Despite inexperience, St. Joseph baseball looking to stay at top
Despite graduating a plethora of talent from last year’s squad, head coach Jim Chaves and the rest of the St. Joseph High School baseball team still has some pretty high expectations for this year’s squad.
“The expectation is always to make a deep state tournament run,” Chaves said. “The last four years we have 80 wins, so they know that the expectation level here is really high. We had a state championship two years and went to the semifinals three years in a row. We have been to a couple of FCIAC finals. The goal is always to make the FCIAC playoffs. If you make the FCIAC playoffs, you had a good season because it takes a lot to get there. Young and inexperienced isn’t going to be an excuse for us. At the end we expect to be there with the top teams.”
Last season, the Cadets entered the CIAC class M tournament as the No. 12 seed and advanced to the semifinals, beating Norwich Tech 5-0 in the opening round and upsetting fifth-seeded Waterford (2-0) and No. 4 seeded Montville (3-2) before bowing out to top-seeded Rocky Hill 1-0 to end the season.
With the defeat in the class M semis, St. Joe’s loss more than a game. It’s entire starting pitching staff, comprised of Nick Williams, Jake Amoroso and Dave Otero all graduated.
“We are a bit more inexperienced,” Chaves said. “We will have some upperclassmen, but they didn’t really much time in the past couple of years. We are going to mix in a couple of sophomores. At this point we like what we see out of those guys and in the long run we can be a good team. It’s going to be very important to see what happens early on in the season.”
The Cadets will be led by the senior trio of Mike Rotondo, Matt Laveneziana and Tully Horne.
“We are inexperienced, but we have so much potential,” Laveneziana said. “We have some potent returning players. We are losing some pitching, but we can fill that gap. Our young players are really good. The expectations are to win, plain and simple, and I think we will do that again this year.”
Horne will patrol first base for SJHS this year, while the duo of Rotondo and Laveneziana will patrol the outfield. In addition Rotondo will also see some time on the mound this season.
“Each of them have their own way of conducting themselves,” Chaves said. “Mike is one of the few guys we are going to rely on offensively and we are hoping to get a little out of him on the mound. Matt is a captain of the football team and has a winning pedigree. We are going to rely on him to lead for the guys. He’s quiet, but every one follows him because of his work ethic. Tully came on last year as a DH and is a vocal leader. He puts guys in line and has no problem telling guys how it is.”
Chaves believes that the strength of this year’s team will be its team defense, especially in the outfield. Returning at center field will be Rotondo, while Laveneziana will play one of the corner positions and will move to center when Rotondo is on the mound.
“The expectations here are to bring home a state championship and an FCIAC banner, so nothing changes, even if we have inexperience,” Rotondo said. “I think after losing to Rocky Hill last year, we all have that desire to get back there and take home a championship.”
Senior Chris Kirven was with the team last year, and although he didn’t see a lot of time on varsity, Chaves has high hopes for him in the outfield.
In addition, sophomores Corey Babineau and Tommy Montelli will help out in the outfield this season.
“Our outfield should be exceptional in my opinion,” Chaves said. “They can all run down balls and have great arms. And I also think that Corey and Tommy will help out this year and will be great for us in the future.”
The St. Joseph infield will consist of Andrew Walsh at the hot corner, who is taking the place of last year’s third baseman, junior Matt McKernan, who has a broken bone in his hand and is expected to miss the first few weeks of the season.
Neil Velazquez will occupy short, but is in a battle for playing time with junior SJ Arnone. Velazquez is only a sophomore, but Chaves believe he could be one of the top players in the league before he graduates. Second base will have a familiar face, as standout defensive specialist Dave Capela, a junior, returns. Horne, a DH last year, will patrol first base.
“For us, the biggest weakness is inexperience,” Horne said. “Some teams will use that as a reason for them not being at the level that they should be, but if a guy is young and inexperienced, that doesn’t mean he can’t step up in a big game. These guys have been playing the game their entire lives and the coaching staff will do everything to get us ready. Some one is going to have to step up and I think they will do that.”
A big thing for the Cadets this season will be behind the plate at the catcher position. The last few years, quality catchers like Joel Burns and Ishmael Herrera logged key minutes for the team. This time around, junior Brendan Rush will be the team’s catcher and Chaves is excited about Rush’s solid arm and experience.
St. Joe’s biggest issue will be on the mound. With the loss of Williams, Amoroso and Otero, the Cadets have a massive hole to fill. Hoping to log key minutes on the mound this year is sophomore Mike D’Agostino.
In addition to D’Agostino and Rotondo, senior Sam Dunkel and juniors Frank Perez and Joe Zanchetti will possibly see some time on the mound.
Throughout the preseason, just getting the squad on to the grass and infield dirt has been an epic problem, as winter seems like it doesn’t want to leave the Nutmeg State. Fields are unplayable and practices have been limited to mainly batting cages inside gymnasiums or taking fielding drills in indoor facilities.
“I think this weather is definitely going to hurt us a little bit,” Chaves said. “They need to get the feel of an actual varsity game, where a team with experience basically knows what’s going to happen in a game. We are going to play sophomores and juniors that have never played. They need to see varsity pitching. However every team is in the same boat as we are, so we’re not making excuses. The weather has not been helpful to anybody this spring.”
While it will be challenge for the Cadets to get back to where they want to be this year, it doesn’t mean everybody isn’t up for the task at hand.
“It’s a blast playing here,” Horne said. “I would say that we have the best coaches in the state. They are cool guys to be around, but they know the game and love it. Regardless of who we lose or what the state expects, we still have the same goals.”
“I have so much fun playing here,” Rotondo added. “The coaches make it fun here, but you get stuff done. I guarantee that we are going to make a few heads turn this year.”