By Joe Mason
High school baseball always comes down to pitching.
This year, teams are going to need more of it.
The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association has instituted a pitching rule that is based on a pitch count. Pitchers now can’t eclipse the 100-pitch mark in a game, and if they throw 76 to 100 pitches, they must take three days of rest.
The rule change will change how coaches manage the game, and teams with more pitching will certainly have more options.
Luckily for the teams in Northeast Philadelphia, there are plenty of strong baseball players filling out lineups in both the Public and Catholic league squads.
Here is a look at local teams competing this spring.
Philadelphia Catholic League
Former player Nick Chichilitti, a 1984 graduate of the school, takes over at Ryan and he brings a lot of talent to the table.
Joe Whitcomb will likely be the team ace, with Pat Reilly and Nick Glebocki also seeing time on the mound.
Top players in the lineup will be first baseman Adam Estrada, shortstop Pat Kajder, catcher Brian Yost and outfielder Rob McWilliams.
The Raiders will have some growing pains with young players in the lineup, but there’s reason for optimism, according to the first-year head coach.
“Offensively, we are strong one through nine,” Chichilitti said. “We swing the bat well. We are building a program to win and compete on an annual basis. We should be competitive this season.”
The Crusaders had a strong season a year ago, and much of that was because they had one of the best pitchers in the area in Dan Hammer. He’s now at the University of Pittsburgh, but there is still talent in baby blue.
Leading the way will be Christian Lutz, the team’s designated hitter who had a breakout season as a junior. He returns and has the potential to have another monster season.
Another key player for the Crusaders is outfielder Billy Kelly. He’ll provide strong defense and has emerged as a solid hitter.
The Crusaders won the Catholic League regular season and went on to compete in the state playoffs. This year, they hope to be back in the mix.
“We are a very strong defensive team that plays fundamentally sound situational baseball,” said Judge coach Kenny Devenney, who won PCL coach of the year a season ago. “We hope to finish in the top half of the Catholic League.”
Philadelphia Public League
The Railsplitters have become a consistent contender in the Public League and this year should be no different. Actually, it could be the year the Railsplitters have enough to be one of the elite teams.
Leading the way will be a young double play combination in shortstop Victor Cerda and second baseman Victor Mejia
Other infielders include James Knotwell and Nick D’Anastino, with Rich Hernandez seeing time at catcher.
The outfield will consist of Aiden Crean, Kenny Brough and Yelfry Almonte, who has the potential to be one of the top center fielders in the league.
Aaron Freeman, along with Knotwell, will get the ball in the big games.
Coach John Larsen is optimistic the upward trend of Lincoln baseball will continue.
“If we stay competitive on a pitch-by-pitch basis, we’re going to be in the mix,” Larsen said. “We’ll be in every game if we play to our potential and stay focused. We have the talent.”
The Pioneers reached the Public League championship game in 2016, losing a close one to Olney.
The playoff journey will likely pay off this year when many of the stars return to the mix.
Josh Pagan returns as captain and catcher. He’ll lead a team that consists of shortstop Nick Herrera, who will also do a lot of pitching; Louis Ramos, a pitcher and outfielder; outfielder Louis Ramos; center fielder Rico Lugo; first baseman Walid Hamdou; first baseman Craig Lugo; infielder Jeiko Rodriguez; infielders Sam Jimenez and Yoandry Payano; pitcher Eddilson Peralta; and outfielders Tom Heitzman and Kasheno Colston.
With a mix of talented veterans and up-and-coming underclassmen, Namnun expects the Pioneers to once again be a tough out.
“We have great depth and pitchers and a strong group of good kids,” Namnun said. “We have six pitchers who can win ballgames, and the kids are working really hard. It’s a great group with great leaders.”
Franklin Towne Charter
The Coyotes are two years removed from a championship season and if things hold up, they could be the best team in the Public League this year.
The team returns a strong infield that includes shortstop Rob Henry, second baseman Edgardo Correa and third baseman Brenden Beltran.
John HItchins will play outfield, with returning senior Joe Greenstein.
The Coyotes have strong returning players, and that encourages coach Christopher Lauber.
“We have good returning talent with above-average speed through the middle of our order,” Lauber said. “We also have depth on the mound and great defense up the middle.
“Our goal is to win a Public League championship. We have several returners bouncing back from injuries last year, and a good crop of new talent. If we get solid contributions from players stepping into new roles, we can be very successful in the Public League this year.”
Like Frankford, the Eagles enjoyed a strong season last year before falling to Olney in the playoffs. This year, the team will be a work in progress, and also like last year, coach Ken Geiser hopes the team is playing its best baseball in late May and June.
Washington will be led by pitcher Eric Canter, who will also see time in the infield. Outfielders Zach Herman, Dylan Tillotson and Reynel Pastrana will contribute. Other infielders include Oscar Reyes, Kyle Gill, Russell Volosov and Cohl McCloskey, and Jon Jenkins-Lacavar will see time at catcher.
The Eagles don’t have a lot of experience, and pitching depth could be a problem, but Geiser is happy with the work ethic and the attitude of his squad.
“We will struggle at times,” Geiser said. “They’re good kids and they’re working hard every day. They’re getting better and they’ll be better when they have more experience.”
First-year coach Tom Juhas watched an inexperienced team turn into a veteran squad a year ago, and the team didn’t improve every game, it improved every inning.
This year’s squad will be led by a talented senior class that includes outfielders Christian Castro and Isaac Vazquez, infielders Jordan Montero, Rafael Munoz, Lewis Batista and Richard Rein and catcher Angel Torres.
Northeast has strong seniors, and its junior class is just as good with infielders Jason DeJesus and Pedro Alicea working with utility player Jose Estevez, outfielder Elijah Valentin, catcher Kelvin Gomez and staff ace Tyler Aron. Sophomore Jacob Ramos will do some pitching, and freshman Darlyn Uceta will see time at third base.
Last year, the Vikings made significant strides during the season and so far, the team is doing the same thing early in 2017.
“We have depth at every position, especially pitching will be our biggest asset,” Juhas said. “We’re looking to build on the foundation laid last year by our departed seniors and move the program back to significance.”
Losing isn’t easy, and the Panthers finished 0–11 a season ago, but Fels hung tough in every game. This year, the Panthers will be improved,
The team will be led by senior captain Jose Cruz, who will pitch and play infield. Other standouts are outfielder Romuel DIaz, catcher A.J. Mercado, first baseman Noah Beaubrun, utility player Tristan Bondurant, infielder Christian Fajardo-Tavarez and pitcher Cidrick Navas.
Fels will look to improve on the field, and that should translate into more victories.
“Our main strength is that we play hard and we hustle, every game, regardless of the score, which unfortunately, we’ve been on the losing end of,” Fels coach George Dufner said. ”I don’t mind the L’s, as long as we hustle and play right.
“We’re still teaching pitching to our players, returning and new. All of our pitchers are position players that I had to force into pitching roles, just like most of the other teams in the Pub. We need the younger guys to mature much faster than they should.”
Tacony Academy Charter
Tacony finished with one win a season ago, but has grown leaps and bounds this year, and coach Chris Jackson likes what he sees.
Alex Minner (pitcher and infielder), Kyle Desmond (pitcher and infielder), Jose Robles (pitcher and first baseman), Angel Elisca (center field) and Anthony Gibbs (second base) will be the core group for the Lions, and with them leading the way, Tacony will be more competitive.
“It all starts with our pitchers,” Jackson said. “When Minner, Desmond and Robles are throwing strikes, we are going to be successful. Defensively, we just have to make the easy plays and not let one error turn into five errors.
“Our players work hard every day at practice, and I expect us to continue to improve. We returned a lot of players from last year, and the hard work is already paying off.”
Penn Jersey League
New Foundations Charter
Here’s a little bad news for the Penn Jersey League: Last year’s champion returns intact.
The Bulldogs finished 13–2 overall a season ago, and went 9–1 in league play.
This year’s squad will be led by third baseman Tyler Hancock, first baseman and pitcher Tom Bovitt, center fielder Josh Torres, catcher Christian Reyes, outfielder Deric Hollaway and pitcher Anthony Kirby.
Winning a championship isn’t easy, but it certainly makes it easier when you return a squad of talented and experienced winners.
“The vast majority of our championship team is back,” said coach Zack Riegler. “Our pitching staff is strong and durable. We hit for both contact and power. Overall, we play smart, fundamental baseball, and that’s what wins games.” ••