MILLBURN, NJ — If ever there were a season for a varsity baseball team to employ several underclassmen in key roles, it's 2021.
That's the situation in which Millburn finds itself, but it's not that much different from even teams with a lot of seniors, because nobody in New Jersey played a varsity game last year, meaning even a lot of seniors are "inexperienced" in a varsity sense.
"We’re young," Millburn head coach Brian Chapman said. "We have five seniors, and a lot of sophomores starting. We may start five sophomores and a freshman, depending on who is on the mound."
Chapman, who is in his 12th season at Millburn, says he hasn't had such a young team in about a decade.
Third baseman Jake Zirlin, outfielder Max Rubin and pitcher/infielder Dan Cifu are three of Millburn's most accomplished seniors. Zirlin was the Millers' starting third baseman as a sophomore in 2019, getting 73 at-bats and driving in 15 runs, giving him by far the most experience of any Millburn player on the offensive side.
No Millburn pitcher has ever thrown a pitch in a varsity game--but, again, this is a situation that will be common to many teams in the area this season.
The blue chip among Millburn pitchers is actually a sophomore. Steven Echavarria would have been in the rotation as a freshman last year, and his performances in showcases was so good that the University of Oregon has offered Echavarria a scholarship already.
"Steven was at a (showcase) event in Pennsylvania that was live-streamed last fall," Chapman said. "After that, my phone started blowing up. He got many suitors all of a sudden. Oregon made him an offer. ... Steven throws 90 (mph), and he's pobably our best player, too."
Cifu, a right-hander, and senior righty Luke Goldenberg should round out the top of Millburn's pitching rotation. Promising sophomore left-hander Drew Oppenheim, who is possessed with a wicked, sweeping curveball, and senior southpaw Emory Kaplan also figure heavily in Chapman's pitching plans.
The pitching staff, which Chapman said has plenty of hurlers who are able to command the strike zone, will also include right-handers Henry Jacobs, Zach Lane, Matt Weiner, Ethan Axelrod and Alex Wilson. Lane a junior, Weiner a freshman and Axelrod, Jacobs and Wilson all sophomores.
The other position players likely to start or get significant playing time are catchers Matt Hollender, a junior, and Shai Abbott, a sophomore; junior second baseman Copeland Culp; sophomore shortstop Robert Schneider; Wilson, in left field; Echavarria or Jacobs in center; and either Jacobs, Axelrod or Oppenheim in right field. Weiner and Axelrod are both available to play first base.
"We are talented, but young--just so young," Chapman said. "As coaches, we can't take anything for granted because they haven't experienced high school baseball at any level. In practice, every single thing needs to be broken down and explained. There is going to need to be patience on our part. We might take awhile to hit our stride.
"I’m not crying the blues, though. As inexperienced as everyone is, we are also fighting a physical deficit. Some of our kids don't even fill out their uniform pants yet. They didn't just lose a year of playing high school baseball, they also lost a year of time in the Millburn weight room, too."
The Millers open on the road Monday, April 19 at Seton Hall Prep, then host Livingston Wednesday in a pair of big, Super Essex Conference divisional games.
"We have decent numbers. There is a lot of work to do," Chapman said. "I think we are going to be good in all three areas at some point. There’s pitching, potential for good defense and lineup is athletic and talented. They are so green."