SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ = The 2016 South Plainfield High School baseball team was tasked with humongous shoes to fill following the program’s first ever Group III state title the year prior. They learned the hard way the difference between being the hunters and the hunted: Decimated by graduation and injuries to the starting rotation, the squad underachieved to the tune of an 11-17 overall record (5-5 in divisional play) while defending its crown.

But all was not lost. Several underclassmen received valuable experience and playing time, and Manager Anthony Guida (ninth season) looks to get the Tigers back on track in a year of conference realignment and rules changes.

Graduating after last season were pitcher Jake Alba, shortstop Nick Polizzano and outfielder Jack Gillis. Three-sport state champion Jake Hoffman is choosing not to play his senior season. But South Plainfield still returns two standout seniors with the ace of the staff Jean Sapini (one of the few remaining players with championship experience) and backstop Jared Marks, who made just one error behind the plate last season.

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Guida will draw upon the right-hander Sapini and fellow flamethrowers, lefty Billy Keane and sophomore Chris Shine, to lead the rotation, though he hasn’t slotted any of the three into a pecking order and probably won’t until opening day on April 1. Look for sophomore transfer Roberto Gonzalez to add depth to this very talented pitching staff.

Leading the offense for the Tigers will be outfielders Dylan O’Connor and Ricky Pellegrino. Junior infielder Michael Stanczak looks to build on all the playing time he earned for himself one spring ago.

In the GMC White Division, SP’s schedule will look somewhat unfamiliar with arch-rival Monroe moving up into the Red Division and Piscataway & Sayreville coming to the White. Guida, a Monroe native, admitted not having the home & home series with the Falcons this season after many memorable affairs the last several years will be “tough.”

Also, concerning the sectional and group playoffs, South Plainfield moves from NJSIAA North II, Group III to Central, Group II. “We have dropped down a group, so we’re now Group II. We have a whole new group of people we’re going to be playing so there’s no Cranford and Roxbury and all those teams we’re familiar with,” Guida said. “Now we’re playing a different section, so it’s an interesting feel.”

SPHS will have opportunities to forge new playoff rivalries with the likes of Carteret and Spotswood from Middlesex County, as well as geographical rival North Plainfield.

Also new for the 2017 season are rules that will cap pitchers at 110 pitches per game and 140 pitches in a five day period, though Guida says the changes are “not going to blindside” his coaching staff or the way they approach their pitchers.

“I think it’s going to affect Coach [Mike] Bautista and I because it’s now on our minds, that we’ve got to make sure we have pitch counts down and everything, but for the most part we’ve done a good job either way,” Guida says. “Whenever a pitcher was coming close to a hundred [pitches], Coach Bautista would say ‘Hey, this guy’s gotta get out.’ So we’ve always had that one hundred pitch count in our heads, unofficially,” he said.

Guida, however, can envision a few scenarios where the new rules will cause some tough decision making on his part.

“I’ve talked about three years ago (the 2014 GMC title game vs. St. Joseph Metuchen at TD Bank Ballpark) where we had Kyle Moroney, who was throwing a complete game, and I’m not taking him out of the game—it was 0-0—going toe to toe with Brandon Bielak…and now, if he’s pushing a hundred pitches, in that situation I want to leave him in, but now I have to take him out,” said Guida. “If I’m in that situation come playoff time then it’s going to be a different story.”

Even though South Plainfield saw a handful of March scrimmages cancelled due to inclement weather, the team will jump into opening day on Saturday, April 1 at home vs. the Middlesex Blue Jays followed by back to back games against Sayreville on the 3rd and 4th. “We’re excited to get this thing going,” Guida said. “We’re ready.”