SCOTCH PLAINS-FANWOOD, NJ - With only two position players having graduated from a team that reached the Union County Tournament championship game last year, the Scotch Plains-Fanwood varsity baseball team will open the 2017 season Monday at home against Westfield with a roster laden with experience.
The Raiders have 12 seniors back, and they can start a player at all nine positions who played that spot for the varsity a year ago, when SP-F was 17-12 and lost to Gov. Livingston of Berkeley Heights in the UCT final. The Raiders also fell to GL in the league final during the 2016 summer season.
In addition to a wealth of experience on the diamond and up and down the batting order, head coach Joe Higgins also has an uncommonly deep pitching staff at his disposal.
Senior first baseman Matt Fox led the Raiders with a .388 batting average and 19 RBI. The rest of the Raiders' starting infield also batted over .300, with shortstop Peter Warren hitting .354 with three home runs, junior second baseman Sam Schetelich batting .328 as a sophomore, and senior third baseman George Mueller batting .311 with seven extra-base hits. In addition to a quartet of reliable bats, the starting infield excels defensively. That defensive prowess also extends to behind the plate, where senior Peter Yarem is an exceptional defender with a world-class throwing arm who regularly cuts off an opponents' running game.
Scotch Plains-Fanwood also boasts ample speed in the outfield, with swift leadoff hitter Jake Canavan, the center fielder, who batted .333, a larcenous base stealer who swiped 15 bags in as many attempts as a junior. Canavan will be flanked by Colin McAlindin in right and either Matt Newman or Spencer Vaughn in left. Patrick Downey, another fleet runner, is a junior who can play a number of outfield or infield spots.
The Raiders will miss junior Anthony DiNizo, a catcher/outfielder who delivered some big hits as a sophomore but who will miss the season recovering from a knee injury.
The ace of a deep pitching staff is left-hander Tim Geissel, who will get the ball in the opener against Westfield after going 5-2 with a 2.56 earned-run average and just 10 walks in 43 innings as a junior. Geissel's fastball can ascend to the mid-80s, and he has plenty of experience pitching in big games by now.
Another left-hander who may figure heavily in the pitching rotation is Danny Wilkinson, a hard thrower who pitched 24 2/3 innings on the varsity as a ninth-grader and struck out 26. Wilkinson is one of two sophomores who could see a lot of innings on the mound this season, along with right-hander Tom Laucik, who led the SP-F junior varsity in innings pitched last season.
Right-handers Marc Occhipinti (1-1, 1.91 ERA in 2016), a senior, and juniors Nick McCormack and Matt Kipp could also see significant mound time. Kipp walked just three batters in 23 innings during the summer after ranking second on the JV in innings pitched last spring. Both he and McCormack, a big right-hander with a live fastball who impressed in a brief late-season varsity stint in 2016, were unscored upon in the pre-season this spring.
Higgins can also call upon big senior righty Ryan Yawger, curve-balling senior Charles Butler and crafty left-handed junior Derek Cappadoccia out of the bullpen.
While the Raiders have the experience and depth to be in the thick of the hunt for another run at a Union County title, their primary foes -- Gov. Livingston, Westfield, Cranford and Elizabeth -- remain well-stocked themselves.