It won’t take long for the Shoreham-Wading River Wildcats to get a sense of what this year’s team is made of.
To open the season, the Wildcats play a three-game series against Bayport-Blue Point, the two-time defending Class A state champions. Bayport’s state titles each started with a county championship win over the Wildcats. Last year, the Phantoms won the best-of-three series 2-1.
If that doesn’t prove to be challenging enough, the Wildcats follow that series with three games against Mount Sinai, the team that’s the favorite to possibly dethrone Bayport. The Mustangs boast a powerful starting rotation led by two Division I pitchers.
Welcome to 2016.
“It’ll be a good test for us right out of the gate,” said Kevin Willi, Shoreham’s second-year coach.
The Wildcats have reason to be confident, though, as they begin the year with hopes of another deep playoff run. The Wildcats graduated two of their starting pitchers from last year, but return two players with varsity experience ready to slide in to fill those roles. And anchoring the staff once again for his fourth year on varsity will be junior Brian Morrell, who’s already committed to Notre Dame.
Morrell pitched a gem in the Game 3 loss to Bayport in the county finals last year, tossing seven shutout innings before being lifted for a reliever. From there, his season never really ended as he traveled the country playing games in various tournaments.
While Morrell has been an outstanding player since joining the varsity as an eighth-grader, he’ll take on an ever bigger role this year. Willi said Morrell will serve as a captain.
“He’s showing his leadership more so this year than in years past,” Willi said.
Morrell is a hard-throwing right-handed pitcher who can mix in a curveball and change-up. When he’s not pitching, he’ll anchor the infield at shortstop. No matter where he plays in the field, he’ll be in the heart of the batting order.
To round out the rotation, the Wildcats will turn to senior Brandon Bottari, who pitched in relief last year, and 6-foot-4 senior Zach White, who was the team’s closer last year and pitched in high pressure situations.
Willi said he’s confident the team will have strong arms to complement the starters.
In the infield the Wildcats return Tom Brady, who slides over to third base after playing second last year. He’ll likely bat leadoff, Willi said. Brady can even play catcher if needed.
T.J. Sicoli, a newcomer to the varsity, will play second this year and can fill in at short when Morrell pitches.
“He’s a textbook middle infielder,” Willi said. “Quick hands, very smooth in the field.”
Senior Chris Sperruzzi returns behind the plate and gives the Wildcats a veteran player to handle the pitching staff. In center field, the Wildcats return Alex Bettenhauser. Miles Kelly, a power-hitting lefty, will bat in the middle of the order and can play first base. Junior Nick Manesis also can hit for power and will play right field.
Photo Caption: Shoreham-Wading River junior Brian Morrell, left, and senior Brandon Bottari will both be featured in the team’s starting rotation. (Credit: Robert O’Rourk)
The strength of the Riverhead baseball team last year came from the senior core of starting pitchers. The group carried the Blue Waves into the postseason, pitching all but a few innings over the course of the season.
Now, all those starters have graduated, so the Blue Waves will turn to a youth movement. Leading the way is a trio of left-handed pitchers, something coach Rob Maccone said he’s never had.
For a staff to have one lefty is a bonus, but to have more than that is a luxury.
Maccone said sophomore Scott Thompson will take on a big role this year after pitching briefly on varsity as a freshman last year.
“He’s throwing in scrimmages and looks good,” Maccone said. “He’s going to be one of our big pieces.”
Thompson can throw a fastball, curveball and change-up and mix up speeds well, Maccone said. He was the JV’s top pitcher last year. He can also play first base or the outfield.
Another sophomore on the mound is D.J. Chandler, who’s also a lefty. Maccone said Chandler was on varsity last year and batted in the middle of the order, driving in about 12 runs in 10 games. Because the team needed his bat at the varsity level, Chandler didn’t get the chance to pitch much last year.
“He’s got the raw talent,” Maccone said. “He needs to get a little more innings under his belt.”
Joe Cunningham, a senior, will pitch as well in addition to playing the outfield. A junior transfer from McGann-Mercy, Mike McCormick, gives the Blue Waves added pitching depth.
The Blue Waves also return Justin Clement, a catcher/outfielder, who bats lefty and can hit balls into the gap, Maccone said. Zach Giannuzzi, a senior, played varsity last year as well and is also a catcher/outfielder. He also has the ability to put the ball into the gaps, Maccone said.
The Blue Waves are back in League III this year, which may not be any blessing compared to League IV. No matter where the Blue Waves end up league wise, the competition is fierce.
This year, they’ll contend with top teams like Smithtown East and Smithtown West. Smithtown East posted a 20-4 record a year ago.
“We’re going to be young this year,” Maccone said. “We’re going to make mistakes that because of our age. We’ll work through it and get better as the year goes on.”
The Bishop McGann-Mercy baseball team welcomes back a familiar faces this year in coach Ed Meier. The Monarchs won two league championships under Meier and 108 games in nine years before resigning in 2014.
He’ll take over a team that has had its struggles in recent years. The team went 1-19 last year.
“We’re the small guy in this league, numbers-wise, everything-wise, so that’s a challenge,” Meier said last week.
The Monarchs return shortstop Nick Kneski and outfielder Jack Pavelchak as the team’s senior leaders. Senior Mike Chilick and junior Sean Tuthill are both pitchers.