Jason Zegarski has two passions: baseball, and Lawrence Township baseball.
The former Cardinal shortstop has always put an emphasis on trying to build up the youth baseball interest in his hometown. Several years ago, while still playing for The College of New Jersey, he and some former teammates ran clinics over their winter break for the township’s youth players. Zegarski did it because he didn’t like the direction baseball was taking in Lawrence.
This summer, he has put himself in position to aid the town even more: He is the new manager of the Lawrence Post 414 team in the Mercer County American Legion league. After completing his LHS playing career in 2007, Zegarski helped as a volunteer coach the next several summers before taking the full-time assistant job under Angelo Capuano last season.
When Capuano decided it was time to step down, he asked Zegarski around mid-season if he’d be interested in the job. Zegarski, 24, waited until the end of the year before responding affirmatively.
“Being a head coach is definitely something I wanted to do,” Zegarski said. “I know when I first started playing at Mercer (County Community College) with coach (Matt) Wolski, I would go back and work with the high school team whenever I could, and I continued that when I got to TCNJ if I got out of practice early.
“Last year, when the assistant’s job opened, I jumped on that. I just love the game and love being around the game. To be able to pass on my knowledge to younger kids and see them go on to college and play is the best feeling.”
Zegarski’s father is a coaching legend, as Zigmund “Ziggy” Zegarski is a lifelong Lawrence fixture who has been Mike Perone’s Notre Dame soccer assistant for over two decades. Ziggy was also the president of Lawrence Little League for numerous years.
“Definitely my dad was a big influence,” Zegarski said. “He coached me when I was real little and probably when I was about 10, he became the little league president and couldn’t coach anymore.
“I was lucky enough to have Mr. (Marty) Clark and some other great coaches. But the other big influence was Matt Wolski. I always tell people he’s one of the greatest coaches I ever had. In the two years I played at Mercer, I don’t think I ever learned as much baseball in my life.”
Zegarski was a three-year varsity player at Lawrence, and as a senior only made second-team All-Colonial Valley Conference as a designated hitter despite hitting .380, 20 points higher than any other shortstop.
Recognition seemed to avoid Zegarski for some reason. As a TCNJ senior he hit .388, had 72 hits and broke the school record for defensive fielding percentage at shortstop and didn’t make any All-Conference teams.
“That’s OK,” Zegarski said. “I had fun.”
The past two years, Zegarski has been an assistant coach at Lawrence High, and head Cardinals coach Chris Gresko is thrilled to see him running the legion team.
“Jason is all about baseball,” Gresko said. “He has worked very hard for everything he has become. He made himself a top notch player in the CVC, and continued on at MCCC, and TCNJ.
“He’s a class act and a great assistant coach. Lawrence baseball is very lucky to have a guy like Jason working with our athletes.”
Zegarski is currently a substitute in the Lawrence school district and is looking to become a full-time health and physical education teacher, “so I can teach and coach. That’s what I really want to do.”
He quickly found out, however, that being a head coach involves a lot more duties than being the assistant.
“We have managers meetings once a month,” he said. “You have to get all the paper work done with rosters. I’m getting that on the computer, sending it out to coaches. Then there’s rainouts, and the phone calls you have to make. And being in contact with guys from the Post to make sure all the checks for the umpires, money for the equipment and ordering equipment is all accounted for. It’s a lot more than I planned on but I dealt with it.”
Zegarski has also surrounded himself with a coaching staff he feels comfortable with, including friends Casey Clark (Marty’s son), Dom Capuano (Ang’s son), Dave Angebranndt, the son of former Cardinal athlete Bruce Angebranndt, and former Post 414 player Chris DeAngelo.
Lawrence got off to a tough start, losing its first two games to Broad Street Park and Hamilton by 10-0 counts. But Zegarski quickly showed that he was the boss by taking discipline measures even though it might have hurt the team’s chances of winning.
“I’m not gonna say I expected us to lose those games, but I did bench a few players due to them not coming to practice,” he said. “I know they were down the beach; it was their prom.
“I said, ‘Listen, fellows, you can have your days at beach. After those days are over, it’s time to work.’ They elected to have fun, didn’t want to do it.
“I had to bench them to make a point, not just to them, but to the younger kids so they know we’re not messing around. I know in years past legion was easygoing. It’s summer, kids are going to the beach, they have jobs, they’re all wild and crazy.
“I kind of want to tighten the grips a little. I don’t want to be like a drill sergeant, but I want to have the kids on their toes and not have them come to a game and just breeze through it. I’m trying to get them to improve and compete at a higher level.”
The high school team has been at a higher level of late, having reached the state tournament two straight years, and becoming the first Cardinal team in two decades to win two state games this year. The bulk of that team is on Post 414.
“I feel we’re slowly improving, and hopefully it trickles down to the younger kids in town,” Zegarski said. “I want it to get to the point where other teams aren’t saying ‘Oh, we’re playing Lawrence, it’s gonna be a big stat day.’ I want it to be ‘Oh, we’re playing Lawrence, we have to be on our game.’
“I know we had a rough start, but I fully expect us to compete for the county playoffs by the end of the season.”
It’s all part of his passion to put Lawrence Township back on the baseball map.