Baseball preview: Wilton has new look, but big potential

Nineteen potential varsity baseball players crowded around Tim Eagen. These were tense times for the players as they restlessly awaited Eagen, beginning his 38th campaign as head coach, to announce the names of those who would make the team.

“We have watched you work out over the past several days,” said Eagen, referring to the tryouts presided over by himself and varsity assistants Don Heibeck and Mark Ketley and junior varsity coaches Ian Thoesen and Brandon Tegano.

“We have decided to make one final cut,” said Eagen. “One guy has got to go and his name is … nobody.”

With that a cheer went up and the Wilton varsity baseball team unfurled its sails, ready to chart a course for the 2016 season.

Last year’s team set the bar high. The Warriors won their first FCIAC title since 1995, but 14 players from that team have graduated, including co-captains Alex Jacobson and Jackson Ward. Pitching ace and FCIAC championship hero J.T. Morin, who threw a 1-0 shutout in the championship game against Staples, has also moved on.

Gone, too, is one of the conference’s best outfields in James Meany, Scott Shouvlin and Paul Sorbo. And if a winning team must be strong up the middle, the Warriors look pretty green without Shouvlin in centerfield, Ward at second base, and Jacobson behind the plate.

On the mound, Wilton will miss key starters Morin and Ward, along with spot starters and relievers Trevor Blond, Sean McEwen, Will DeSantis and Alex Ellenthal. In fact, the only varsity- tested arm Wilton has entering this season belongs to sophomore Dillon Lifrieri, who pitched all of two innings in two separate appearances against Harding and Bassick.

Neither of those teams is back in the conference this season. But Lifrieri, an All-FCIAC honorable mention choice in 2015, will be, and based on his performance last season as a freshman he will be an integral part of this team. He took over as the starting shortstop four games into the season and stayed there throughout the year, displaying both promise and poise as he batted well over .300 and improved impressively in the field.

Junior Collin Kahal, another All-FCIAC honorable mention choice, will join Lifrieri as part of a keystone combination that is battle tested. Kahal took over at second base when Ward pitched, and he started the FCIAC championship game as well, making a spectacular late-inning diving catch to squelch any type of Staples rally. He was solid at the plate throughout the season, and he and Lifrieri should spark the team’s offense.

Henry Strmecki saw plenty of action as a sophomore, usually as a pinch runner. He did fill in admirably for Sorbo in right field and showed power and speed. Senior Henry Hovland enters his third year on varsity, although he has been limited to a reserve role so far. As a tri-captain (along with Kahal and Strmecki), Hovland’s role should expand to take advantage of his potential. Another senior, Glenn O’Brien, spent significant time at the varsity level last year. His infield versatility and his ability to throw strikes make him valuable both in the field and on the mound.

But what will determine this season’s buzzword (reload or rebuild) is likely going to be the performance of many talented players who have yet to play at the varsity level.

An outfield of Matt D’Elisa, Drew Connolly and Strmecki holds great promise. All three are speedy, accomplished ball hawks with good-to-superb arms — how long it will take for them to produce at the plate remains to be seen. Zach Adams provides depth at the position.

Beyond Kahal and Lifrieri, the infield is an unknown. At first base, the big bat and solid-to-excellent defense of Harry Sabo must be replaced. Hovland and junior Jack Dooley will compete for the job, with junior Ben Ruson, when not pitching, possibly joining in.

At third base, the predictable and hard-nosed play of Jason Rothstein also needs to be replaced. O’Brien and senior Mike Tienken will look to do that. Both have quick hands and strong arms. It’s a matter of how soon they will be able to catch up to or slow down a higher level of play to suit their capabilities.

Senior Tom Crimmins and junior Ryan Osgood give Eagen infield options. Osgood possesses great speed and moves quickly and easily around second base. Crimmins has hands, good range and throws bullets from shortstop, making him a fine alternate solution at any infield position.

Despite the huge losses from last year, the outlook for both pitchers and catchers is positive. Between senior Brennen Ryan and sophomore Jack DiNanno, the Warriors have a shot at adequately filling the huge footprint Jacobson left behind the plate. Both are a little raw but seem able to support and handle their staff. DiNanno has also shown a notably powerful bat in the pre-season.

Pitching coach Mark Ketley will have his work cut out for him as he puts together a brand new crew. He will look to juniors Billy Black, Ryan Gabriele, Ruson and Strmecki, along with seniors O’Brien, Jack Mastrianna and Drew Floyd, to form a winning mound mix. “I like these arms,” said Ketley. “These guys have shown me some polish and attitude. I like what I see.”

The team’s first scrimmage against Darien on Tuesday was not impressive. But, as Eagen pointed out to his players, “That’s what these scrimmages are for. Our job is to get better every day and we need to work hard to do that.

“Pitching and defense, that’s what is going to win for us,” said Eagen. “So far, I think we are doing pretty well in both areas, though we didn’t show it against Darien. But we have some time with two more scrimmages scheduled before we begin the season.”

Notes: Wilton opens the season on Monday (April 4) against Brookfield at home at 4 p.m.  

Wilton finished the 2015 season with a 19-6 record, losing to Norwalk, 6-5, in the second round of the Class LL state tournament.