Baseball

Baseball 2014: New Canaan And St. Joseph The Targets In Top-Heavy League

Outfielder Alex LaPolice also gives New Canaan pitching depth. (Photo: Mark Conrad)

Outfielder Alex LaPolice also gives New Canaan pitching depth. (Photo: Mark Conrad)

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: A team finishes as the seventh seed in the FCIAC playoffs. Said team goes on to win the conference championship.

Sound familiar? That’s the way of the world in the FCIAC Baseball Tournament, where lower seeds have won titles as often as higher seeds for over a decade. Last year it was Danbury’s turn.

Actually it was a banner year for baseball in the league as New Canaan and St. Joseph went on to win state titles. Lacrosse continues to send more players to top Division I programs than any other FCIAC sport, but baseball is also flourishing, and this year could be even better.

It is hard to pin a lot on preseason opinion, but New Canaan and St. Joseph opened 1-2, respectively, and Greenwich fifth in the first state writers’ poll.

All three schools are again deep, and there will be a strong posse on their heels.

The race for one of the top four seeds will be heated.

It just might not be so coveted once the playoffs come around.

The Favorites

New Canaan. The Rams were one of the best stories of last year’s high school season, winning their first state title in 63 years. We can probably now dispense with any comparative discussions about baseball and other male sports in the town. The program has been on the upswing and is positioned for long-term success. In the short term, the Rams are again loaded. They have a quality rotation, led by JR Anderson. UConn-bound Dan Rajkowski is healthy again and will be the closer. Andrew Casali, the winning pitcher in the state final, and catcher Casey Ouellette are gone, but the team has Matt Toth and Erik Jager back in the infield, Nick Cascione and Alex LaPolice returning in the outfield, and few question marks. A good early test comes Friday at Greenwich. Fun fact: Cascione and LaPolice, members of the football team, are going for their third straight state title.

Erik Jager is back to bolster New Canaan's infield. (Photo: Mark Conrad)

Erik Jager is back to bolster New Canaan’s infield. (Photo: Mark Conrad)

St. Joseph. Coach Jim Chaves is 60-14 in four seasons with the Cadets, and his winning percentage might actually go up this spring. St. Joseph also has the type of pitching staff geared for postseason success, led by Nick Williams (7-2, 2.14 ERA) and Jake Amoroso (6-1, 2.42). Ismael Herrera (.371, 15 RBIs) and Mark Hirschbeck (.365, 17 RBIs) are two of the league’s toughest outs. Pitching and defense are strengths, and if the loss of potent bats can be suitably replaced, the prospects of a repeat — and more — become even more realistic.

The Contenders

Greenwich. There was no hardware added to the trophy case, but going through the league with just two regular-season losses was a most praiseworthy distinction for the Cardinals. First-year coach Phil Tarantino inherits a team poised to pick up where it left off, led by the pitching of ace Kyle Dunster and JT Hintzen. Don’t bet on Greenwich getting to the end of May with just two league losses again, but don’t bet against them taking home a title either.

Danbury. There was no secret to the Hatters’ winning formula last spring. They scored just nine runs in three league playoff games. They allowed just four. Don’t look for a deviation from the plan, as Casey Brosz (1.48) is one of the league’s top pitchers, headlining a staff that includes Dan Clancy, George Bielizna and Lenny Rodriguez. Runs may again by a hard commodity to come by but, again, just a little could be enough.

Nick Cascione is hoping to win his third straight state championship. (Photo: Mark Conrad)

Nick Cascione is hoping to win his third straight state championship. (Photo: Mark Conrad)

Staples. The Wreckers will also be able to compete in the arms war, with a pitching staff that has been a program constant, led by Ron Vallone (4-1, 2.25), Ryan Chasin (3-1, 2.50) and Alec Johnson (4 saves). Shortstop Sam Ellinwood is one of the league’s best.

The Sleepers

Trumbull. The Eagles reached the league championship and state semifinals, but were hit hard by graduation losses. Colin Keyes had 5 wins and was equally effective at shortstop on his off days. Avery Santos won 4 games, so the pitching is in place as the rest of the lineup matures.

Ridgefield. It is easy to write off the Tigers: they suffered more graduation losses than any team. This team was an anomaly, winning with its bats. This time pitchers Joey Ammirato and Sam Sarath could be the keys.

The All-Stars

Dan Rajkowski, New Canaan. Rajkowski’s arm is healthy, which means the Rams are going to have the league’s best closer, as well as a dominant first baseman to spearhead their hopes of a state title defense.

Kyle Dunster, Greenwich. The Cardinals lost some offense, but having Dunster back on the mound will be a repeated source of comfort.

Casey Brosz, Danbury. Brosz was the most valuable player in last year’s championship game, and a primary reason talk of a repeat for the Hatters is a realistic goal.

Mike Foley, Fairfield Warde. The Mustangs are something of an unknown, but the Rhode Island-bound Foley, who hit .450 a year ago, is as tough an out as there is in the league.

Randy Polonia, Trinity Catholic. How respected is the Crusaders’ ace? When was the last time a pitcher with a 1-6 record was voted All-FCIAC and All-State? ERA: 1.17.

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Sam Ellinwood, Staples. It is hard to tell which is more impressive, the Wrecker shortstop’s bat, arm or glove.

Brett Phillips, Wilton. The Warriors have a number of holes to fill, but Phillips remains a fixture in the infield and one of the state’s most dangerous batters.

Colin Keyes, Trumbull. Keyes is one of the many stars during this pitching-rich era in the league, and one reason the Eagles remain optimistic depite heavy losses.

Mark Hirschbeck, St. Joseph. After pitching, multi-tool middle infielders seem to be the league’s next richest commodity. Hirschbeck is among the top of that list.

Players To Watch

Danbury: P/3B Corey Brosz, P/3B Dan Clancy, P George Bielizna, SS Eric Cerno, CF Nick Goetz, OF Heriberto Rodriguez, OF Steve Leone, OF Matt Greene, C Mike Schweitzer, C Zack Jacobellis, 2B Ricky Hoddinott, 2B/3B Derek Garnett.

Darien: 2B Brendan Donohue, SS Bobby Fitzpatrick, 3B George Reed, P/1B Connor Davey, C Anthony DiMeglio, P Andrew Nault, P Ames Murray, 1B/DH Daly Hebert, OF Mike O’Malley, OF Peter Archey, CF Mike Maccarone.

Fairfield Ludlowe: OF Mikey Arman, P/1B Kevin Hickey, P Steve Zadravec.

Fairfield Warde: CF Mike Foley, C Anthony Miller, RF Tom Luckner, LF Giacomo Brancato, DH CJ Sabella, P/2B Nick Nardone, P Hunter Hewitt, P/1B Reece Maniscalco.

Greenwich: OF Devin McGrath, P/OF Kyle Dunster, P/INF JT Hintzen, C Jonathan Dreher, OF Sean Marks, INF/OF Keigo Fujakara, 3B Jack Giuliani, 2B Alex Loparco, 1B Justin Giaccione, P/1B Mike Gennaro, P John Mikalopos.

Brien McMahon: P/1B Keegan Roberts, P/INF Alex Scallion, P/1B/OF Paul Salata, OF Drew Pace, OF Sawyer Machette, OF Matt Downey, INF Edwin Owolo, INF Chris Winthrop.

New Canaan: Catcher Zack Smith, C Brandon Abate, 1B/P Dan Rajkowski, 2B Brandon Abate, 2B Jimmy Fahey, 3B Erik Jager, SS/P Matt Toth, OF Nick Cascione, OF/P Alex LaPolice, OF Kane Curtiin, OF Max Wilson, OF/P Jeff Chen, P David Giusti.

Norwalk: C Ryan Evans, P/SS Chris Cotaling, P Nate Cutting, 1B Sean Welch, P/2B Dave Balunek.

Ridgefield: P Joey Ammirato, P Sam Sarath, 1B Craig Burke, SS Liam Smith, 3B Jack Brewster at third base, OF Colin Belardinelli.

St. Joseph: P/OF Nick Williams, C Ismael Herrera, 2B/SS Mark Hirschbeck, P/OF Jake Amoroso, P David Otero, OF Michael Rotondo.

Stamford: P /3B Mikey White, P Billy DeVito, P Shawn Urbano, P Danny Robushi, C Tyler Serrichio, 1B James Gronberg, 1B Jirani Jackson, 2B Jimmy Corcoran, SS Kenny Wright, LF Brian Powers, CF Jalen Brown, RF Jack Rakoczy.

Staples: P Rob Vallone, P Ryan Chasin, P Justin Gallanty,P Ian Burns, P/OF Ben Casparius, P Alec Johnson, C/DH Adam Dulsky, C/DH Noah Yokoi, 1B Bryan Porter, SS Sam Ellinwood, OF Nick Vega.

Trinity Catholic: P/SS Randy Polonia, 1B/C Jackson Solis, RF Matt Christensen, LF Dominic Colarossi, C Sean Epp, P/CF Cameron Greig, 3B/C/OF Tom Costigan, INF/P Matt Fraioli, P/1B/OF Anthony Hoegemann, 2B/P Kyle Kaishian, P/1B Rob  Tusch.

Trumbull: P/SS Colin Keyes, CF Jake Levison, P/3B Avery Santos, P Billy Stickle, LF Liam Moore, 1B Matt DeRienzo, C Zach Sagar.

Westhill: SS Ronald Jackson, CF Dante Fargnoli, 2B John Spoto, P Luke Dawson.

Wilton: SS Brett Phillips, CF Scott Shouvlin, LF James Meaney, P Trevor Blond, P JT Morin.

(Teams missing did not reply to requests for information.)