WESTFIELD, NJ — A staggering 19 consecutive victories. That’s what last year’s Westfield High School varsity baseball team achieved last year, breaking the school's all-time school record. The Blue Devils eventually lost in the semifinals of counties and state sectionals and finished with a 22-6 record.
The team hopes to make another deep run this season despite the loss of many key players, including Chris Rinaldi and Steve Barmakian, who are playing Division I baseball at Holy Cross and George Washington University, respectively.
“Last year we had a really good year with some good players, but this year I think we’ll come back with a lot of strong guys as well, so I hope to at least meet expectations from last year and hopefully take advantage of our opportunities,” senior outfielder Victor Cruz said.
The team has had to deal with a late start to traditional practices and scrimmages due to the recent snow. According to head coach Bob Brewster, the team has tried to make do by participating in “indoor scrimmages” in one of WHS' gyms, where they have two batting cages they can set up, so that they can get to hit off other team’s pitchers and vice versa.
“Obviously, it’s hard with the snow. Nobody gets to go outside really,” senior outfielder Kobi Wolf said. “We need to see live pitching outside with the background. We need to see, from an outfielder’s perspective, the ball off the bat. It’s not so easy inside when you’re just getting tossed up fly balls by the hand and when you’re in the parking lot getting hit tennis balls in the air, but everyone has the same problems.”
Cruz and Wolf return as the most experienced positional players, according to Brewster. Senior pitchers returning will be Connor Scanlon, Drew Boley and Alex Pansini, the team’s ace pitcher who struck out 38 in 36 innings.
Pansini will have an expanded role this year.
“Alex is going to play some infield this year for us as well,” Brewster said. “Last year because of a decision he and his club team made they didn’t want him to do anything but pitch and that did not bode well with everybody, including him. I think he wanted to hit but he didn’t.”
According to Brewster, the team also returns three talented players who did not play last season. Junior infielder Michael Knapp was lost for the season due to injury, senior first baseman Owen Kessler elected not to play to focus on football and Matt LaCorte did the same, focusing on basketball.
“I think we’re going to be good. A lot of people are coming back,” LaCorte said. “We have a lot of pieces — we just have to put it together. I’m personally really excited. I know I just have to get back into the swing of things and be able to at least get back to where I was, which has been the goal, and hopefully help the team succeed.”
At catcher, junior Jake Vall-Llobera will look to build off what he did as primarily a designated hitter last year, where he led the team in home runs. Junior Drew Ortiz looks to make an impact as well.
Up-and-coming position players include senior outfielders James Friel and Arthur Xiao and junior infielders Steve Barden, Jake Lerie, Chris Wagner and Matt Manning. Knapp, Wagner, Manning, Tyler Hoffmann and Dylan Jackson will serve as talented- yet-untested junior pitchers behind junior Cory Hiltz, who went 4-1 last season.
“They each bring something good to the table; left-handers versus right-handers, good curveball pitchers versus heavy fastball, so they’re all a little bit of everything,” Brewster said.
Brewster believes that the team’s pitching depth will be advantageous under New Jersey’s new pitching rule, which limits pitchers to a certain amount of pitches as opposed to a certain amount of innings.
“It used to be five innings you could throw 40 pitches an inning and now there’s a limit on how many you can pitch and then you have to come out, so that’s going to be interesting for all teams,” he said. “Fortunately, I think we have a lot of pitchers, so we’ll be able to weather that problem early on.”
The Blue Devils will kick off their season on the road against Scotch-Plains Fanwood Saturday at 11 a.m.
Eric Storms is a student at Westfield High School participating in a journalism program with TAPinto Westfield.