Baseball: Southold starts spring training, NY style

GARRET MEADE PHOTO | Alex Poliwoda, properly bundled up for the cold weather, during a fielding drill at Southold's first preseason practice.
GARRET MEADE PHOTO | Alex Poliwoda, properly bundled up for the cold weather, during a fielding drill at Southold’s first preseason practice.

Spring training conjures up visions of palm trees, sunshine and spectators wearing shorts and T-shirts. Of course, the start of high school baseball practice in the Northeast, is typically nothing like that at all.

Early March weather on Long Island can be bone-chilling. While the temperature was in the 40s and it was cold enough, an optimist would have noted that it could have been even colder and windier on Monday. Still, as if to serve as a chilly reminder that this isn’t Florida or Arizona, some large piles of snow and ice still remained from last month’s major snowstorm.

That’s the way it was for Southold and other teams throughout New York State that started preseason practice on Monday.

“We always have to deal with it,” Southold junior Anthony Fedele, a catcher/pitcher, said of the less-than-ideal weather conditions for baseball. “It’s tough, but we’ll get through it.”

Southold coach Mike Carver has learned over the years not to be too picky when it comes to early-spring weather. “I always say, any day you can get outside in March is a good day,” he said.

The real point of the matter is that baseball is back.

By all accounts, Day 1 was a good day for the First Settlers, who took to the field together for the first time since their loss to Pierson/Bridgehampton in Game 3 of the 2012 Suffolk County Class C finals. For the first time this year they shagged fly balls, fielded ground balls, executed cutoff and over-the-shoulder outfield drills before topping the afternoon off with some conditioning work.

“I liked the energy of the kids,” Carver said. “The kids are hustling, listening. It was a positive first day.”

Southold lost the core of last year’s team with the graduation of seven players. Among them are Kyle Clausen, Luke Hokanson and Will Fujita, who all finished the regular season with batting averages over .400. Now, with only four seniors — Dillon Engels, Preston Jolliver, Robbie Patchell and Matt Stepnoski — the bulk of the current team consists of juniors, sophomores and freshmen. It’s a team built for next year, not that Southold is looking past the coming season.

Fedele said he believes Southold has what it takes to return to the county finals.

Carver has his heart set on 11 league wins, which would assure Southold of a playoff berth.

“Anything above that is gravy,” he said. “We should be a playoff team, let’s leave it at that.”

While acknowledging that Southold had ups and downs during its 14-9 season last year, Carver said it was a “very good season. We’re back to the kind of [team] that Southold is known to be, a perennial playoff team.”

A major plus has been the development of all-league outfielder Shayne Johnson and pitcher/infielder Alex Poliwoda, who both started last year as freshmen and performed well. Another all-league player, shortstop/pitcher Rob Mahony, and Anthony Esposito, who can play in the outfield or at third base, were also starters.

Perhaps the team’s biggest question mark is who will play at first base, a position that was manned alternately by Fujita and Alex Sinclair last year.

“Right now we’re looking for a first baseman,” Fedele said. “It’s open competition. The best will prevail, I guess.”

Mahony, however, sounded more concerned with team unity.

“I think our biggest thing to focus on is playing as a team,” he said. “It’s not necessarily who plays where; it’s if we play together. I think if we play as one and stay as one, we can play our best baseball. I want to be a team, I don’t want it to be bits and pieces.”

Southold has some time to work with. The team will play three scrimmages before opening its season with a League IX game against The Stony Brook School on March 21.

Hitting may be the skill that takes the most time to fine-tune. For one thing, it’s difficult to replicate hitting against live pitching in a real game.

“Hitting is a different ballgame,” Mahony said. “Hitting in the cage is nothing like hitting on the field with runners on base.”

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