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Baseball: Riverhead’s short on seniors, not senior leadership

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04/27/2016 3:02 PM |

D.J.-Chandler

The Riverhead High School baseball team doesn’t have a lot of seniors, but when it comes to senior leadership, well, that’s another story.

This is not the sort of senior season Riverhead’s four 12th graders had envisioned, but as they say, it is what it is. Twelve games into the season, the Blue Waves held a 1-11 record, overall and in Suffolk County League III. It’s an unforgiving league for a young, rebuilding team that is trying to find its way with a lineup that includes four full-time starting sophomores: D.J. Chandler, Scott Thompson, Tom Powers and Chris Jehle. Chandler leads off and Thompson bats third in the order. A fifth sophomore, Ryan Lull, served as a designated hitter for a couple of games (he had a .455 batting average) before an elbow issue cost him the rest of the season.

The sophomores have not exactly been eased onto the varsity scene. Being thrown into the fray is more like it.

“We’ve never been this young before,” coach Rob Maccone said. “We’ve had young guys up, one or two, and they’ve been role guys. This year’s different. We have four guys up, and we’re asking a lot of them. We’re asking them to be able to hit and to be able to field, and it’s tough, but you can see at the 12-game mark that those young guys are getting better.”

It’s a long way from last year’s senior-laden team that took Riverhead to the playoffs for the first time in seven years.

To make matters worse, injuries have impaired the pitching staff.

It’s a heavy dose of adversity and yet it would seem a lot worse if not for the way the seniors have handled things. Maccone sings the praises of his seniors: shortstop Joe Cunningham, catcher/outfielder Zach Giannuzzi, designated hitter Kevin O’Kula and Cory Polak, who played second base, shortstop or right field before a broken finger ended his season early.

That hasn’t stopped Polak from still coming to practices and games. He and the other seniors have taken on the roles of elder statesmen, working with their younger teammates to help show them the ropes.

“It’s the experience of playing varsity baseball,” Giannuzzi said. “It’s a whole different game than JV.”

Maccone is most appreciative. “It’s a tough position for the seniors,” he said. “They understand it and they’re dealing with it the best they can. It’s tough when you see yourself as a playoff team last year and now being 1 and 11, but they get it. They understand that this is going to be a youth movement, and they’re actually helping the younger guys. I couldn’t be more proud of how the seniors are handling this.”

Cunningham had sensed that this could be a trying season. As he sees it, he is trying to make the best of a difficult situation.

“I’m just doing all that I can to show these guys what to do when you’re hit with adversity,” he said. “I’m trying to do the best that I can leading this team. The seniors are really just key players and showing the kids that when you’re faced with losses, you just got to bounce back. It’s not really how I wanted my senior year to be, but I just want to go out and have as much fun as I can.”

Cunningham’s team-first mentality was seen early in the season. A natural center fielder, Cunningham volunteered to switch to shortstop when Powers struggled at that position. So, the two traded positions, making Cunningham a left-handed shortstop.

Maccone recalled: “Joe actually came to me and said: ‘Hey, why don’t we leave Tommy in the outfield? I’ll fill in for short this year. I know it’s not conventional, but it will help Tommy in the long run.’ ”

Powers seems to be flourishing in the outfield.

The speedy Cunningham will attend Quinnipiac University in Connecticut on an academic scholarship. Cunningham, who is ranked 10th in his class, said he will focus on academics. His initial plan doesn’t include playing college baseball, although he has left the door for that open.

“He wants to concentrate on school and I don’t blame him,” Maccone said. “School comes first. But you never know. He could miss it in the spring and try to walk on the next year. I think once they see him run and see what he can do with the bat, I think maybe he’ll get a shot, but that’s up to him. I think he can do it; he thinks he can do it.”

This is Giannuzzi’s final year of baseball. He has ruled out playing in college. “I’ve been playing baseball for about 10 years now and I’ve enjoyed every single bit of it,” he said.

Riverhead’s seniors will not go to the playoffs this year, but they will leave a legacy in their contributions to the team’s reconstruction.

As the team’s longest-serving member, in his third varsity season, Cunningham is the senior senior, so to speak. Of his younger teammates, he said, “They’ll be back next year.”

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Photo caption: One of Riverhead’s four starting sophomores, D.J. Chandler, making a catch in left field. (Credit: Robert O’Rourk)

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