Junior Rob Goodell takes his hacks in a game for the Bears last spring. Goodell is one of the few returning players to the Winnisquam roster this season. File Photo. (click for larger version)
April 02, 2012TILTON — Life after Jordan officially begins in Tilton.
Last year's Gatorade Player of the Year in New Hampshire and third round pick of the New York Yankees, Jordan Cote helped lead the Winnisquam Regional High School baseball team to three consecutive Final Four appearances, including a Division III state championship in 2010. Add in the losses to graduated players like Matt Roy, Kyle Pratt and Matt Descoteaux, and there's definitely a new look to the Bears program under reliable skipper Fred Caruso this spring.
"When we started practice, I drew a field on an erase board for the guys," explained Caruso. "I put last year's starting lineup from the Final Four on it then started taking names away. Our entire starting infield, including pitcher and catcher, is gone. So I told the guys there's a chance to make an impact right away."
With 27 players coming out for the program, numbers aren't the issue. One thing that will complicate the season a bit however is the loss of expected top pitcher Trevor Chapin, who went 6-2 last year on the mound and also hit .380. Chapin transferred to New Hampton this school year, meaning the Bears enter the season with just five innings of varsity pitching experience on their staff.
"I really believe we're going to get better as the season goes along," said Caruso. "It was different not seeing Cote, Roy, Pratt, Descoteaux when practice began. Those guys were there for four years. So we had to refocus our energies and do more teaching. It's a matter of getting this group acclimated to the way we do things. Hopefully that will translate into progress as the season goes along."
The circus that often surrounded the program last year with Cote on the squad got downright crazy at times, with scouts turning up at every game, even early-season scrimmages in frigid temperatures. That certainly won't be the case this year, which means the focus will be solely on baseball when things kick off April 7 against Newfound.
"It was a different world for all of us, having Jordan on the team," admitted Caruso. "Every time he pitched there was a minimum of 10-12 and maximum of 25 radar guns trained on him. The guys really soaked that up though. They were living the dream along with Jordan.
"It's different now though. We're telling them, we don't have somebody who's going to go out there and strike out 14 a game," the coach continued. "We have to field it, and we have to pitch it well in order to succeed, that's the bottom line. Our defense is going to have to rise to the occasion. Do we have capable pitchers? Yes, we do. Do we have someone who can strike out 14, 15 kids? No we don't."
Junior Austin Hunt is scheduled to take the ball on opening day against Newfound, as he pitched well for the JV squad a year ago and will be counted on to lead the staff.
"We're going to lean on him a lot," said Caruso of Hunt. "I think he's ready to step up to the spotlight and make his mark on this team."
Senior Rory Stephens also did some solid work on the JV pitching staff last year and will step into a big role this spring, while classmate Parker Normand hasn't pitched a lot but got into a couple games last year and earned his first varsity win in the process. Fellow junior Caleb Hutchins is also expected to see plenty of innings for the Bears.
After losing seven to graduation, the infield gets an entire makeover this spring. Senior Andrew Cullen is the starter at shortstop while Stephens will play second base when he's not on the mound. Hunt will also be a middle infielder when he's not pitching, while Hutchins and Chris Vanbuskirk will battle for third base rights. Junior John Montalto is coming off an injury from basketball but will man first base when healthy. Fellow junior Curtis Archibald will anchor the infield from the catcher slot, and he'll be backed up by Rob Goodell.
The outfield will be anchored by center fielder Parker Normand, while senior Kyle Farmer, junior Dana Dolan and Goodell are all in the mix. Senior Brandonn Grassman is new to the team but will provide depth for the unit.
Freshman Tucker Normand is the only varsity player not from the junior or senior classes, but Caruso expects the rookie to make a big impact before the season's over. Normand will play some first base if Montalto isn't ready to go, and he'll also battle for an outfield slot while likely hitting at the top or near the top of the Winnisquam lineup.
"There won't be a lot of trickery here," explained Caruso of his squad. "We've got a good group of kids. They want to succeed and they're working really hard. Three Final Fours the last three years, a state championship…that's never been done at this school before. Now it's your turn, you write your story."
Cullen, Parker Normand and Archibald will be the team's tri-captains.