SOUTHERN SECTION BASEBALL PREVIEWS : ALPHA LEAGUE
COACH: Walt Steele, 4th season
LAST SEASON: 25-3; 1st in league, 9-1
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Montclair Prep again welcomes back a wealth of talent and figures to be in good shape to defend its Southern Section championship, even without all-section shortstop Keyaan Cook, now at Louisiana State. At catcher, all-section choice Brent Polacheck, a senior, should lead the offense. Polacheck hit .428 with five home runs as a junior and was third in the region with 41 runs batted in. Right-handed junior Russell Ortiz (7-1, 1.62 earned-run average) will be the No. 1 starter but sophomore right-hander Chris Ferebee (4-0, 2.01 ERA), who would be the No. 2 starter, has atrophy in his right shoulder and is sitting out a few weeks to get healthy. The rest of the lineup is filled with returnees, including first baseman Andy Shaw (.392, 20 stolen bases), second baseman Shad Knighton and outfielders Dylan Jones (.373, five home runs) and Jared Baumblatt (.333). Returnee J.T. Billingslea (.274) will bat leadoff and play in the outfield. When Ortiz is not pitching, he will play third base and when he does pitch, Justin Paperny will play third. Pitching might be the only question mark: After Ortiz, new arms Steven Cain, Baumblatt and junior Osman Kahn will attempt to do the job.
OUTLOOK: The Mounties are picking up right where they left off: They are ranked No. 1 in the Southern Section in the preseason. Steele, though, sees potential problems in pitching. “Last year, we had the luxury of two quality starters, a middle reliever and a closer,” Steele said. “This year, that’s the goal--to build that same combination. We have one of those starters and we’re looking from there.” Still, Steele said, “we’re going to have to be knocked off.”
COACH: Mike Henzie, 4th season
LAST SEASON: 18-7; 4th in league, 5-5
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Three of the Crusaders’ top four pitchers return to form a fine nucleus. Right-hander Matt Henzie, who doubles at second base, batted .423; right-hander Matt Smay, who doubles at shortstop, batted .395; and right-hander Mark Vail, who doubles at third base, batted .380. Left-hander Andy Muxlow, a senior, also will figure into the rotation. Vail likely will be the No. 1 starter. “He has the hair on his back to throw it,” Henzie said. Up from the junior varsity is sophomore Jeff Deal, who will play first base and perhaps pitch. Utility man Willie Morrow should be a .300 hitter, David Treanor, will be the catcher and Geoff Agnor and John Fennell will battle for outfield positions.
OUTLOOK: The Crusaders made it to the playoffs last year as a wild-card team and stormed to the section final before losing to league champion Montclair Prep. Last year’s 5-5 league record was a disappointment, but Henzie expects better--especially with a bevy of talented pitchers. “I’ve got a majority of pitching back,” he said. “But I do have to fill a lot of positions with young kids. It’ll be how they adapt. My infield is solid. I’m looking for a real good season.”
COACH: Mark Bates, 1st season
LAST SEASON: 2-15; 6th in league, 1-9
PLAYERS TO WATCH: There are few places to go but up for the Knights this year, and football coach Bates is ready to take them in that direction. Senior catcher Colyn Van Buren (.407), a football standout, is a team leader. “Baseball is his best sport,” Bates said. Junior right-hander Darrell Smedley, a returnee, will be the No. 1 starter. “He had one of our two wins last year,” Bates said. The infield is filled with returnees. Junior Brad Imbler will move from second base to shortstop. Senior Dan Shackelford (.285, 16 RBIs) moves from third base to second. Senior Chris Herthel will stay at first base. Two more returning pitchers are right-handed sophomore Steve Klein and left-handed junior John Gabrielson, who had the team’s other win. Klein’s cousin, junior right-hander Jason Leverton, also will bid for mound time. The outfield is anchored by senior left fielder Rob Redekopp, another returnee. From the junior varsity, outfielders Scott Briggs and Isaac Regenstreif will vie for starting positions.
OUTLOOK: The Knights are still inexperienced--just seven of 19 players are seniors. “We’ve got to be improved over last year,” Bates said. “I would say that if we can play real well, we could battle for that third playoff spot. We don’t have a senior pitcher, so playing for anything above that would be real good.”