Baseball preview: Young players key for Wilton

Tim Eagen, the head coach of the Wilton High baseball team, will begin his 41st campaign with optimism bubbling front and center.

On the face of it you might wonder why. He has lost two .400 hitters in Dillon Lifrieri and Ryan Gabriele; a four-year starter and two-time FCIAC champion (Lifrieri); a three-year mainstay of the pitching staff (Gabriele); and his three-year starting catcher (Jack DiNanno).

Also gone are Brendan Skewis, a major cog last year both on the mound and in the outfield, and Cole Tietjen, who gave the Warriors a pitching lift in the second half of the season by winning three games.

It doesn’t stop there, either. Two key seniors, Kyle Phillips and Cole Judelson, will not be available until at least mid-April, and sophomore left-hander Anthony Passaniti (who showed promise as a freshman) may be out for the season. Senior Ben Olson will also be on the shelf to start the season.

Despite these obstacles, Eagen is sanguine about his team’s prospects for the 2019 season. And the reason is he has 14 talented younger players — eight juniors and six sophomores — who bring energy, talent and attitude to the table.

“There is a lot of talent on this team,” Eagen said. “I think we’ll be much better as we gain experience. We have a lot of young kids that we’ll be throwing into the deep end. To me, they’re all going to be good baseball players. It’s just a question of when.”

While the delayed debuts of Judselson and Kyle Phillips represent a huge hit in terms of skill and experience, there are seasoned, highly capable players returning.

Senor Lucas Uriarte and junior Ethan Leinberger were both called upon to pitch as well as handle infield positions last year. Junior Drew Phillips, voted the team’s Rookie of the Year, returns to a starting infield spot and will pitch as well. And outfielders Chris Tienken (senior), Parker Ward (junior) and Will Holmquist (senior) appear to have benefited from a year of varsity experience.

For the near future, Judelson’s role behind the plate will fall to either junior Regan Kahal or sophomore Sam Strazza, neither of whom has varsity experience. After the catching position, everything else (infield and outfield) consists of moving parts — potentially very good ones.

Besides Drew Phillips, Leinberger, and Uriarte, a starting infield could be completed by the likes of juniors Andrew Travers and Nick Sheehan and sophomores John McMahon, Luca Wentzel, Chris Drummond, and Ryan van Heyst. Several of those also could play in the outfield, along with senior Mike Angerame and juniors John Walsh and Erik Lebek.

A pitching staff with depth looks to be the reality for the Warriors this season. Pitching coach Mark Ketley’s eyes both widen and sparkle as he considers the hurlers he will get to develop.

“We’ve got eight or nine really good arms that we can use,” he said. “They want to really learn how to pitch better. They listen and respond to instruction. It’s a joy to work with them.”

Under Ketley's tutelage, look for sophomores Brian Cipri, Drummond, and van Heyst to progress along with juniors Sheehan, Lebek, Walsh, Ward, Leinberger, and Drew Phillips. Add Travers, Angerame, and Uriarte to the mix and prospects appear bright.

“We have a lot of sophomores and a lot of depth when it comes to pitching. There will be plenty of opportunities to play,” said tri-captain Kyle Phillips.

“This year I feel we’re a lot closer as a team. The sophomores have meshed with us, we’ve meshed with the sophomores — there’s good team chemistry,” said Tienken.

“I think one thing we have this year is versatility,” added tri-captain Drew Phillips. “We have a lot of guys who can play different positions and play them well.”

“We have players, especially the sophomores, who want any chance to get out there and want to play well wherever they’re put,” said Kyle Phillips. “There is a lot of competition. We compete hard but we’re still friends off the field.”

Notes: Wilton went 11-10 last season.

The Warriors open the season next Wednesday (April 3, 4:15) on the road against Joel Barlow in Redding.