleville runner for the final out of the inning.

“Dom’s a hard-nosed player,” Pacifico said. “And he also just found out last week that he got a full academic scholarship to [Division I] Davidson. I’ve taught him since he was in Pre-K, and I’ve just seen him grow. He’s just physically one of the best catchers in Essex County, including Seton Hall and anyone else.”

But the Cougars have gotten tremendous balance in their starting lineup thus far this year. In Friday’s season-opener, a wild extra-inning 11-10 win over West Orange, Flocco had a monster game (3-for-5, 4 RBI, 3 runs scored and a home run), but so did sophomore Luciano Calandra (3-for-5, 4 RBI, 2 doubles), Lewis (3-for-5, RBI) and Sweetwood (2-for-2, 3 runs scored, 2 walks, 2 steals).

The frigid weather Saturday night — and a solid effort from Belleville starter Justin Kius, who was hurt by two untimely errors — cooled the MKA bats somewhat. But sophomore Ben Ribicoff’s two hits, including a two-RBI single in the bottom of the first that staked the Cougars to a 3-0 lead, and senior Robbie Hollander’s two hits and RBI were more than enough.

“We don’t have a lot of holes in the offense,” Pacifico said. “We have a great group of seniors who are really leading things, and we’ve got some really promising guys coming up who are going to play a big part for us.”

MKA added two more runs in the fourth on Aidan Okomoto-Wolf’s bloop RBI single and when Sweetwood reached on an error. The Cougars made it 7-0 in the fifth inning when Lewis scored on Flocco’s triple and a Calandra groundout scored Flocco.

MKA is next in action this Saturday, April 14, at 3 p.m. against the Fieldston School of New York, and returns to SEC-Liberty play Monday afternoon against West Essex. Both games are at the MKA Middle School field.