There is a new coach at the Salem State baseball helm, but he is no stranger.
Salem native Mike Ward has taken over the reigns after serving as associate head coach under veteran Ken Perrone for the past two years. He knows the players and the system, and is enthusiastic about his team.
The Vikings are young but experienced in key areas, and Ward is very pleased with the work ethic he has seen as players compete for playing time. The schedule has been strengthened to the degree that the Vikings have one of the toughest Division 3 schedules in the country.
Salem State added two-time defending national champion Marietta and NCAA runnerup Wheaton College along with Wooster of Ohio and Neumann from Pennsylvania (both NCAA qualifiers). Tufts, Heidelberg (Ohio), St. Lawrence, Babson and Southern Maine are also strong opponents in addition to the Vikes’ MASCAC rivals.
The Vikings are coming off a very successful 31-12-1 2012 season in which they reached the league championship game.
“We felt we were ready to take the next step forward,” said Ward. “The guys are excited about the challenge and are ready to step up.”
Salem State wraps up the Florida portion of its schedule today with a doubleheader against Defiance (Ohio) College; it takes a 3-5 mark into today’s twinbill.
“Our strength comes from the experience we have back,” said Ward. “Even though (we have) a lot of juniors they’ve been starting for two or three years and understand the system. They’re battle tested.”
Starting pitchers such as Ryan Hyjek and Ed Deren return with experience and will be counted on to head up the pitching staff. Hyjek is a 6-foot-2 junior who had a 3.38 ERA last season; he was impressive in his first start by striking out 10 in a six-inning performance against Dominican. Deren, a southpaw from Westford, posted a 6-3 record and team-leading 3.04 ERA last year.
The mound crew is strengthened by the additions of Franklin Pierce transfer Cata Lacroix and freshmen Sean Buckland (St. Mary’s), Sean O’Brien (Swampscott), Mike Boryski, Kevin Church (Bishop Fenwick/Peabody), Ben Kendrew (Lynnfield) and Matt Abrain. Providing help out of the bullpen are seniors Andrew Guido (Bishop Fenwick), Ryan Sharp and sophomore Shawn Hull (Gloucester) along with Mike Davis (Bishop Fenwick/Peabody), who closed out the game against Heidelberg.
Davis, a transfer from Franklin Pierce, will also be used as a DH and outfielder. Sophomore Ryan Beliveau of Lynn was the closer last season and is back in that role as well as helping strengthen the infield.
The Vikings will be rock solid behind the plate with junior Brett Cahill of Gloucester, who was a First Team All-New England catcher/DH a year ago. He hit .361 with a team-leading four homers and 42 RBI.
Adding depth are Mike Lamothe of Beverly (via Pingree), who returns after missing last season, and freshman Genaro Ciulla of Peabody, who transferred from Southern New Hampshire. Kyle Rufo of Malden will also catch and provide a good bat off the bench.
Salem State has plenty of power hitters, led by junior captain Kyle McElroy of Newburyport. The left fielder had a team-high 57 hits and .429 average as a sophomore with 33 RBI in a like number of games after suffering a late-season injury.
Cahill, Lamothe, senior third baseman Bill Cataldo, right fielder Steve Buitkus (a captain) and speedy center fielder Ethan Trowt of Beverly are other big bats for SSU. Freshman Casey Grenier of Peabody will provide depth in the outfield and speed on the bases.
Junior captain Matt Burgess will anchor first base. He hit .355 a year ago with two dingers and 28 runs batted in. Kevin Salines has been moved from third to second (38 runs scored, 19 stolen bases), while sophomores Beliveau and Cataldo will help out on the left side of the infield.
Ward has been happy to see a lot of competition for spots. Freshman Richard Fecteau (Triton), Matt Cafarella (Everett), and Billy Cuozzo (Woburn) are all vying for time at third base and shortstop.
“We’re off to a positive start, especially considering the competition we’re facing,” said Ward. “We’re hitting over .330 as a team, and we have good speed on the bases. We play an aggressive style, and while there is still work to do we have a good core group, along with a lot of talented young guys. This is our deepest team from top to bottom.”
The Vikings return home to open against Salve Regina March 19.