Pioneer pups

Following a third straight league title, Frankford baseball is left with nothing but freshmen and sophomores. Head coach Juan Namnun isn’t complaining.

  • Frankford head coach Juan Namnun is very high on freshman catcher Josh Pagan’s potential.

  • In the bloodlines: Sophomore first baseman Edgardo Bernard knocked in three in the win over GAMP, including the go-ahead two-run single. Bernard is the younger brother of Esteban Meletiche, an all-time Frankford baseball great.

  • First impression: Frankford sophomore Michael Hollinger tossed six quality innings in Monday’s 9-2 win over GAMP. It was the first time on the mound for Hollinger, who, much like his teammates, is experiencing Public League baseball for the first time. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTOS

In the mo­ments be­fore Monday af­ter­noon’s Pub­lic League Di­vi­sion A base­ball con­test against vis­it­ing GAMP, a Frank­ford play­er sheep­ishly ap­proached a vis­it­ing re­port­er while hold­ing some ath­let­ic tape in his hands. 

Pi­on­eers head coach Juan Namnun wit­nessed the en­counter, and called his play­er over to help de­cipher the dif­fer­ence between re­port­er and train­er.

“Just an­oth­er sign of our youth,” Namnun said with a laugh.

The mor­al of the story is that the three-time de­fend­ing Pub­lic League cham­pi­ons are young, so much so that the six gradu­ated seni­ors from last year’s team have been re­placed by a pleth­ora of raw, tal­en­ted fresh­men and sopho­mores with end­less po­ten­tial. (The roster con­tains three seni­ors, one ju­ni­or, five sopho­mores and five fresh­men, an eye-catch­ing num­ber giv­en how much suc­cess Frank­ford has had re­cently.)

The Pi­on­eers have won nine league titles since 2000 and four un­der Namnun (also in 2008), so the school has seen all sorts of dif­fer­ent team con­struc­tions over the years. However, none quite com­pare to the 2014 Pi­on­eers, who re­turn ex­actly zero starters from last sea­son. Namnun (a former Frank­ford play­er him­self) said is the most unique group he’s ever seen.

“One thing I’m really ex­cited about is we do have a ton of tal­ent,” Namnun said. “But I need to keep re­mind­ing my­self we lit­er­ally have 14- and 15-year-olds across the board. This is go­ing to be one of my fa­vor­ite years of all time, be­cause of our youth. There’s not a pitch I can take off, be­cause I need to pre­pare them for what’s com­ing and what’s go­ing to hap­pen. I’m coach­ing a whole lot more than I ever have, and it’s fun to get back to this level. We’re def­in­itely go­ing to take our lumps, but I wouldn’t want to play us in May.”

Against GAMP, a tightly-con­tested 3-2 game quickly transitioned in­to a 9-2 blo­wout thanks to a six-run Frank­ford fifth that fea­tured pa­tience in the bat­ters box, timely hit­ting and the vet­er­an-like abil­ity to take ad­vant­age when an op­pon­ent of­fers ex­tra outs (GAMP com­mit­ted three er­rors in the in­ning). Fol­low­ing a hit bats­man and three walks to open the bot­tom of the third, sopho­more first base­man Edgardo Bern­ard broke a 1-1 tie with a two-run single to cen­ter; from there, sopho­more pitch­er Mi­chael Hollinger, in his first varsity ap­pear­ance on the mound, held GAMP to two runs over six sharp in­nings un­til Frank­ford’s of­fense awakened in the fifth.

Des­pite their over­all youth and in­ex­per­i­ence, the Pi­on­eers played with the poise of a vet­er­an bunch, mov­ing to 3-2 in Di­vi­sion A play and stay­ing with­in strik­ing dis­tance of the teams in front of them with a ton of base­ball to play.

“I be­lieve in my heart that with the tal­ent we have, we can be as good as any­one else once we fig­ure out game man­age­ment,” Namnun said. “I like our chances the same way I do every year. They know they still have stuff to learn, and that’s re­fresh­ing to me to know they have a ways to go. What’s really cool is when you win three in a row, there should be ex­tra pres­sure and ex­pect­a­tion, but there isn’t. This is all new to every­one. 

“We’re start­ing from the ground up, and that’s awe­some. There’s a hun­ger, a drive to get to that next level. I think they’re start­ing to get a swag­ger be­cause of the jer­sey they have on. I tell them to play as if they’re the team to beat. Right now we aren’t, but we’re work­ing on it. At the end of the day we might not end up with the ul­ti­mate goal, but I’m really ex­cited about where this is go­ing.”

Namnun ad­mit­ted he is teach­ing more than he’s ever had to in the past. Not teach­ing the play­ers how to play base­ball, mind you, be­cause as the coach said, “Most of them were the best play­ers on their little league teams.” But rather, it’s about teach­ing them to do things the right way … the Frank­ford way. 

A great teach­ing mo­ment was dis­played on Monday after Frank­ford had blown the game open. When the Pi­on­eers came out for the top of the sev­enth with a sev­en-run lead, fresh­man catch­er Joshua Pa­gan, whose long-term po­ten­tial Namnun fawns over, threw a weak warm-up toss to second base from his knees. Namnun was on him in an in­stant, not in a dis­par­aging or dis­cour­aging way, but just to in­dic­ate the im­port­ance of al­ways op­er­at­ing at high in­tens­ity.

“A lot of these guys aren’t fa­mil­i­ar with the Frank­ford way yet,” Namnun said. “We like to raise our stand­ards here. The en­tire core needs to be taught that you can’t waste op­por­tun­it­ies, even if it’s just a warm-up play. That’s how you get bet­ter. You get one an in­ning, so don’t waste it by be­ing lazy.” 

The Pi­on­eers have re­spon­ded to their coach’s chal­lenge. It’s not all too sur­pris­ing either, as an­oth­er thing that has Namnun giddy is that some of the play­ers on the roster are leg­acy guys. For in­stance, Bern­ard’s older broth­er is Esteban “Shortie” Me­letiche, who Namnun said was “ar­gu­ably a top-three play­er in the his­tory of Frank­ford High School.” Second base­man Emanuel Ramirez’s (the only ju­ni­or on the team; Car­los Cruz, Samuel San­tos and Wydell Compton are seni­ors, but only Compton played against GAMP) older broth­er, Car­los, re­cently gradu­ated, and Isaac Cedeno is the third of three broth­ers to come through the pro­gram. 

So while this year’s ver­sion is still learn­ing on the fly, they also have an idea of how big an hon­or it is to put on the uni­form. Namnun also sees it come out in oth­er ways.

“These kids don’t want to live in their broth­ers’ shad­ows; they want to be bet­ter,” Namnun said. “They work ex­tremely hard every day in prac­tice so that they can reach that level. Know­ing I have all these guys com­ing back through, that sup­port sys­tem with their fam­il­ies is still there. I know at home the fam­ily is re­in­for­cing how things have gone here over the last ten to twelve years, so there’s fa­mili­ar­ity with the pro­gram.

“The work eth­ic is go­ing to be there, and it’s fun to watch these guys want to be bet­ter than their big broth­ers when they came through here. There’s a nat­ur­al com­pet­i­tion hap­pen­ing, and it’s really fun to watch. I might have a little bit more gray in my hair, but they’re keep­ing me young, en­er­gized and in­to every pitch.”

As far as the rest of this sea­son goes, it would prob­ably be fool­ish to count the Pi­on­eers out no mat­ter how young they are. Case in point: last year, after be­ing rav­aged by in­jur­ies to key con­trib­ut­ors, the Pi­on­eers limped in­to the play­offs at 5-8 and still man­aged to win the cham­pi­on­ship. They have a tend­ency to play very well once the cal­en­dar turns to May, so al­though Namnun isn’t peg­ging his team as di­vi­sion fa­vor­ites — he singled out Prep Charter, Frank­lin Towne and Lin­coln — he also isn’t un­der­es­tim­at­ing how dan­ger­ous they can be if things fall in­to place.

Namnun told a story about how when the team was on a re­cent trip to Flor­ida, fresh­man Elvis Ros­ar­io was pitch­ing for the first time. His catch­er, Pa­gan, is also a fresh­man, and when they couldn’t get on the same page, Pa­gan called time on his own and trot­ted out to the mound to settle down his pitch­er. 

“When I see something like that, I’m just gig­gling,” Namnun said. “Here’s a 14-year-old throw­ing to an­oth­er 14-year-old, and Josh has the where­with­al to call time and fig­ure out what they were go­ing to do. I see that and I think, ‘Wow, these kids are still go­ing to be here in three years.’

“This is genu­ine fun right here. I couldn’t want any­thing more than a lot of young kids that are tal­en­ted, en­er­gized and ready to go. All I have to do is steer the boat.” ••

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