After an unexpectedly mild winter, the beautiful spring weather got here a little bit early this year, something that the area’s high school baseball teams are bound to appreciate. Instead of being confined to practice indoors as tends to be the case in early March, teams have been able to workout outdoors, which will prepare them for the fierce competition that is already underway on diamonds across the Northeast.
Frankford remains the cream of the crop, while Archbishop Ryan looks to have its third straight solid season despite the loss of some key seniors. Father Judge and Abraham Lincoln are poised for turnaround years, while George Washington boasts a first-year coach and Northeast enters a re-building season.
What can you expect from your favorite neighborhood squad? Here’s a closer look at six area baseball teams.
PHILADELPHIA PUBLIC LEAGUE
Last season: 12-2 overall
Frankford head coach Juan Namnun thinks this season has the potential to be very special, which is certainly ominous news for the rest of the Public League.
After appearing in the league championship game in 2010 and winning it last season, the Pioneers return eight of nine starters in 2012.
As usual, the Pioneers are loaded. They return five Daily News All-City returnees: senior centerfielder Augusto Ortega, senior pitcher/infielder Omar Cruz, senior shortstop Ricky Alvarez, senior outfielder/pitcher Hector Cerda and senior third baseman/pitcher Brandon Gonzalez. All of these players have been major parts of the last two Frankford teams and return for their senior campaigns with eyes again on the ultimate prize.
“Getting to the championship two years ago as freshmen and sophomores was neat for those guys, sort of an unexpected surprise,” Namnun said. “They got a taste in their mouths what it took to get to the championship and they came out last year with a real drive to win it last year. But we aren’t satisfied. Even with the success they’ve had, their desire to get better and continue playing at that high level has only increased. We’re in for a fun ride,”
If being led by experienced seniors wasn’t enough, the Pioneers also boast junior first baseman Kevin Montero, a tailor-made power hitter that has already been attracting attention from major league scouts and Division-I colleges.
“Kevin has fantastic size and power, and obviously he can hit the ball a mile,” Namnun said. “The sky’s the limit for him.”
Major challenges for this veteran team will be not to overlook any opponents, which Namnun admitted happened twice last season in its two losses, both to Masterman; also, the coach wants his team to come out and get on other teams early, as opposed to last year when they let opponents hang tight.
“Last year it would take us two to three innings to get going,” Namnun explained. “We’ve worked a lot on being aggressive early, and that means we need to hit the ball hard, get on base and score runs, and that starts right in the first inning.
“We attacked this offseason with a purpose,” he continued. “These guys are ready.”
Last season: 7-7
After winning two playoff games last season, Washington is back with some new faces, most notably its head coach.
Athletic director Ken Geiser has stepped in to take the place of Calvin Jones, who decided about a month ago he’d be unable to return to the Eagles’ bench this season. Geiser, a former Washington baseball player and a 1979 graduate of the school, looks forward to the challenge of replacing Jones, as well as the six seniors that departed from last year’s team.
“It’s been a very busy time, but a fun kind of busy,” Geiser said. “We have a lot of good, young kids that have been willing to put in the necessary work in order to maintain the success that we’ve had here in the past.”
Geiser said that Washington’s season will be made or broken by two things: the team’s pitching, as well as the maturity of young players that will need to take on bigger roles this season.
Junior Jake Wright is the Eagles’ top returner, a powerful presence in the lineup that will spend time at first base and on the mound. He is a Daily News All-City returnee and can mash the ball as good as any hitter in the league.
“Jake hit five home runs alone his freshman year,” Geiser said. “I just hope he gets pitched to.”
Other key returning players are senior third baseman/catcher Dean Grande, senior outfielder/pitcher Manny Martinez and sophomore middle infielder/pitcher John Santos.
“These kids are great, and their energy for the season has been even greater,” Geiser said. “If we get the pitching I think we’re capable of then I think we can go far and hang with the elite teams. It’s a wait-and-see type of thing, but I’m confident.”
Last season: 3-8
In 2011, there was certainly more than meets the eye to the Lincoln baseball team. Outsiders see the Railsplitters’ 3-8 record and immediately dismiss them as a Public League bottom-dweller; however, those close to the program will tell you how many close games the team was in last year.
Had a few of their one or two-run losses gone slightly differently, Lincoln could have been a dangerous playoff contender. Now, in 2012, the focus is on turning those close games into wins; if this can be achieved, then the Railsplitters could be in for a special season this spring.
“Our expectations are high, and I think they should be,” head coach John Larsen said. “I always set the bar as high as I can, and our guys are confident. We were on the losing end of several very close games last year. If we can manufacture and produce more runs this year by playing small ball, then I think those close losses turn into wins.”
Larsen only has three seniors on his roster, but don’t let it fool you: the Railsplitters are flush with experience, boasting 10 battle-tested juniors.
“We’re young, but at the same time our roster is not a very good indicator of our experience,” Larsen said. “Half of those juniors have been with me since they were freshmen, and because of the good weather in March, we’ve been able to practice on our own field outdoors. We’re more prepared that we’ve ever been.”
The homefield advantage will be huge for Lincoln. The school unveiled brand-new facilities across the board two years ago, from a sparkling new school building to beautiful athletic facilities. Lingering construction issues prevented Lincoln from playing on their new baseball field a year ago, but this season they will consistently have access to their own diamond for the first time since 2006.
“The guys are out there on their lunch breaks, removing weeds and raking the infield dirt,” Larsen said. “They remember the days of when I had to spray paint bases for us to be able to practice in the parking lot, so they’re taking a lot of pride in the field. That will be a huge plus for us going forward.”
Lincoln’s key players this season will be senior centerfielder James Baldere and junior second baseman Kevin Johnson, who will be counted on to get on base as table-setters at the top of the lineup. Senior third baseman Jairo Bautista and junior southpaw Dylan Burke will be the middle-of-the-order hitters relied on to knock in runs.
“If we can limit giving freebies to the other team on defense and get on base in any way possible,” Larsen said. “Then I think good things will happen for us.”
Last season: 2-12
Northeast enters this season as a team in re-building mode, but head coach Sam Feldman is excited over what he’s seen so far.
“We’ve re-tooled and are completely starting from scratch,” he said. “We have a lot of young guys with their eyes wide open, guys who are excited for their chance. We’re moving to Division B, so I’m not totally sure what to expect, but I look forward to seeing what we can do.”
The first player Feldman told fans to keep an eye on is shortstop/pitcher Daquan Bohannan, a junior transfer from Furness that also plays quarterback for Northeast’s football team. As far as leadership goes, the Vikings will count on senior captain and first baseman/pitcher Howard Lynn, as well as third baseman Shahir Gates. Michael Samarco and Luke Charry are returning outfielders, while Feldman said the team will be strong behind the plate with starting catcher Manuel Duran and backup Frank Paulino.
Some other new young faces to look out for are outfielder David Mora, second baseman Devon Rodriguez and pitcher/designated hitter Steven Martinez.
“So far, the attitude of these guys has been great and they are really working hard to improve on last year’s record,” Feldman said. “The overall enthusiasm level has been fantastic. I think we’ll improve a lot more, which is our top priority.”
PHILADELPHIA CATHOLIC LEAGUE
Last season: 8-4
Ryan has brought the program back to Catholic League prominence the past two seasons due in large part to fantastic senior leaders. With most of those guys gone, the pressure is certainly on to sustain the recent string of success.
Two seasons ago, the Raiders overachieved all the way to an appearance in the Catholic League title game. They followed that up last year with an impressive 8-4 record, largely due to the efforts of seven seniors, most notably shortstop Eric Frain (now at Gloucester County Junior College) and pitcher Kevin Mack (Concordia University). It’s unclear if this current crop of players will duplicate the success of the last two seasons, but count Ryan’s head coach as a believer.
“We lost some real experienced players, and there’s no doubt that we’ll miss them,” Ron Gerhart said. “But it’s high school athletics, so there’s always going to be turnover. We have guys that don’t have a ton of varsity experience, but they’ve seen guys come before them that really embraced the chances they were given, so why can’t they have the same type of success?”
Gerhart will be counting on some multi-sport Ryan athletes, as had been the case in the past with guys like Frain and Mack. Basketball players Kyle Slawter (the team’s top returning pitcher) and Gage Galeone (centerfield), as well as Mike Anusky (the school’s starting quarterback who is currently rehabbing a torn meniscus in his knee) will need to make contributions so that the Raiders’ record does not dip.
Other players to keep an eye on will be junior Dan Stahl, who is moving from third base to take Frain’s spot at shortstop and junior Kevin Elmes, who is expected to be Ryan’s no. 2 pitcher behind Slawter.
“This team has the talent, but obviously it’s all about proving it out there on the field,” Gerhart said. “We always put an emphasis on playing small ball and being polished on defense, which is how we’ve succeeded the last two years. These guys are starting to buy into that approach, and I think we can surprise a few people.”
Last season: 4-8
Father Judge head coach Tim Ginter found out last season just how humbling a game baseball can be. The Crusaders came into the 2011 season loaded with 10 seniors and had hoped to be a major contender in the Catholic League, but injuries and underachievement saw Judge stumble to a 4-8 record.
Now, with a clean slate, Ginter’s bunch hopes to return to the top tier of the league.
“Last year was a disappointment, no doubt about it,” he said. “About the best thing to go our way was being lucky enough to win a coin toss to host a home playoff game.”
Judge won that game, defeating Cardinal O’Hara before eventually succumbing to league champion Monsignor Bonner. Though they do lose two handfuls of seniors, Ginter is still excited for several returning players. Top pitcher Rob Walmsley, third baseman Tim Ross, shortstop John Hearn and centerfielder Corey Kreamer, who will be the defensive anchor in the Judge outfield, will lead a new batch of seniors.
The team’s top returning player is junior Mike O’Hanlon, an honorable mention Daily News All-City selection a year ago when he hit better than .500 as a sophomore. O’Hanlon is still working his way back from a knee injury, and Ginter said he will ease his top hitter back slowly as a designated hitter.
“I’ve told Mike that March is great, but he’s a big part of our team and we need him ready for the games that matter in April and May,” the Judge boss said. “He’s a very gifted offensive player, and we expect him to pick up where he left off in the middle of our lineup.”
After last season’s disappointment, Judge hopes to finish in the top four in their division this year; after that, Ginter knows that anything can happen in the postseason.
“I tell the kids all the time that this game is built for failure,” he said. “It’s how you react to that failure that makes you what you are. Baseball can be a humbling game, but their youthful exuberance gets me excited every day. They want to get better, and so do I.” ••EndFragment