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Birdsall's Mariners Expected To Contend For First League Title Since '98

Originally Posted: March 31, 2009

Brett Mauser

Southampton's Ricky Wesnofske is likely to prove that he's one of the best left-handed bats in all of League VII. Photos by Brett Mauser

Southampton - The Southampton baseball team has been in a decade-long swoon. Since 1998, the year of the Mariners' last league championship, they've gone through seasons from lukewarm to lousy, decent but not dazzling. First year coach Ike Birdsall, son of the manager of the 1998 team, is out to change the complexion of the Southampton program, and he has the players to do it.

"We might catch some teams by surprise," Birdsall said. "I think a lot of people have underestimated this program for a long time. I think this is the year we finally put Southampton baseball back on the map."

His work ethic helped senior second baseman Andrew Shimkus gain a spot on the
University of Tampa's junior varsity team.

Birdsall replaces Duane Arnister, who guided the Mariners to a 6-14 overall mark. Before they can talk league or county championships - their last came in 1978 - the Mariners will concentrate on stringing together wins. Their ascension to the top of League VII hinges on the performance of their pitchers, many of whom boast a wealth of experience. Jamie Duryea, arguably the team's ace last year, has graduated but Alex Antilety, Brandon Alvarado and Chris Pike are valuable returnees. The trio has already flexed its muscles in the early going. Left-hander Ricky Wesnofske, who has joined the lead three in training at All-Pro Sports Academy in Bellport, is flanked by C.J. Noble and Dan Fitzgerald in a very capable bullpen.

Antilety started Southampton off by striking out 13 in a two-hit shutout of East Hampton. Two days later, Pike was even better, fanning 12 Whalers in tossing a one-hitter against Pierson. The Mariners had blanked their opponents a total of two times in the last four years combined.

"We have a strong staff," Birdsall said. "I'll probably nurse them and try not to kill their arms in the early season. I'm confident that we can get five (innings) out of them when they do start in the beginning. I think these guys are probably one of the strongest pitching staffs in the league."

Conal Wood gobbles up a grounder and fires it across the diamond
during practice.

Pike came on at the end of last year to pitch and flourished. He'll see more action on the rubber this spring. "His breaking ball has two breaks to it," Birdsall said. "He doesn't look like an overpowering guy but his fastball just shoots off."

Their bats might not be far off the pace either. Duryea and John Corwin are the only regulars removed from the order; otherwise, last year's table-setters and sluggers are all back. The attack begins with senior Andrew Shimkus, about whom Birdsall said, "I can't get him out of the gym or the batting cage." The first-year coach will tinker with the order from there. When he coached the junior varsity team, he often hit the switch-hitting Pike second; he and junior catcher Jeb Schmidt figure to fit there, ahead of Wesnofske third and Antilety in the clean-up hole.

Birdsall has been impressed with the development of Schmidt, who he called "a hit machine." The junior has also begun to come out of his shell behind the plate.

"He's solid behind the plate but we've got to get him to be a little more vocal, a little more of a leader back there," Birdsall said. "He has to be the field general."

Niall Wood returns to his spot in right field while his brother, Conal, comes up from the JV swinging a hot bat. "We need his bat in the lineup," Birdsall said of the latter Wood brother.

First-year varsity players Sean Johnson, Joey Guerin, Vincent Abatti and Eric Miller figure to fit into the winning formula in some fashion. Southampton has its hands full with a formidable league lineup, including defending champion John Glenn, runner-up Mattituck and returning playoff teams Mount Sinai and Bayport-Blue Point. Of that group, only Mattituck joins Southampton in Class B. It's Birdsall's job to determine the best way to play the hand he's been dealt. It certainly isn't a bad one.

"We haven't put all the pieces in the places they'll probably wind up at at the end of the year," Birdsall said. "There are a couple spots that we're still trying to figure out who fits best. Everything's looking strong. We have some good bats in the lineup and have some great speed, and we have good pitching. We have all the pieces. We just have to put the jigsaw together to make sure it all fits properly."

Hampton Bays' Chris Hansen scoops up a grounder during practice last week.

Also in League VII, Hampton Bays hits the field fresh off a 4-14 league campaign. Although the Baymen's numbers are low - as of late last week they had just 12 varsity players - Head Coach Pete Meehan hopes that the team's returnees and newcomers blend to pack a powerful punch.

Two juniors - Steve Gregory and James Ariola - lead the charge from the mound. Both saw their share of innings as sophomores and will need to take on an even bigger role for Hampton Bays to succeed. They won't act alone though. Senior David Van Scoy, a spot pitcher a year ago, is likely to get the nod as the Baymen's third starter. The influx of youth ought to yield some steady relief. Meehan figures that Brendan Fox, Kyle Palazzolo, Matt Zazzarino, Pete Stiansen and Robbie King will share innings out of the bullpen. Because of the inexperience, Meehan is still learning how he'll use his arms.

"Control and effectiveness is going to determine who spends the most time out there," Meehan said. "We're not a big strikeout staff by any means, so we have to put the ball in play and need to play defense to compete. Walks and errors will doom us."

Meehan called Van Scoy "as good a stick as we have" and will hit the senior third in the lineup. If all goes well, he and Zazzarino, the team's only left-handed hitter, will be pushing sophomore catcher Jimmy Havens across the plate with great frequency. "He'll probably hit leadoff for us and we'll be looking for him to set the table," Meehan said.

Senior David Van Scoy is one of the Baymen's most experienced
hitters and is pegged for the third hole in the order.

When not on the mound, Ariola will form the double-play combination with second baseman Chris Hansen. Zazzarino mans the hot corner with Stiansen hauling in the throws to first. Left to right across the outfield are Gregory, King and seniors Anthony Casciotta and Conor Curtis. Meehan also said that Palazzolo "can play just about anywhere" as can the majority of his roster.

"We need to put the ball in play, get baserunners and run the bases," Meehan said. "We have to play small ball to try to manufacture runs. We don't have a lot of big bats."

Of the team, Meehan said, "It's a good group. I enjoy them. They're working hard and getting better."

Replacing 13 seniors, a pool of players from which Head Coach Terry Moran drew much of his starting lineup a year ago, won't be easy for Westhampton Beach. Nevertheless, the Hurricanes field a hard-nosed group with one of those players - junior Mark Podlas - in the discussion for League VI's most potent bat.

Podlas is already being wooed by several schools from the elite Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) and he still has two years to go. The sweet-swinging lefty not only will lead the Westhampton attack but also will take on pitching and leadership duties. Moran is far from worried about his performance at the plate, on the basepaths or in the field.

"I went to Westhampton so I've been around a long time; he has to be one of the best players to come out of Westhampton for sure," Moran said. "He started in center field since he was in eighth grade and he's really helped us improve every year. He swings a great bat, has a major league arm and has great range. He has five tools as they say."

Junior Mark Podlas will try his hand on the mound for Westhampton while
also being the driving force of the offense.

Podlas anchors the batting order along with senior shortstop Joe Candela. Each of them hit over .400 last season and will give Westhampton to score runs in chunks. Candela saved his best efforts for the clutch; Moran said he delivered "every single time" when the game was on the line last year.

In addition to taking on great responsibility offensively, Podlas passed his audition on the mound and will be the team's third starter, teaming up with junior Tyler Kirwin and senior Geoff Brown. Kirwin returns to the team after a year off and is immediately thrust into the No. 1 position. Junior Alec Christ is the team's fourth starter and will be available for long relief if necessary. Justin LaGrasse and John West, each of whom did not play last year, are late-inning relievers, with LaGrasse the likely closer as well as a solid corner infielder.

Mike Ramos finished last year as the team's starting catcher and will hit behind Candela alongside LaGrasse and Brown. At the top of the order, Moran turns to sophomore Zach Gorman to generate offense from the left side of the plate. A middle infielder on the JV squad last year, Gorman has shifted to right field. Senior second baseman Chris Squeri is just the type of hitter Moran would like to see at the No. 2 spot in the order. "He's very good with the bat - he can put the bunt down, hit and run, and he's very picky at the plate. He'll work out of a lot of walks and look to get on for Podlas and Candela."

Although the team does have seven seniors, it's still relatively raw heading into the league schedule on Monday against Amityville. The Hurricanes are making up for lost time by dedicating themselves to the max.

"Every day right off the bat, they want to take extra swings and take extra groundballs," Moran said. "Their work ethic is great. We haven't had a group of kids who worked this hard since we've been here. Making the playoffs will be tough but these are the type of kids who aren't going to quit. The goal's to make the playoffs and we'll strive for that. I like our chances. I think we're going to be in the mix again.

"The kids know what's ahead of them," Moran added. "They know what they have to do. They know how tough the league is. We're not going to take anything for granted."

Tyler Davis (right) will be best known for his bat as he returns to the lineup as East Hampton's designated hitter.

East Hampton should also prove to be a contender in League VI with a solid mix of veterans and newcomers. Last year's Bonackers started solidly in league play before a eight-game losing streak left them at 4-14 in the league and home for the playoffs. They're in good shape to change their fortune this spring.

Head Coach Ed Bahns turns to junior Scott Barbour and sophomore Dylan Carroza for a second straight season on the mound. They're joined by senior Tom Moore, who transferred in from Miller Place. They'll work to make up for the loss of Liam Lee, the team's ace last spring.

Catching them is junior Bill Collins, who has proven to be a steady backstop since joining the varsity team in eighth grade. He'll be counted on to score and drive in runs. The same can be said for seniors Andrew Foglia and Tyler Davis as well as juniors Nick Jarboe and David Hansen.

A quick start can't be stressed enough. Bonac opens its league schedule with a three-game series against Rocky Point and then another three versus Amityville. Last year, the Bonackers went 4-2 against the two teams, including a clean sweep of the Warriors.

Senior Ryan Miller and Pierson are looking to return to the playoffs after a
10-12 campaign last year.

Whale Of A Season?
In his 26 years of coaching, 22 of which have been spent in Sag Harbor, Head Coach Sean Crowley has experienced all the climbs and dips from game and game and season to season. After missing the playoffs last year by a single game, he believes that Pierson is back on the upswing thanks to a polished pitching staff and steady top of the batting order.

The Whalers will rely on senior Joe Mascali as well as juniors Kyle McGowin and Brandon Kruel to take on the brunt of the innings this season. Depth won't be an issue for Pierson - it has Casey Crowley, Ryan Miller, Ed Schall, Gavin Kudlak and Tyler Gilbride ready and able in relief.

"I do trust seven or eight players to take the mound and not only be accurate but be able to field the mound and be able to hold runners on," Crowley said. "They're good athletes and we have some live arms."

The Whaler attack will have to be live too if they want to return to the playoffs. On day one, Pierson went to work with the bats. Crowley wanted to send a message that they would make or break the Whalers this season. The quartet of Crowley, Miller, Mascali and McGowin will look to put Pierson on the board early and makes circuits of the base paths as often as possible. The goal is for each to rap out at least 25 hits over the course of the season. It's the bottom of the order where the inexperience lays that has the Pierson manager concerned. Some bright spots have been sophomore second baseman Tyler Gilbride and junior left fielder Dane Riva

"I'm worried every year that we need to produce more runs, particularly in the bottom half of the order," Crowley said. "I'm trying to find those people who put the ball in play and avoid strikeouts."

Mercy, Port Jefferson and Center Moriches are just a few of the teams who stand in the way of Pierson's drive toward the postseason. It's the seniors - Crowley, Mascali and Miller - who are fueling the fire most furiously.

"There's a group of them that have definitely put in the offseason work," Coach Crowley said. "The seniors understand that end-is-near feeling and they're going to try to make the best of the experience. They're trying to establish a good hard work ethic and leading by words and example."

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