The fertile ground that is the North Shore baseball scene looks to be overgrown with talent as the tarp is pulled off the diamond to begin the 2013 season.
On paper, its shaping up to be one of the most anticipated baseball seasons in recent memory.
St. John’s Prep alone has four Division 1 college ballplayers, and there are three other Division 1 commits in the Northeastern Conference Large division. Division 2 North finalist Beverly returns the bulk of its starting lineup, as does defending NEC South champion Danvers.
Every coach will remind you, however, that games are never won on paper. Locally, the hardball hierarchy is maintaining respect for the process of becoming a good team, and sticking to the notion that preseason rankings aren’t worth the paper a lineup card is printed on.
“We don’t take things for granted. You have to do steps A and B before you get to C,” said long-time St. John’s Prep coach Pat Yanchus, whose Eagles open with defending state champion Xaverian tomorrow.
Senior Brandon Bingel headlines the Prep’s four Division 1 college players. He led the area in RBI (25) last year and homered five times while turning in an earned run average of 1.98. He’ll play at Bryant University in Rhode Island next year and is joined on the SJP staff by Northeastern commits Dustin Hunt (0.83 ERA in 2012) and Mike Driscoll. Middle infielder Tommy Buonopane is the fourth Division 1 commit on the Eagles’ roster; he’s slated to play at Rhode Island.
For the Eagles, who also return captain Tyler Noe at third base as well as Keith Leavitt and Alex Moore in the outfield, it’s the start of a season they’ve been looking forward to.
“We’ve been waiting for this group of guys since we were on the freshman team together,” said Bingel. “The more we think about playing Xaverian out of the gate, the more ready we are. We know we have to be perfect to beat them, so we want to go out and do it.”
There’s a good chance the Prep could be ranked No. 1 in the state if they beat Xaverian, though they have a tough game against North Shore rival Peabody on the road Saturday afternoon. The Tanners also open with Xaverian today, so there is no shortage of heavyweight showdowns early on.
“We’re all excited,” Bingel said. “We see the rankings and those things, but we won’t think too much of it. We know on paper is one thing and on the field could be another.”
The Tanners have never failed to win at least a share of the NEC Large title, though they’re reloading this year with new starters at catcher, shortstop and center field. There will be no sympathy from league rivals for Peabody, which could draw from a supremely talented sophomore class.
“All these kids know it’s been seven (titles) in a row for us. There’s no hiding that and they’re motivated to keep it going,” said Peabody coach Mark Bettencourt. “Our league is pretty tough top to bottom, so you have to show up every day.”
Expectations for Peabody’s ace Pat Ruotolo are sky high. The UConn commit threw three no-hitters last season and had scoreless innings streaks of 22 and 34 frames while striking out 130 batters.
“We don’t want to put added pressure on Pat,” said Bettencourt. “He’s a focused, competitive kid and he’s going to take it one start at a time. He won’t have crazy expectations of himself; he’s just going to go out and compete.”
Good luck sorting out preseason rankings in the NEC Large. Division 1 North quarterfinalist Lynn English returns a solid nucleus led by Vanderbilt commit Ben Bowden. Lynn Classical has a Division 1 player in catcher Kyle Devin (Stony Brook) and it’s impossible to overlook Beverly, led by four great captains in Anthony DiOrio, Cam Rogers, Alex Toomey and Harry Brown.
“Those three teams (Peabody, English, Classical) are so strong, it really makes this a great division,” said Beverly coach Dave Wilbur. “If we’re competing in this league, we know we’re pretty good.”
There’s a fine line between playing with a confident swagger and playing with an attitude of entitlement based on the past. The North Shore has experienced baseball coaches that know how to make sure their players don’t cross it.
“Our guys are great with that. We’re a day-to-day team; we don’t talk about championships and the like. We’ll look at our record in June because its a long season,” said Wilbur, whose team reached the Division 2 North final last spring. “Its a day-to-day mission and we feel the wins will come as a by-product of working and improving.”
Danvers has won or shared an NEC title in eight of the last nine seasons. Their lineup is full of players that have won both on the baseball diamond, such as pitcher/center fielder Ray Arocho, and in other sports, like basketball standout Dan Connors and hockey stars Joe Strangie and A.J. Couto.
The focus and attention to detail demanded by coach Roger Day (closing in on 400 wins and soon to be inducted in the state coaches Hall of Fame) will keep them on task.
“It’s a matter of not looking ahead because we don’t feel like we go into many games as a clear favorite, even though we’re good. Every game is a battle,” said Day. “We’ll worry about what we have to do — make plays, throw strikes and see how things play out.”
There are team goals at Bishop Fenwick and Masconomet, too. Pingree is hoping to get back to the New England Small School championship. North Shore Tech/Essex Aggie wants to make it two straight postseason trips, as does Salem, and Ipswich and Hamilton-Wenham would love to get back to the state playoffs. Swampscott, a team deep in tradition with a new coach in Jason Calichman, can’t be overlooked, either.
If the coaches sound like broken records, preaching focusing on today and ignoring the outside noise, it might be because great minds think alike. Their methods have proven successful and their players believe in their systems.
When talent and focus come together, watch out. That combination could have a fair number of local squads playing deep into June.
Around the Horn, a column on North Shore high school baseball, appears every Wednesday during the spring season in The Salem News. Contact assistant sports editor Matt Williams at 978-338-2669, MWilliams@salemnews.com and follow him on Twitter @MattWilliams_SN. #StrikeOutALS.