Baseball: Revamped pitching staff will determine Wilton’s fortunes
“You can’t teach experience,” emphasized Wilton High head baseball coach Tim Eagen, speaking to his players after a recent scrimmage at Norwalk.
Through three pre-season games (Norwalk, Darien, Immaculate) the team had shown well, but Eagen, starting his 40th year as head coach, knows he has a lot of holes to fill and a lot of teaching to do if the Warriors are to compete and repeat as FCIAC champions.
He has lost all-FCIAC hurler Billy Black (5-1), complete-game winner of the FCIAC title game against Ridgefield. He also lost Collin Kahal, all-FCIAC East second baseman and FCIAC Tournament MVP.
The Warriors also graduated all-FCIAC East pitcher Ben Rusin, a big part of the team's championship push.
Gone as well are his all-FCIAC East honorable mention outfield of Drew Connolly, Matt D’Elisa and Henry Strmecki. For the first time in four years, Eagen will begin the season without one of the best, if not the best, outfields in the conference.
Finally, not returning will be starting first baseman Jack Dooley and pitcher Cole Lipsky, who threw so brilliantly against Staples in the state tournament.
Absent so much talent, there still remains a solid core of veterans who will make the team a force in 2018. The season opener will be on Friday at home against Weston (4:15).
Senior all-FCIAC shortstop Dillon Lifrieri returns for his fourth season as the key to the Wilton infield. Second-year man, all-FCIAC East pick Kyle Phillips, a junior who received the team’s Rookie-of-the-Year designation, will man third base.
At first base, junior Cole Judelson, who was the regular DH last season, will now take over in the field. Sophomore Drew Phillips looks to start at second base in his first full season of varsity play.
Directing pitchers and infielders will be senior catcher Jack DiNanno, who starts his third year behind the plate and will be a team captain along with Lifrieri and Kyle Phillips.
The outfield has one proven piece in senior Ryan Gabriele, a varsity-level right fielder who is solid both at the plate and in the field. He is also the most experienced pitcher on the squad and versatile enough to play a fine first base, and those factors may detract from his playing time in the outfield.
Senior Brendan Skewis also has varsity experience as a centerfielder with a good arm and great range. His plate appearances have been minimal.
Sophomore Parker Ward and junior Chris Tienken played well in the field during the scrimmages but it is too early to tell what kind of hitters they may be.
Seniors Olin Lancaster, Dom Romeo, John Maggio, and Jack Forgione (also DH, first base), along with junior Will Holmquist, potentially vie for outfield slots.
Battling for infield space are sophomores Ethan Leinberger and Andrew Travers, and junior Lucas Uriarte (unavailable for 10 games due to CIAC rules regarding transfer students).
At first glance, the Warriors’ pitching could indicate a problematic question mark. However, Black’s success last year overshadowed Gabriele’s 5-0 overall record and his clutch performance against Darien in the FCIAC playoffs. He will be the staff’s lynchpin, with Kyle Phillips poised for a breakout year given the strides he made on the mound last year.
Senior Colin Tietjen, who got his feet wet with some innings last year, should contribute significantly and showed why with good scrimmage outings. Both Skewis and freshman Anthony Passaniti looked good, as well, and Kyle Phillips was dominant in three short stints as a reliever.
“We had three inexperienced guys throwing and they gave up a run in the first inning and that was it,” said pitching coach Mark Ketley, who knows the season is in its infancy. “I’m really encouraged by what I saw, but I know it’s early.”
“Our job in the pre-season is to kind of start all over as we develop new people who will take over the roles of the guys we lost last year,” Eagen said. “The team is inexperienced and the only way they’re going to get better is to play. That means we have to make some decisions about who we’re going to keep and then play them as much as we can before the season starts. Who’s going to play those roles is what’s being determined right now.”
The Warriors will face some stiff opposition from usual suspects — Staples, St. Joseph, Trumbull and Westhill, but as Eagen said, “The FCIAC is wide open every year. Anybody can beat anybody and they do. The main thing is to get into the playoffs any way you can.”