MILLBURN, NJ - When many other high school baseball programs in the area were cancelling scrimmages and finding themselves confined to claustrophobic practices in the gym after the big snowstorm of mid-March, the Millburn baseball team was staying ahead of the pace by scrimmaging several opponents at the Shore.
Whether they were playing road scrimmages in Monmouth or Ocean counties where there had not been snow burying baseball diamonds, or playing on fields with turf that had been plowed or shoveled, the Millers had gotten five scrimmages in at a point when many area baseball teams had yet to play one.
"We've had a terrific pre-season, and it hasn't felt restricting at all," said Millburn head baseball coach Brian Chapman, whose team is in a position to benefit from extra pre-season repetetions, owing to its collective youth.
"We are definitely young," Chapman said. "As young as we have ever been, in fact."
Last season, Millburn finished 23-4, reaching the Section 2, Group 4 semifinal round before losing to Watchung Hills. Those 23 victories were accomplished with much of the same cast that had captured the Group 4 state championship in 2015, a point worth considering, because that team in 2015 began the season without a lot of collective varsity experience and then soared to historic heights. A scenario not unlike the one the Millers face as they prepare for their 2017 opener at 4 p.m. Monday at Bloomfield.
"We are young, and that youth is interesting," Chapman said. "It's fun and hopeful. There's so much going on in daily practices. There are gonna be a lot of mistakes and growing pains, but as a staff we are ready to tackle that challenge. We have a balance of older kids who can provide consistency and stability."
But observers are advised not to use the "R" word around the Millers. Chapman insists there's no such thing as "rebuilding" in Millburn.
"In a lot of ways it is like two springs ago. Very similar," Chapman said. "The only difference is, at that point two years ago, looking back, we were infusing kids new to varsity level, but mostly a junior class that had incredible success at JV and freshman levels all together. It was a core group. This is a little different, because we are taking the best of a few classes and molding it together. We have good players, plenty of talent, and our job to get them caught up with way we do things. We are not talking rebuilding."
Left-handed hitting outfielder Richie Schiekofer, a senior committed to the University of Maryland, is the centerpiece of Millburn's lineup. Schiekofer batted .435 with 12 extra-base hits and 36 runs scored last season. Junior Peter Serruto is a top-flight defensive catcher who knocked in 12 runs last season as a 10th-grader. Only two runners stole a base against Serruto all season, and he threw out eight others attempting to steal. And senior right-hander Connor Lally takes over as the front-line starting pitcher after going 3-2 in 20 1/3 innings pitched last season, when a trio of talented seniors absorbed most of the innings on the mound. Not incidentally, Lally also swung the bat impressively, hitting .348 as a junior.
Pressed into starting service as a shortstop as a sophomore last season, Peter Gula handled 92 chances and scored 18 runs. Gula should be even better as a junior with that experience in hand now. Behind Lally, junior right-hander Kyle Mazer should see plenty of meaningful innings on the hill after posting a 1.00 ERA in eight appearances as a 10th-grade varsity pitcher.
First baseman Mike Kologu, a senior, and second baseman Ben Pampush, a junior, are other Millers who saw significant varsity time in 2016.
Millburn's early-season schedule
4/3 (A) Bloomfield, 4 p.m.
4/4 (A) Montclair-Kimberley, 4 p.m.
4/5 (A) Montclair, 4 p.m.
4/9 (A) St. Peter's Prep, 1 p.m. (@ Rutgers University)
4/10 (A) Livingston, 4 p.m.
4/13 (H) Newark Academy, 4 p.m.
4/14 (H) Lyndhurst, 10 a.m.
4/15 (H) Rutgers Prep, 11 a.m.
4/17 (A) Seton Hall Prep, 4 p.m.