Baseball Preview: SWR, Riverhead to rely on pitching depth

Shoreham-Wading River pitcher Brian Morrell returns for his sophomore season this year for the Wildcats. (Credit: Daniel De Mato, file)
Shoreham-Wading River pitcher Brian Morrell returns for his sophomore season this year for the Wildcats. (Credit: Daniel De Mato, file)

The 2014 season at Shoreham-Wading River featured a bit of everything. A freshman throwing two no-hitters, crazy come-from-behind wins, a league title and a trip to the county finals.

It was a thrilling, exhausting ride and when it was over, the only coach the program has ever known, Sal Mignano, announced he was retiring. Now, the Kevin Willi era at Shoreham begins as the Wildcats look to duplicate some of the magic of last year.

To do so, they’ll rely on a deep pitching staff.

That starts with Brian Morrell, who’s entering his third year on varsity, although he’s only a sophomore. Morrell became an instant sensation last year when he threw consecutive no-hitters in his first two varsity starts.

“He’s a great kid,” Willi said. “The success last year has not gotten to his head. He’s one of those kids who’s always working hard.”

The Wildcats (18-5-1 in 2014) will rely heavily on Morrell this season. After batting close to .400 last season, he’ll be one of the team’s top hitters this year. When he’s not pitching, he’ll play shortstop.

“He’s going to be our go-to guy this year,” Willi said.

He didn’t disappoint in the Wildcats’ League VII opener Monday. He went 2-for-4 with a home run and 4 RBIs as Shoreham defeated Mount Sinai, 16-1.

Senior Matt Fox is another versatile player who will be all over the field. He’ll be in the rotation along with Morrell. He’ll play shortstop when Morrell is on the mound, then rotate between second and third, Willi said.

No two lineup cards are likely to look alike this year.

Senior John Montesano returns as a key member of the pitching rotation. Montesano is coming off a strong season last year, pitching mostly as a long reliever. He’ll step into a bigger role this season. Willi’s been impressed with the little things Montesano brings to the mound, such as keeping base-runners close or a hitter off balance.

“He’s probably one of the most savvy pitchers on the mound,” Willi said.

A newcomer to the varsity this season is sophomore Tom Brady. He’ll play several positions, from catcher to third base or second.

Senior Brandon Busch will play a bigger role this season at first base and designated hitter after mostly coming off the bench last year. Willi said Busch has “pretty good” power.

Junior Chris Sperruzzi will start at catcher, filling the void left by the graduation of Jack Massa. Junior Brandon Bottari will be a key reliever in a deep pitching staff for the Wildcats. Senior Aaron Fox will also be a key reliever.

“Last year our team ERA was like 1.40,” Willi said. “We have a lot of that pitching back from last year that was excellent.”

The Wildcats expect to face a more balanced league this season. Teams they swept last year, like Mount Sinai and Miller Place, were young teams that bring back a lot of players, Willi said. Bayport-Blue Point, the two-time defending state champion, figures to come down at least a notch this year but should still be a formidable team. The Wildcats won’t face Bayport until the final series of the season, possibly with the league title on the line.

Nick Herzog, a left-hander with a tough curveball, is one of Riverhead's three projected starting pitchers. (Credit: Robert O'Rourk)
Nick Herzog, a left-hander with a tough curveball, is one of Riverhead’s three projected starting pitchers. (Credit: Robert O’Rourk)

Much like Shoreham, the Riverhead Blue Waves expect pitching to serve as the team’s backbone. The Blue Waves, coming off a 7-13 season, hope that pitching can carry the team toward the postseason in an ultra-competitive League IV.

Like just about every team across the county, the Blue Waves have been limited over the first few weeks of the season because of poor weather. Riverhead coach Rob Maccone said he expects that to lead to more mistakes than normal early in the season.

“The outfielders haven’t caught a fly ball yet,” Maccone said in an interview last week.

The starting rotation for Riverhead should come down to the senior trio of Kenny Simco, Nick Herzog and John Wendt.

Simco was the team’s top pitcher last year who can throw a low 80s fastball with a splitter and knuckleball. Wendt missed last season due to injury and is back healthy this year, giving the Blue Waves a big boost.

“If we had him last year, we would have been a lot closer to the playoffs,” Maccone said. “He’s going into the seventh inning at 80, 85 pitches, which you don’t see a lot in high school. He spots his fastball very well.”

Herzog is a left-handed pitcher with a strong curveball, a strikeout pitch he can get batters to chase in the dirt.

At the plate, Maccone said he expects Joe Cunningham, a junior outfielder/first baseman to bat leadoff. Either Herzog or senior Cody Weiss, a utility player, could bat second. Wendt and Simco will be relied on in the heart of the batting order.

Maccone said the team has a lot of options for the bottom half of the lineup. One of the challenges for the coaching staff coming into this year was choosing a catcher. The Blue Waves graduated their starter from last year, Cody Smith, and have a few options this year. James Rios and Travis Rocco, both seniors, are the leading candidates vying for playing time behind the plate.

When they’re not pitching, Simco will play the infield, Herzog can play the outfield or first base and Wendt plays first base.

Joe Hart is another returning infielder who should see regular at-bats.

“With our pitching staff, we’re going to be in every game,” Maccone said.

The Blue Waves league opener was a three-game series with East Islip that was scheduled to start Tuesday.

McGann-Mercy center fielder Jasper Bradley bats in Monday night's game against Babylon. (Credit: Robert O'Rourk)
McGann-Mercy center fielder Jasper Bradley bats in Monday night’s game against Babylon. (Credit: Robert O’Rourk)

The McGann-Mercy Monarchs feature a new coach this season after a difficult year in 2014. Vinny Punzone, the team’s third coach in as many years, takes over the program this season. He’s previously coached at Walt Whitman High School and is the brother of longtime Babylon football coach Rick Punzone.

At the start of the season, Punzone’s focus with the Monarchs has been on fundamentals.

“I’m a typical old-school coach,” he said. “I’m just going over everything and they’re taking everything in.”

The poor weather kept the Monarchs indoors for much of the first three weeks of the season.

The Monarchs’ three captains this season are first baseman Marco Pascale, center fielder Jasper Bradley and pitcher Scott Arturi.

Pascale was an all-league player last season, Punzone said. Nick Kneski will anchor the infield at shortstop.

“They’re hungry,” Punzone said. “They want to win and they’re going to work very, very hard.”

The Monarchs opened their league season Monday night against one of the better teams in the league, Babylon. The Panthers took the first game of the series, 15-1.

The Monarchs have the majority of last year’s team returning. After a one-win season, the Monarchs are eager to put that in the rear-view mirror.

“This is a whole different year, a whole different mindset,” Punzone said. “The kids are a little bit older. We talked about [last season] the first time I met them and I said, listen, we’re not going to talk about it again. We’re going to start moving forward.”

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