By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
The Manning family in football. The Currys in basketball. The Griffeys in baseball. Seemingly every sport has an iconic family that comes to mind, and that’s true even on the local level. At Cedar Creek, the Meltons have become synonymous with Pirates football. And when you’re talking about Absegami baseball, the Ardente name is the first that comes to mind in recent history.
There has been an Ardente brother wearing the white, brown and gold of Absegami every year since 2009, save for the 2016 season — a year after Matt graduated and a year before Nick, the youngest, entered the halls of the Galloway Township school. It all began when Anthony entered as a freshman in 2009, and the family’s successful run has come to an end, albeit in a way they never would have expected. Nick’s senior season was wiped out due to the coronavirus pandemic, and while he plans to attend Rowan University this fall to begin studying biochemistry, he has chosen not to play baseball in college.
It truly is the end of an era in South Jersey baseball.
“I get emotional. (My kids) say I’m over the top, but our kids are our lives. I was president of the booster club for Absegami baseball and Bob has helped out. We enjoyed it and always looked forward to the season. When Anthony was a senior, Matt was a freshman, so they played for one year together and that was exciting. And they played travel ball as well, so there was never a moment when we weren’t doing some kind of baseball, “ said mom Silvana Ardente, a 1984 Oakcrest High School graduate. “Coming from a background with no sports to having three boys playing baseball, I jumped in and joined them. I am truly a baseball mom. We did everything we could to make it enjoyable. When Anthony was little we let him choose whatever he wanted to play, and he chose baseball. The other two grew up watching him and followed suit.”
Sylvana and Bob Ardente, a 1983 Oakcrest graduate, knew each other in high school but didn’t start dating until they were in their 20s, and their family includes three boys: Anthony, now 26, Matt, 23, and Nick, 18. Anthony and Nick both were catchers for the Braves while Matt was a star pitcher who holds the school record for career wins. Anthony played for a year at Rutgers-Camden before deciding college wasn’t the right path for him, and now he works for a utility line company out of Cape May. Matt played several seasons at Seton Hall before arm injuries ended his career, but he recently finished up his masters degree in athletic training.
And while all three are taking paths beyond high school that have led them away from the baseball field, the diamond — particularly at Absegami High School — will always be a second home for the entire family. Silvana is the former president of the Absegami Baseball Boosters Club and still remains active in fundraising efforts, as does Bob, and they’ll likely continue to attend games in the years to come. They just hope that whoever ends up wearing jersey No. 3 understands the significance it holds to the Ardentes.
“It has been hard knowing this was going to be the last year. But all three of my boys did well and they have that camaraderie with their friends. They all wore No. 3, so that number is big in our family,” Silvana said. “When Matt took over Anthony’s number, that meant something to me. And with Matt doing well and moving on, then Nick came in and wanted to wear that number. So, No. 3 has been known as the Ardente boys. I think people will remember the Ardentes playing there because they made an impact, both on and off the field. I’m going to miss it.”
Last season, Nick made a huge impact as the starting catcher for Absegami, a junior on a senior-laden team that went on a late-season run under first-year coach Mike DeCicco and beat his alma mater, Mainland, 1-0 in the opening round of the state playoffs behind a complete came shutout from Sam Daggers.
“Coach DeCicco always wanted to beat Mainland because that’s where he played, and (the coaching staff) gave us great motivation. They always said to keep a chip on our shoulder, and that was a great motivator to just get to the playoffs. We lost both times (during the regular season) to Mainland and that cost us the conference title, but it all ended up in that one playoff game that really meant something to us,” Nick said. “I felt like us working as a group, it was a perfect year. It was an all around team effort. When I was a freshman, coach (Brian) Wastell told us we were the next group to do something special, and ever since he said that we all had that mindset that we were going to win a playoff game.
As for losing his senior season, Nick said, “It’s been pretty rough. I didn’t want to play in college because I want to concentrate on academics, so I was looking for one more season to prove myself as the last of the ardentes and show everyone why I was up there on varsity. I wanted to play with the kids who I grew up with because they are my best friends and we’re all now going our separate ways. I just wanted to go down to South Carolina, have a really fun year, and possibly go on a playoff run again.”
The Ardente legacy all began with Anthony, who as the son of a former Oakcrest football player decided that baseball was his sport of choice. Matt and Nick, as younger brothers, naturally tagged along and became outstanding players in their own right.
“Baseball is what they gravitated to. They tried soccer, but they really enjoyed baseball. I played football in high school, but baseball is what they wanted to play. It’s cool,” Bob said. “I was just an average athlete. I played varsity football but I was never a starter, and all three of my sons were four-year starters and there’s something to be said for that. I don’t think any of them were superstars but they all contributed to their team, each in their own way. Now that they are older, we’re at the next stage. Matt is into his medical career, Anthony has found his career in the workforce and Nick is venturing on to college.”
“I didn’t even think I was going to play varsity, I just assumed I was going to have to work my way up like anybody else. I was sitting there doing homework and coach Wastell called and said, ‘make sure you bring your stuff tomorrow, you’re going to try out with the older kids.’ And it went from there. I might have played a few JV games when I was injured, but other than that it was varsity. I didn’t start as a freshman, but I played and lettered,” Anthony said. “I played with those guys my whole life and that (in high school) was the last time we all played together. My junior year was our best year because we had a heavy senior class and a few kids in my grade. My senior year, more than half the team was freshmen. Matt was going to pitch anyway, but (because of injuries) he was brought into the No. 1 spot.”
“In recreation I had a growth spurt and I could throw harder than the other kids. I was more of a thrower than a pitcher, originally, and then I started to tailor my skills toward pitching,” Matt said. “I always wanted to be an outfielder. I was a first baseman because I was a thicker kid before I hit my growth spurt. I started pitching because I could throw hard, and it was easy being able to throw bullpens to Anthony. He knows what a good pitcher looks like so he was able to tell me what I was doing wrong. I took lessons from him, and when he stopped playing baseball I would turn to Nick, and that upped his level of competition when I was able to throw to him.”
Absegami was special to the Ardentes, Matt said, because the program kind of mirrored how their family approaches life. They relish being in the underdog role and believe that hard work, sacrifice, and playing for your teammates is what drives success on the diamond.
“I always saw Absegami as a middle tier team. We were never the front runner in our conference, but I enjoyed that because we were always playing up to the level of the better teams,” he said. “We never thought we were going to crush teams, so being that underdog helped us prepare for different situations and made us work harder. We fed off each other in that sense. We were looking toward, say, the 10th game of the season to work toward. There were some easier games, but there were always tougher games we had to prepare for. Absegami has always been in contention and I liked playing for that kind of team.”
“I was brought up my whole life on the baseball field,” Nick added. “I was the bat boy for Matt’s all-star team and they would tell me about strategy. I wouldn’t say it was note taking, but those things were always in the back of my mind, so when I hit middle school and eventually high school it was kind of second nature to me.”
As any baseball mom knows, there are plenty of ups and downs in a sport where frustration thrives and success is so difficult to achieve. Through the years, Silvana and Bob have been much more than parents, they’ve been roommates on travel weekends, housekeepers washing uniforms, and amateur psychologists.
“(Washing uniforms) never bothered me. We’ve traveled up and down the East coast. We’d be one weekend in North Carolina, another in upstate New York, Pennsylvania; I can honestly say I wouldn’t have traded it for the world. Maybe we’ll adopt a player. I don’t think we’re done with Absegami baseball. It’s a great community,” Silvana said. “The coaches have been great. Wastell coached all the boys and was always very supportive, as has been coach DeCicco. They were always looking out for the boys’ best interests first.
“There were a lot of quiet rides home,” she added. “You have to let them digest everything (if they had a bad game) and let them talk about it when they are ready. They get frustrated and get down on themselves, but they come around and they know it’s baseball, there’s another game and they have to shake it off. That comes with maturity with all the kids. They got frustrated when they wanted to perform better than they did, but they were all successful in their own ways. They all were on varsity for four years, so we couldn’t have asked for any more determination from them. And that came from within themselves. And I think them playing with their friends made all the difference. Sports are important in any kid’s life. They learn to work with each other, and learning to balance being a student-athlete is very difficult these days.”
“They’ve always played with the right attitude. That’s just the kind of kids they are. They’re not cocky, they don’t take anything for granted, and they enjoyed playing the game. They played hard, they played with pride, and they played for their team,” Bob said. “Baseball has taught them how to work with other people, the discipline — there are all kinds of things you learn from playing an organized sport.”
Baseball is fading from view for the Ardentes like a sunset in the rearview mirror — well, at least until some grandkids start coming around. But this family has plenty of memories to keep the good times alive in their hearts — including an entire converted garage full of plaques, game balls and trophies that will remind them of what their life has been like for the past 25 years, and how much of a legacy they have left on the Absegami program.
“When my friends and I hang out we think this would be a perfect day for baseball,” Nick said. “We went to the field recently and took some pictures as the last time being on that field. It was really sad, but at the same time you have to remember all the good memories, us hanging over the fence and cheering on our teammates. It’s bittersweet, so you just have to remember the good times.”
“We have a lot of plaques and photos. And those are the moments that as parents, become your life. It becomes your social life, seeing the other parents at the games, and those friendships continue after baseball. We’re the other kids’ biggest fans. We don’t have to go to a professional baseball game, we can go to an Absegami game and be just as content,” Silvana said. “When somebody had a game, we all went. It became our family outing, and Bob and I took pleasure in that. I enjoyed every moment, and I’ll be missing it.”
These days, when people think of Absegami baseball, the Ardente last name quickly comes to mind, and Silvana and Bob couldn’t be more proud of the impact their children have had, not just on the baseball field, but in their school and community.
“It’s a big honor,” Silvana said. “I think they have always had a good way of representing the school. If they did a good job, on or off the field, and people are bringing up the Ardente name — I think coach Wastell or DeCicco would say they same thing, that they are good all-around kids. That is what means more to me than anything.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays