The Mattituck High School baseball team was conducting rundown drills during practice last week and coach Steve DeCaro wasn’t happy. He didn’t like what he was seeing and he let his players know it in no uncertain terms.
Earlier, the Tuckers had worked on cutoffs, and they later fielded ground balls.
Even state champions have to go back to basics during preseason practice.
“The first two weeks are all about basics,” DeCaro said. “Basic stuff. There’s no secret.”
The basics took Mattituck far last year, all the way to its first state championship since the school began playing baseball in 1920, according to DeCaro. On a memorable warm June day at SUNY/Broome Community College in Binghamton, the Tuckers beat Livonia, 4-1, to claim the state Class B title, capping a 27-1 season.
“If you talk to the guys and you talk to the guys’ parents and the coaches, they’ll say there’s been no greater moment in most of their lives,” said DeCaro, who has a 189-117-1 record (.616) for the sixth-highest win percentage among active Suffolk County coaches.
Now the question is: Can the Tuckers return to such a lofty state stage?
They have their top pitcher and standout centerfielder who turns fly balls into automatic outs, the speedy Joe Tardif (.356, two home runs, 25 runs batted in, 36 runs scored, 31 stolen bases), back for his senior season. Tardif, who made 43 putouts with 18 assists and two errors last season, was selected the state Class B player of the year in 2015. As a pitcher, he went 8-1 with a 0.53 earned run average, striking out 69 and walking 27.
“Joe is Joe,” DeCaro said. “When Joe is not in centerfield, you’re always wondering why a guy doesn’t catch that ball.”
Twelve of the 15 players who were on Mattituck’s roster for the state championship game are still on the team.
“They know the feeling,” DeCaro said. “They know the feeling of charging out of the dugout. They know the feeling of getting medals and, for us, rings, too.”
For all of that experience, there is uncertainty over positioning. DeCaro said only three field positions have been set. Mike Onufrak (.351, 25 RBI), an all-league senior catcher who has held that position for the last two and a half years, junior shortstop Matt Heffernan and Tardif know where they will play.
That’s more than could be said for Jon Dwyer (.377, 14 RBI). The junior will bat third in the order, is the best fielder on the team, according to DeCaro — and he doesn’t have a position yet. It’s a testament to Dwyer’s versatility.
“We still haven’t figured out what we’re doing with Jonny Dwyer,” said DeCaro, who noted, “There is not a position he can’t play.”
The third spot in the starting pitching rotation, after Tardif and senior Christian Figurniak, must also be sorted out. The competition for that place is being contested between senior Victor Proferes (1-0, 0.62 ERA) and junior Brendan Kent.
Dan Fedun (.444), Joey Graeb and Joe Lisowy (.333) are returning seniors. Also back are juniors Ryan McCaffrey and James McDonald.
Three juniors are newcomers to the team: Kevin Mahon, Tim Pelan and Tyler Williams.
It all adds up to quality depth.
“We’re going to have some good guys sitting on the bench this year,” said DeCaro. He added, “I feel that they are on a mission and that they know what’s expected.”
Mattituck will compete in League VIII, which has another defending state champion (Class D Smithtown Christian) and a state semifinalist (Class C Southold).
“Tell me there’s a better league in New York than this one,” DeCaro said. “It’s going to be awesome.”
Similarly, Southold (21-3) can trace its great success last year to excellent defense. The First Settlers caught and fielded their way to what is believed to be their first regional championship before falling in a state semifinal in 10 innings, 2-0, to Hoosic Valley (25-1), which became the first team to win back-to-back New York State Class C titles since 1989.
“If you told me my team was going to be 21-3 at the beginning of last year, I would have laughed,” said coach Mike Carver, whose team had struggled to a 4-11 record a year earlier.
As for the state final four, Carver said: “They want to get back there. They know what it felt like.”
Carver feels good about his defense and pitching. Hitting is the big question mark. Southold lost its Nos. 1, 4 and 5 hitters in Shayne Johnson, Alex Poliwoda and Sean Moran, not to mention its No. 8 batter, Liam Walker, who led the team with a .507 batting average.
“Those RBIs that we lost are tough shoes to fill,” said Carver, who has a 180-120 record (.600) in 14 years in Southold.
But Southold still has Pat McFarland, an all-county shortstop who also pitches. The junior, who batted second, has the highest batting average of any returning player, .427. He also led the team with a .538 on-base percentage, drove in 21 runs and struck out only seven times.
“He’s a very good all-around ballplayer, one of the best I’ve coached,” said Carver.
Dylan Clausen (.308), a junior who plays first base and pitches, was all-league. Three other returning starters are back in senior second baseman/shortstop Noah Mina (.339, 16 RBI, .506 on-base percentage), senior catcher/third baseman/pitcher Greg Gehring (.314, 17 RBI, .407 on-base percentage) and sophomore pitcher/outfielder Luke Hansen.
In contention for starting positions are centerfielder/relief pitcher Doug Fiedler, outfielder Mat Cardi, third baseman/catcher Shane Zimmer, outfielder/relief pitcher Adam Baldwin and second baseman/outfielder Joe Saporita.
Rounding out the roster are infielders Charles Poliwoda and Sean O’Kula and outfielders Dominic Panetta, Anthony Klavas, Stephen Hocker and Josh Clasing.
McFarland and Clausen make up the first two arms of the pitching rotation, with Hansen and Gerhing expected to pick up starts as well.
Carver said Southold has what it takes to grab 10 league wins, the magic number needed to gain entry into the playoffs. It will require a team effort.
“Last year was a perfect example of championships are not won by one player,” he said. “You need a full team to win a championship.”
In almost every respect, things have been, and look, better for Greenport (5-15) this year, from the weather to the attitude to the athleticism to the maturity. That’s a good sign for the Porters.
“I think we’re going to be in a better position to compete this year,” said Mike Sage, who heads into his second season as the team’s coach. “We’re going to be in a lot more games than we were last year.”
For one thing, the defense has looked sharper in practices, and that’s a big thing. Miscues in the field cost Greenport last year.
“We missed chances on plays we should have made,” Sage said. “We threw the ball around a lot last year.”
That will not happen often this year if players like sophomores Matt Tuthill and Jordan Fonseca have anything to say about it. Tuthill, who can pitch as well as play third base and catcher, batted a little over .300 last season. Fonseca, a pitcher/shortstop, batted close to .300.
Junior centerfielder/pitcher Jake Skrezec, junior catcher/outfielder Keegan Syron, senior second baseman/pitcher/outfielder Ryan Costello and sophomore outfielder Sean Sepenoski are returning starters as well.
Also offering varsity experience are infield/outfielder Tashan Lawrence, outfielder Bayron Rivas and third baseman/designated hitter Tyler Kruszeski.
The new additions are first baseman Jack Webster, infielder/outfielder Remi Droskoski, outfielder Matt Mastrangelo, outfielder Sean Cary, first baseman/pitcher Tommy Tsaveres, outfielder/infielder Christian Romero and outfielder Colin Rossetti.
“The guys are making the plays,” Sage said. “They’re thinking ahead of time. … They seem much more dialed in this year.”
Photo caption: Chris Dwyer, left, and Joe Tardif show off a handmade poster after Mattituck won its first state championship last year. (Credit: Daniel De Mato, file)