Blue Waves baseball squad staying competitive in tough division

Freshmen playing on a varsity baseball squad is an anomaly. The jump in competition from middle school to junior varsity and then eventually varsity is drastic. After a 1-19 season last year, Riverhead’s baseball team, challenged by low turnout, decided to bring up four freshmen not to just fill out the bench but to take on some of the most important spots in the lineup.

Jason Perez leads off for the Blue Waves and plays left field. Bennett Smith, hits in the two hole and plays first base. Drew LeGrady starts at second base but can also play third. He bats sixth in the lineup. And Saturday’s starting pitcher, Matthew Zambriski, also happens to hit cleanup — a spot typically reserved for the lineup’s most potent hitter. 

“I struggled with the idea of whether to bring them up or not during the offseason,” Riverhead head coach Kevin Kerman said. “If it was up to me I wouldn’t have any freshmen on varsity. League I is no joke. You don’t want to impede their development and it’s important to get those JV reps and at bats. But the fact of the matter is, they can handle it. They belong.”

Zambriski hurled five quality innings in a 6-2 loss against William Floyd at Pulaski Street Sports Complex last Saturday. The freshman only had a slight blemish on his pitching line, giving up two walks in the first inning that eventually came around and scored by way of stolen bases and batted outs. Those were the only runs he gave up the rest of the way. Zambriski struck out seven Colonials and didn’t give up any hits. It was a top-of-the-line effort for any varsity pitcher, let alone a freshman.

“The fact that Zambriski was able to do that at his age is so impressive,” Kerman said. “He’s a special kid. He’s got the mindset, the mentality, the size and the stuff. He’s 14 or 15 years old and he shuts a Division I school down? I mean come on. He plays on a very competitive travel team called the Lumberjacks so he’s used to competition. Honestly the sky’s the limit for the kid.”

Zambriski also started a rally in the bottom of the seventh inning with a double that was roped over the right fielder and trickled to the fence. Fellow freshman LeGrady drove him in with a double of his own. Riverhead scored two runs in the inning and looked like they were stringing together a comeback. With two runners on and two outs, Perez hit a bloop that had all the makings of a two run single, but William Floyd’s outfielder made an incredible diving grab, unfortunately getting injured in the process.

Riverhead couldn’t muster a win in the season opening series, losing to William Floyd, 7-1, 5-2 and 6-2. But they were all competitive games and that’s a massive change from last season, when the Blue Waves lost multiple games by as many as 10 runs over the course of the year. 

“We’re going to be competitive in every game we play,” Kerman said. “We’re going to win games this year. We have a great starting three on the mound and we play smart, fundamentally sound defense.”

Mark Gajowski, one of four seniors on the team, is the ace and starts game one of every series. He’ll be playing for the University of Albany in the fall. Camden Wallace, the team’s No. 3 hitter and starting shortstop, pitches the second game of each series for the Blue Waves. Wallace laced a single down the line against the Colonials in his first at bat and played a flawless shortstop all series long.

“I think with the younger guys we have on the team and the kids still coming up, we’ll be a strong team in the years to come,” said Kerman, who teaches in the middle school. “I see the younger kids every day, we do clinics with them and we have a fall ball team. Riverhead baseball will be back and it all starts with this year. We’re not rebuilding, we’re retooling. Our mentality has changed. Our culture has changed. Now we just need to get some wins on the board.”