To get a jump on the season, they headed south.
Orchard Park, Lancaster, Canisius and St. Joe’s are among the teams that took a spring training trip to Florida in March.
While the warmer weather was appreciated after the latest bout with winter, it’s become an important prep for some high school baseball teams. There’s only so much work a team can do in the gym. Hitters need to see live pitching. Pitchers need to see live hitting.
“Families make sacrifices so the kids can go down there,” Canisius coach Bryan Tenney said. “It’s not a vacation. We treat it as a business trip. We’re there to play baseball.”
“We took a spring trip to Disney and it was our first time outside,” Orchard Park coach Jim Gibson said. “The first day at Disney we didn’t hit the ball well. After the first couple of days down there, we started to swing the bats better. That helped us back here. Unless a team took a spring trip, you didn’t get outside.”
Not that playing in Western New York is a detriment. A number of high school players have signed, or verbally committed, to Division I colleges and many will remain in the Northeast.
“We keep telling the kids that if you’re going to play baseball in the Northeast, you better get used to having to play in this weather,” St. Joe’s coach Paul Nasca said. “It falls under ‘it is what it is.’ We’re very fortunate to have the facility we do. We’re able to get outside a little earlier than some others. You go a little stir crazy in the gym.”
The top dogs remain the same this year with Orchard Park, Williamsville North and Lancaster battling for the top spot in ECIC I.
Lancaster, the defending Section VI Class AA champion, returns its top two pitchers – Joe Preziuso and Griffin O’Brien.
“The strength of our team is quality pitching with sound defense,” Lancaster coach Mark Dalfonso said. “We’re not long-ball hitters like last year. We’ll hit line drives or hard ground balls and go from there.”
Orchard Park, which lost to Lancaster in the title game last year, has plenty of talent back. Now if only the Quakers could stay healthy.
Brandon Nicholson, a second-team All-WNY selection last year and the team’s starting shortstop, missed the first few weeks of the season with illness while right fielder Mike Bruno broke his shoulder in a nonleague game.
Players have stepped into those roles, including Troy Banks at short and Cole Hollins. Pitching remains a strong point for the Quakers with Andy Sipowicz (who signed with Canisius College) and Jeff Palczewski, along with catcher Luke Kuczewski.
“We’re just hoping to stay healthy first off,” Gibson said. “The key is to come out and play like we’re capable of playing. We’ve got experience and hopefully things fall right. We won our division last year and had beaten Lancaster twice before we lost to them, 4-3, in the sectional championship game. Things didn’t fall right for us that day and baseball is the one sport where the best team isn’t guaranteed of winning. When we’re playing against teams like Lancaster or Will North, I think we stand toe to toe with them.”
Williamsville North returns eight seniors and plenty of experience from last year’s run to the sectional semifinals.
“This group really wants to work,” coach Jerry Scarsella said. “I gave them a day off and they all showed up on their own to work out. I think we’re deep on the mound. That’s the key. And then our first two hitters need to get on base because the middle of our lineup can really hit.”
Fredonia leads the way after going 20-4 last season and winning the sectional title before losing in the Far West Regional.
Fredonia is paced by senior pitcher Cam Voss, a second-team All-WNY selection last year who has won 23 games in his high school career.
“He’s a lefty who throws about 80-83 miles an hour,” coach Vince Gullo said. “He has a good breaking ball but to be honest, he’s just a bull. When the going gets tough, he goes through it. He throws from different angles and really hides the ball well.”
His cousin, Noah Voss, is the team’s No. 2 pitcher, with Jarod Burmaster the team’s third starter. Burmaster is also an all-league shortstop when he’s not on the mound.
Canisius is looking for another title after sweeping two-time defending champion St. Joe’s for the championship last year.
The Crusaders return 10 players, including four starters and three who have committed to Division I schools – Richard Miller (Towson), Dan Dallas (Monmouth) and Michael Gabriele (Niagara). Experience includes accepting that nothing is guaranteed.
“We learned never to take anything for granted,” Tenney said. “Last year was great. We won the Georgetown Cup and it all means nothing. It might mean we have a bigger bull’s-eye on our back.
“They’ve got to understand the mental part of baseball and that’s what we try to teach them. That’s what makes the difference. At varsity, everyone has ability, it’s the mental part of the game, to do what you need to do at the right time and how to execute. That’s what separates teams on the last day of the season.”
Canisius will again look to separate itself from St. Joe’s, which returns five starters including three-year varsity starters Matt Ruggiero and Tyler Howard (Niagara) along with Bryce Donovan (Pace), David Archer and Derek Penman (John Carroll).
Pitching depth will be the strength for St. Joe’s with Howard, Will Frank, Anthony Brophy and Jake Donn.
“You need to have arms to compete,” Nasca said. “You can play three or four days in a row, and when that happens you need pitching depth. It’s a plus and a must with this weather. I like to think our pitching depth is enough for us to compete. We play good defense and can swing the bats, but I think it starts with good pitching and Howard and Frank have experience for us.”
City Honors returns nine seniors including pitcher Caleb Lee, the reigning league Player of the Year.
The Centaurs are looking for their third straight Cornell Cup title.
“Caleb Lee is back, and he has shot at pitching at a Division III school in college,” coach Frank Dileo said. “He’s our ace. We throw him in big games. He mixes pitches. In years past we called pitches for him, but we don’t need to do that anymore. He works the corners of the plate well and has a good fastball with some movement on it.”
Look for Hutch-Tech and Olmstead to make noise in the league this year.