MILLBURN, NJ - Before asking what the Millburn varsity baseball team is expected to do for an encore, it might be worth remembering where the program stood at this time a year ago.
With an overwhelmingly young roster, the 2015 Millers were supposed to endure a bit of a rebuilding year. Instead, they reloaded and turned it into one of the greatest seasons in Millburn history, complete with a Group 4 state championship.
Fourteen players who were in the dugout during Millburn's 11-3 state championship victory over Williamstown return for coach Brian Chapman this spring. It is extremely rare that a team coming off a 27-6 season comes back with so much collective experience.
"With that type of experience, this preseason has been different," Chapman said. "We did not have to spend as much time teaching new principles, but instead were able to focus on continuing to improve on the things that helped our players to be successful in the past."
Millburn opens its season Friday at 4 p.m. at Belleville, with a game scheduled at home the next morning at 10 a.m. against Livingston.
Senior Kevin Czapelski was 10-2 with a 2.12 ERA last season, and the right-hander was the winning pitcher in both the Millers' sectional final victory over Ridge and the state title triumph over Williamstown. Czapelski, who had Tommy John surgery at the beginning of his sophomore year, showed no ill effects from the procedure and also wielded a dangerous bat in the middle of the Millburn lineup. He batted .393 last year with three home runs and 33 RBI. Czapelski has committed to Sacred Heart University.
Seniors Brian Lannino (5-0, 1.69 ERA), who will attend Lafayette University, and Mike Garawitz (4-2, 2.05 ERA) will also be important members of the Miller mound staff. They'll be backed up by a defense that makes almost all the plays and almost never gives the opposition extra outs to work with. Second baseman Johnny Serruto (.354 batting average and just four errors in 105 chances), third baseman Jordan Brisgel, first baseman Matt Jacob and outfielders Rich Schiekofer (.385 batting average, team-high 39 runs scored), Nick Minter and Dean Schweinler all know how to use the leather.
Ryan Adelman, last year's shortstop, helped provide the glue to a solid infield, but he will miss the 2016 season after tearing an ACL a scrimmage earlier in March.
"Our goals remain the same each year no matter what level of experience we bring to the dugout," Chapman said. "We try to focus on daily and short term goals rather than on the big picture. Our philosophy is that if we take care of what we need to each and every day, then all of our result goals will be attainable."
Chapman and his staff stress fundamentals to such an extent, and his players have bought in to the philosophy so thoroughly, that even a Millburn team without this wealth of experience could be expected to perform the basics at a level uncommon at the high school level.
"Our plan will not change. We will try to be a team that throws strikes, limits the opposition to three outs per inning, builds quality at bats and runs the bases aggressively and intelligently. Again, if we can meet our goals in those four areas day in and day out we feel like that will give us a chance to be successful and reach our long term goals," Chapman said.
"We understand that expectations will be high in our school, in our community, and at our dinner tables. Truthfully, though, we do not change our expectations from year to year," the coach added. "We expect that all of our players will prepare properly for our season with hard work in the off-season in the weight room; that they will give maximum effort both on the field and in the classroom whether in season or out; and that each member of our program will be a selfless contributor to the greater cause. We feel that if we hold all of our student athletes to that standard year after year that the results will follow. Wins and losses are simply an end to a means."