The 2016 Nottingham High School baseball team shocked the competition by winning the Central Jersey Group III title and advancing to the Group III championship game. The Northstars return key players from last year, and the postseason run has given them confidence in 2017. (File photo.)

When it comes to the hopes and dreams of Nottingham High baseball this season, Ron Voacolo may have a little Rocky Balboa in him.

During one quick scene in “Rocky II,” Mickey the trainer knocks on Rocky’s door and says to his boxer, “I think we oughta knock his block off! ” Balboa instantly responds, “Absolutely.”

That was in 1979, and Voacolo wasn’t close to being born yet. But ask the senior pitcher if the Northstars’ goals this year are nothing less than a county and state title and the answer is immediate.

“Absolutely,” he said.

That’s the kind of optimism one would expect from a team that returns a solid foundation from last year’s NJSIAA Group III Central champions and Mercer County Tournament finalists.

In just the second season under coach Jim Maher, the Northstars went 19-11, fell to Steinert in the Mercer County Tournament title game, won the CJ III crown and lost a memorable Group III semifinal to Ocean City. The Northstars trailed 10-3 before scoring five runs in the seventh and leaving the bases loaded.

A talented nucleus remains intact, including ace pitchers Voacolo and junior Nick Houghton, junior first baseman Bryce Fremgen, senior second baseman Brien Cardona, junior shortstop Tommy McParland and junior centerfielder David Scott. Houghton will also play left field, while McParland and Fremgen are part of a deep pitching staff.

Suddenly, in two quick years, Nottingham’s game is the one circled on opponent’s calendars.

“We aren’t sneaking up on anybody anymore,” Maher said. “We’ll probably come in as a top three team in the county. We’re coming off a Mercer County final and a state semifinal with two key pitchers back. We’re now a big game on their schedule, which we haven’t been in a while.”

Voacolo, for one, embraces that role.

“Definitely,” he said. “Knowing everybody wants to beat us now and we’re not just the old Nottingham anymore; it’s great having that feeling. Just going out and knowing these teams want to beat you so bad, it’s a good feeling to have on your shoulders because you know that now you’re one of the strong teams out there.”

It is the result of a culture change Maher brought forth in his first season, when he demanded nothing more than hard work, focus and respect for the game.

“It’s definitely changed a lot,” said Voacolo, now in his third year on varsity. “Just the mentality; everybody working. When I first started, it was a laid back team. Varsity, JV, freshman, everything was laid back. Nobody skips corners anymore, everybody does what they have to do. They stay in the game. Nobody messes around. Maher has good control and just with him keeping everybody in the game, everybody basically plays better.”

Maher raised some eyebrows in his first season, when he benched experienced seniors and put freshmen Fremgen, Houghton and McParland in the starting lineup. That caused some friction and defections but by season’s end, Houghton pitched 15th-seeded Nottingham to a stunning first-round upset over 2nd seeded Steinert in the state tournament.

The evolution had started. After last year, no one can argue with the results of the 2015 youth movement.

“I kind of went along with it,” Voacolo said. “He wanted to change the mentality and (the seniors) had the old mentality of maybe not playing as hard. Putting those guys in there definitely paid off in the future. They’ve definitely grown up and play the game different from their first year. They’re not slacking. I feel it’s good he did that.”

After learning the ropes in 9th grade, each player stepped up as a sophomore. McParland hit .297 with 16 RBI and 10 stolen bases (and 10 hit-by-pitches), Houghton batted .260 with 13 RBI and five doubles and Fremgen hit .278 with 19 RBI and five doubles.

Houghton was even more impressive on the mound, going 7-4 with a 2.14 ERA and 52 strikeouts in 59 innings. That would normally make him a No. 1 starter, but he has to share that title with Voacolo, who went 7-1 with a 1.46 ERA and 64 strikeouts in 57.2 innings.

The two were outstanding big-game pitchers as they thrived on out-doing each other during last year’s tournament runs.

The Nottingham High School baseball team will count upon pitcher Ron Voacolo, shown here during last year’s Central Jersey Group III title game, to be one of two aces on the mound this season. (File photo.)

“Say if we have a big game and I go out there and pitch good, it’s gonna rub off on each other,” Voacolo said. “He’ll pitch good and we kind of go back and forth. We’ll challenge each other a lot. During the state run, let’s say one game he had the two-hitter, then I had a three-hitter or he’d have a one-hitter. It was fun; knowing if one of us pitches good, the other was going to try to pitch good in the next game. We just battled. It’s kind of good for the team knowing we’re gonna go out there and have a good game every time.”

Maher knows just how valuable a one-two punch like that can be—not just physically, but mentally.

“Our guys are very confident when we have those guys on the mound,” the coach said. “I don’t think anyone in the county can match our pitching as far as having two Division I starters out there.”

The arms don’t stop there, however. Also throwing will be Fremgen, McParland, senior Nolan Martin, junior Phil Rojek and freshman Pat Luckie, who is used to varsity play after serving as goalkeeper for the Northstars soccer team last fall. McParland was 1-0 last year with a 0.95 ERA in limited action, while Fremgen was 1-2 with a 4.33 ERA.

The biggest question in the infield is at third base, since Cardona (.281) was moved from the hot corner to second.

“We’ve got Rojek over there, and we’ll be fine defensively with him but he’s gonna have to improve offensively,” Maher said. “Nolan Martin is probably the opposite. He can swing bat a little bit, but needs to improve defensively. We also have two freshmen infielders, Logan Barber and Wyatt Baker. Barber could play anywhere, and Baker can play first, third and pitch. The Barber kid has been very impressive, he’s handled himself very well.”

Maher also needs to find someone to play first when Fremgen is pitching, and will use either Barber, Baker or Martin.

The outfield has Houghton in left, junior David Scott (.299, 10 RBI) moving from right to center and sophomore Jacob Fanning in right after seeing some time last year. Senior Josh Sikorski, junior Robbie Bennett and sophomore Christian Fuentes are vying for time in left when Houghton pitches.

Another new situation is behind the plate, where senior Tommy Argiriou takes over for two-year starter Joe Garey. Argiriou hit .273 in a limited role last year. He will be backed up by Brett Hoffman.

“Tommy caught a lot of innings last summer for the legion team, which was good for us,” Maher said. “Tommy’s capable, he can swing the bat a little bit. He’s getting his chance this year, now he’s got to make the most of it. We have Mike (Petrowski) handling the pitching staff, and he’s hands on, so we just need Tommy to worry about catching and throwing guys out.”

Voacolo is confident in Argiriou, saying that “He really worked on his arm over the summer, he’s good at blocking, calling signs. It’s good to have him back there.”

With so much talent back, Maher feels that if the newcomers come through, the potential is there for another big year.

“We’ve won nine (state and county) tournament games in two years, and obviously last year we learned how to win some big games,” Maher said. “We’ve got six players who I consider my kind of players. I know I can go to battle with six or seven guys who can handle the pressure, but you need eleven, twelve or thirteen guys. We need about five or six more to step up to be as good as last year.”

Voacolo feels confident.

“If we keep the bats going like we did last year and the pitching stays strong, we should definitely have another good run this year,” he said. “We lost some key guys but we’ve still got some bat power, some pitching power. I think we’re gonna look good with everything we’ve got back.”

That’s another way of saying “Absolutely.”