Spring training. It conjures thoughts of sunshine, warm weather, palm trees, bright green grass and, of course, baseball.
But that’s the major league version in Florida or Arizona. For the first day of practice Monday, area high school teams were forced to practice indoors because of snow-covered, soaked fields.
Welcome to spring training, Long Island style.
“We’ve been looking forward to this for a while,” Shoreham-Wading River senior outfielder Tyler Widercrantz said during the team’s practice in the school gym. “It’s kind of unfortunate there’s snow on the ground. We’d like to be outside, but if this is the best we can do, that’s fine.”
SWR embarked on preparations for the 2019 season pretty much the same way it always does — with high expectations. The Wildcats have been remarkably consistent. Last year they reached the playoffs for a 33rd straight year and won a third straight league championship. The fact that SWR was swept by Rocky Point in two games in the Suffolk County Class A finals is a sticking point. As the Wildcats see it, they can always do better.
“In the playoffs you need luck, and we had a couple of things that just didn’t break our way,” coach Kevin Willi said. “We had like one or two really costly errors in those games and some of our pitchers got a little wild at certain times. Little things like that in the playoffs [are] what makes or breaks you, and I think things just didn’t roll our way in the playoffs last year.”
Meanwhile, the standards remain the same at SWR: high.
“You hold yourself to the same standard every year and expect a similar result,” said senior middle infielder D.J. Brown.
About 42 SWR players from grades 9-12 participated in a winter workout program. That prepared them for Day 1 of tryouts when 24 varsity candidates and 29 junior varsity hopefuls took part in hitting, fielding and bunting drills, did pushups and were timed for their speed from home plate to first base.
Willi called it a “good turnout.” Of those trying out for the varsity team, he said: “They’re all good players. They’re all really kids that are dedicated, that work hard over the year. They’re putting in the effort.”
This is the team’s 43rd year and Willi’s fifth year extending the winning tradition of Sal Mignano, the only other head coach the team has ever had.
“Even if we’re not super talented in some years, we’ll make up for it with hard work,” Willi said. “We do a lot of little things right and that leads to a lot of wins for us.”
Last year SWR won the 15th league title in its history, made a run at the county crown and finished with an 18-5 record. Not too bad.
“We take it very seriously,” senior centerfielder Mason Kelly said. “There’s a very rich history.”
Winning is the SWR way. “It’s the culture here,” Brown said. “The same standards here, the same expectations.”
So it would be out of character for the Wildcats not to think they can match or surpass what they achieved last year. They have four returning starters (Nick Bettenhauser, Brown, Kelly and Widercrantz) and two others (Pete Minneci and Mike Smith) who were part-time starters. The only one returning pitcher is junior Aidan Crowley, but Willi said, “Our staff is talented.” All nine of the team’s seniors were on the squad last year.
As might be expected, the Wildcats sounded enthusiastic and optimistic.
Asked how good this year’s team can be, Widercrantz replied, “I think just as good as last year if not better.” He added: “I don’t think it’s going to be that far off because I think our skill level is going to be similar. We only lost a few pitchers, but we also gained a few pitchers, too.”
Kelly said it will be important to “control what we can control. Don’t make [many] errors and just play solid defense, execute.
“I think we’re younger this year. There’s a lot of juniors and maybe a couple of underclassmen, too, that have a chance to play. So, inexperience might be a factor, but I’m sure we can hold our own.”
Monday was a day SWR players and Willi had been looking forward to for quite a while.
Willi said: “Our hearts get broken in the county finals and then we need like a week to sort of lick our wounds, but then the week after that we’re like, ‘Alright, let’s start talking about possible lineups for next year.’ It’s on now.”
Photo caption: Shoreham-Wading River coach Kevin Willi, center, addresses his players during the team’s first practice Monday. (Credit: Bob Liepa)