Shoreham-Wading River entered the 2018 high school baseball season with a good deal of uncertainty, and that was understandable. After all, the Wildcats had lost 17 — yes, 17! — players to graduation. That would be a crippling number for most teams, perhaps, but not SWR.
Regardless of that talent drain, which left SWR with precious little experience, the Wildcats still made it to the playoffs for a 33rd consecutive year, won a third straight league championship (15th overall) and made a run at the Suffolk County Class A crown before finishing with an 18-5 record.
“We had so many guys waiting in the wings and to see what they would do on the field was kind of a question mark, but they really stepped up and had a great year,” said coach Kevin Willi.
This year SWR has more experience, returning most of its infield and outfield, to go with a determination to add to those numbers. A pair of All-League seniors, second baseman D.J. Brown (.310 batting average, .500 on-base percentage) and centerfielder Tyler Widercrantz (.370, four home runs), lead the way.
Willi called Brown “a very, very hard worker. The kid is in impeccable shape. He’s the strongest kid on the team. He’s got a football mentality on the field and he puts the team first. He’ll do whatever it takes to make the team better.”
Widercrantz, Willi said, is “very talented … He’s got a very powerful swing. He does a lot of things in the game very well.”
Two other seniors, shortstop Mason Kelly (.300, four homers) and third baseman Nick Bettenhauser (.301, 17 RBIs), were also regular starters last year. Junior righthander Aidan Crowley (3-1, 3.40 ERA, 29 strikeouts in 20 innings) is the only returning starting pitcher.
Three seniors who dealt with injuries last year should help. They are 6-3 pitcher/outfielder Everett Wehr, power-hitting outfielder Mike Smith and first baseman Peter Minneci, who batted .360 and belted three homers in half the season he played.
“They’re all healthy this year,” Willi said. “Those are three guys we didn’t know what to expect from … but I think they’re really going to help us.”
As should Jared Sciarrino, a transfer utility player who started for Longwood last year as a sophomore.
The young pitching staff includes juniors Cullen SantaMaria and Luca Romano.
“I’m excited for every year,” Willi said. “This one, in particular, I feel the team has good chemistry from the start. I feel a little more confident going into the season because we have those leaders established. They’re ready for hard work and they’re ready to overcome adversity.”
So, what do you do if you are an underdog team in a stacked league, predicted to finish dead last?
Well, if you’re Riverhead (3-17), you take all 12 of your pitching arms and make good use of them. Coach Rob Maccone is taking a different approach to this season. He calls it “pitching by committee.”
The idea is to prevent opposing batters from facing the same pitcher more than twice in a game. That means shuffling pitchers in and out during games. “I got 12 arms that can get me three to six outs,” said Maccone, who envisions using about five pitchers per game. “If it’s a 2-1 ballgame, I’m just going to be rotating pitchers in and out … Tampa Bay’s doing it and it’s worked.”
Maccone might wear out a path from the Riverhead dugout to the pitching mound with all his visits.
This intriguing approach is seen as Riverhead’s best chance to steal a win here or there in brutally tough League II. Commack and Connetquot both lost in county Class AA semifinals last year and are still loaded with pitching arms and talent. And then there are Sachem North, Bay Shore and Walt Whitman. Every team in the league reached the playoffs last year — except Riverhead.
“Our league is as tough as they come,” said Maccone. He added: “The kids seem up for the challenge because we’ve been upfront and honest with them, talking about what we’re about to face. I told them there are going to be days when our best player might be the sixth-best player on the field.”
Riverhead has only two returning starters in senior infielder/pitcher Nick Dejewski and senior outfielder/pitcher Jared Cawley.
The only other returners are shortstop/pitcher Jose Santana, infielder Kyle Schiavone and outfielder Michael Scher — all seniors.
The rest of the roster consists of new faces, though. Junior infielder/pitcher Ethan Aube, senior infielder/pitcher Chris Atkinson and junior first baseman Aidan McGuire are transfers from closed Bishop McGann-Mercy. Junior pitcher/infielder Max Heilman is another transfer; he played for Mattituck’s junior varsity team last year.
The other new team members are pitcher/outfielder Isaiah Barbieri, utility player Jack Conroy, outfielder/pitcher Ben Cutrone, outfielder Dominic Leonardo, catcher/second baseman George Regini, first baseman/pitcher Marcus Brown, catcher/pitcher Colin Bendernagel, outfielder/pitcher Matthew Lacombe and utility player Patrick Andes. They’re all juniors, except for Bendernagel, a sophomore.
“It’s tough now because we have to figure out who goes where,” Maccone said. “There’s going to be a lot of learning.”
With the arms Riverhead will be batting against, the Blue Waves need to be efficient on offense, with situational hitting, stealing and bunting. “We have to be as close to 100 percent as possible [in bringing runners home from scoring position] to be successful,” said Maccone.
And pitching by committee could help on the other end.
“Talk to me at the end of the year,” Maccone said. “I’ll tell you if it works.”
Photo caption: All-League second baseman D.J. Brown hit for a .310 batting average and .500 on-base percentage last year for Shoreham-Wading River. (Credit: Daniel De Mato, file)