Baseball: New challenges await L.I. champion Monarchs

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | All-county shortstop Keith Schroeher, pictured, is part of Bishop McGann-Mercy's potent double-play combination along with second baseman Joe Crosser.

Bishop McGann-Mercy might be the defending Long Island Class C high school baseball champion, but the Monarchs might not necessarily seem like the ruling class at the start of this season.

That’s because a new league, new foes and a new challenge awaits for McGann-Mercy, which will move up a level from Suffolk County League VIII to League VII.

“That’s a big move for us,” coach Ed Meier said. “We’ll be playing a lot more competitive teams.”

Meier, whose team started practicing on Monday, realized it could take some time to get adjusted. The Monarchs, whose first scrimmage will be at North Babylon on March 17, open their regular season at Babylon on March 26.

“That’s tough for us,” said Meier, who is 96-64 at the McGann-Mercy helm. “We’re not familiar with the league because we’re the new kids on the block. … We’re the low man on the totem pole. We’ve got to earn that type of respect.”

But don’t count out the talented and gritty Monarchs, who were a difficult team to beat last season. They bring back several key performers from a side that finished at 17-6.

One big reason was senior right-hander Pat Stepnoski, the ace of the staff, and one of the best pitchers in the county. Stepnoski won three playoff games and threw a no-hitter last year thanks to a fastball that travels between 83 and 85 miles per hour.

“He’s a competitor,” Meier said. “When he doesn’t have his stuff, he competes. He finds ways to win.”

Including with his bat. Stepnoski, who has played since he was an eighth-grader, has more than 100 hits in his high school career. He patrols center field when he isn’t confounding the opposition.

Stepnoski will lead three returning seniors who are expected to be the core of the team.

Keith Schroeher, who is expected to be the leadoff or No. 2 hitter, is an all-county shortstop. “He will be pivotal for us at shortstop,” Meier said.

Schroeher’s double-play partner is second baseman Joe Crosser, who will be the second or third pitcher and will bat first or second in the lineup.

Meier said his middle infield tandem was “the best shortstop and second base combo I’ve had in eight years.”

Senior left-hander J. T. De Scalo, who will be No. 2 or 3 in the rotation, is expected to play another key role as well.

Rocco Pascale, the League VII most valuable player last year, has graduated, but Meier believes his catching is in good hands with junior Tony Mercuri, who was hampered by injuries last year. “When Tony’s right, Tony’s a battler,” Meier said. “He’ll be another critical guy for us.”

But there will be a Pascale on the team — Rocco’s brother Marco, a freshman who can play first or third base and the corner spots in the outfield.

“He’ll be a special guy,” Meier said. “He’s a good fielder. He’s a good fielder, but his bat will be needed in the lineup. … He’ll be a special guy. He’ll put up some power numbers.”

Senior Owen Gilpin rounds out the veterans. He will play left field and man center field when Stepnoski is on the mound.

Besides the more difficult competition, the Monarchs will face two other challenges. One is a unique schedule. In the first two weeks, teams will play each other once before moving on to another foe. “That could see some interesting pitching matchups,” Meier said.

Then they will return to the traditional three-game series.

The other challenge is the addition of new bats in high school baseball. The introduction of the so-called BBCOR bats is expected to change the complexion of the game. Meier expects fewer home runs.

“A lot less power, more wood,” he said. “Power numbers will go down.”