NORTH CALDWELL, NJ — With a season-opening shutout, 4-0, against the Cedar Grove High School baseball team already under their belts, the West Essex Knights hope that strong pitching and a team effort will lead them to a winning season in 2017.
“We have a team that wants to play together as a team and I think that’s our main goal to win and lose as a team,” said West Essex Head Coach Eric Johnson.
The Knights are returning several starting pitchers expected to keep the team competitive. Senior Oliver Ortman took the ball on opening day for West Essex on Saturday, pitching five shutout innings and allowing only three hits throughout the game.
He notched nearly a strikeout per inning last year and will also double as a right fielder for the squad.
“He could be one of the top pitchers in the conference this year pretty easily [because] he’s got all the stuff,” Johnson said.
Anthony Vassallo impressed on the mound as well on Saturday, allowing only two hits and striking out two. David Kolesar recorded the final out for the Knights.
Ben Ruvo, Matt Cesare, Vin Salvatoriello and Zac Balz each scored a run and Max Ruvo had the only RBI of the game with a triple in the second inning.
Junior Ian McLaughlin returns for West Essex this year in the rotation as well after a fine 2016 campaign. As a sophomore last year, the first baseman and pitcher was named to second team All Conference.
“He’s a really good team guy, he had a successful year, stays within himself and I feel like he’s going to come out and do what he always does,” said Johnson.
Helping to add depth to the rotation will be David Kolesar. Kolesar’s ability to eat up innings for the Knights will be key in a conference where any given day an opposing offense can erupt for six or more runs.
“I’m not going to say our pitching depth is that deep, but we have the guys if we stay healthy we have the pitchers,” said Johnson.
Defensively, West Essex will look to remain strong up the middle with veteran leadership from Matt Cesare and Shane Smith. Cesare will play shortstop while Smith will play second. The duo is highly touted for their educational abilities having been in the system for years.
“They are guys that can go out there and literally teach the game to other guys and they just bring that level of leadership,” said Johnson.
Senior Zac Balz will return to spearhead the outfield for West Essex. Balz was a solid hitter batting close to .300 for the year in 2016. He will be joined by a host of players who will play based on the hot bat. Vin Nemchick, Matt Kumar, and Ben and Max Ruvo will fill the platoon roles in the outfield.
Similarly to the corner outfield, the third base and catching positions will be a rotation of four-to-five players. Scott Barlow, Frank Lagreca, Vincent Salvatoriello, Tyler Behrle, Mike Coombs and Frank Lagreca will all see time at either position.
In sticking true to the West Essex motto, Johnson refused to acknowledge a starter, noting that everyday players will fight to earn their playing time.
“Everyday a position is up for grabs and whoever wants it [is] whoever works the hardest and shows they can do it. From game one to game 20 things are different,” Johnson said.
Currently, the team is working inside as the weather has only recently broke. Utilizing live simulations and batting cages Johnson has been able to keep his team focused on the basics of the game to achieve optimal results.
“We’re fortunate with our facilities as hitters to see live pitchers throw to us,” said Johnson. “We’ve seen a lot of live looks and off the gym floor or not a ground ball is a ground ball so we’ve been taking a lot of reps.”
The Knights will have their work cut out for them in a stacked Super Essex Conference.
The Seton Hall Prep, Millburn and Nutley teams all notched 20 wins or more last year. Despite the stiff competition, the West Essex team hopes to take it piece by piece to achieve maximum success.
“Expectations are to play, win and lose as a team,” said Johnson. “Everyday [we’re] trying to go out there and win the inning, try to win the pitch, it’s a game of inches so [we’re] trying to get that inch.”
The Knights will take on Glen Ridge on Monday at home at 4 p.m. and are looking to take home a second win.
“We’re ready to go out there and compete,” said Johnson.