SOFTBALL PREVIEW: Fox’s Blue Waves begin a new cycle

GARRET MEADE FILE PHOTO | Riverhead Coach Bob Fox will enter his 11th season with a young, inexperienced team.

As he enters his 11th years as coach of the Riverhead High School girls softball team, Bob Fox has become accustomed to cycles. He has learned that many coaches have been forced to rebuild their teams just about every four years.

“Every fourth year you have to realize you’re losing a lot and you have to come back,” he said. “You finally get what you want and they graduate.”

This year the Blue Wave are going through that part of the cycle. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll struggle, it’s just Fox doesn’t know exactly what he has.

Last year Riverhead ruled Suffolk County League IV, finishing with a 17-3 record.

Fox has learned not to be demanding.

“You have to be more patient,” he said. “You have to be more hands on. When you bring that many girls up, they have to learn the system. They have to understand the difference between JV and varsity.

“The young girls, they want to do well. They expect to do well right away and that’s not how it happens.”

The difference between JV and varsity can be night and day. You might see one outstanding pitcher once in a while at the JV level, but there are many more difficult hurlers in the varsity game.

With seven seniors graduating and only two returning, Fox knows that the team will be young and inexperienced. Just how good is another question that will be answered during preseason and the rest of the year.

“We have five seniors and five juniors,” he said, “but they didn’t have much varsity playing time.”

Asked to assess his team, Fox replied, “It’s kind of tough. We have a lot of JV players. After this week, I’ll know a whole lot more.”

What Fox does know is that life is going to get more difficult for pitchers this season. The distance between the mound has been increased from 40 to 43 feet to meet rules as mandated by the National Federation of State High School Associations.

“We’re not expecting too many strikeouts in the game,” he said.

Fox said the new rule was implemented to put some more offense into the fast-pitch game and protect the pitcher as well.

“I think they want more protection for the pitcher because the ball comes off the bat so quickly,” he said.

Two senior starters are expected to be key performers, left fielder Beth Zilnicki and right fielder Jen Nadeau, who have been on the team since their sophomore seasons. Fox expects Nadeau to hit either fourth or fifth and Zilnicki second or sixth. It did not take Fox long to say what the duo will bring to the table. “Their experience,” he said.

Another senior, right-hander Macey Recheil, a control pitcher, will use her curveball and drop pitch to keep the Blue Waves in games.

Rounding out the returnees are senior third baseman/outfielder Courtney Rheaume, senior second baseman/outfielder Emily Groneman and junior center fielder Ali Doscinski.

Fox believes his team’s strength is its speed, which will be needed because he expects more outs to be produced in the field, rather than via strikeouts at the plate.

“We have a lot of girls who can run and that’s important,” he said. “You’re not going to get 10, 12, 13 strikeouts every game. You have to make up for the other outs defensively. … I hope I’m not the only one who feels this way.”

Another strength is Fox and his experience. He has become accustomed to the unpredictable weather of March to know that scrimmages and preseason games are precious. So, this week he scheduled games for every day but Friday and Sunday.

“Because of the weather, you’re lucky to get half the games in,” he said.

And if the Blue Wave do, the better off the team will be.

There’s no shortage of optimism circulating around the Shoreham-Wading River Wildcats heading into the 2011 season. And for good reason.

Last season the Wildcats (13-7) compiled an 11-6 record in League VI to advance to the Class A playoffs where they fell short to a talented Kings Park team. This season the Wildcats return their top four hitters and their starting pitcher for what Shoreham Coach Ed Price believes will be a team that can contend for the league title.

“I’m going to be honest, I’ve been here six years and this is the most talented team I’ve ever had,” Price said.

As a freshman last year, Chelsea Hawks did most of the pitching for Shoreham and she’ll take on that role again. Hawks has been working on her rise-ball during the offseason to go with a curveball and changeup, Price said.

“In my opinion she’s going to be better than ever,” Price said.

She’ll have plenty of help behind her, led by returning all-county shortstop Cali Lavey, who has a strong arm and bats at the top of the lineup. Christina Pagano returns to play third base. She led the team in hitting last year. Michelle Gostic was second on the team in hitting last year and will play first base. Katie Newell, the cleanup hitter, anchors the outfield in center.

The Bishop McGann-Mercy Monarchs coach, Jacki Paton, did not return phone calls prior to the deadline. The Monarchs went 12-11 last year, losing to the Port Jefferson Royals in the Suffolk Class C finals.

Joe Werkmeister contributed to this article.