Southold High School’s remarkably young baseball team has become a year older, and that’s a plus, but there has been a significant change.
Last year Southold played in League IX with several other Class C schools. Since then, however, Bishop McGann-Mercy closed, Greenport dropped its varsity team, Port Jefferson has been bumped up to Class B and Stony Brook has moved to another league. And Southold has been moved up to League VIII, joining Pierson/Bridgehampton/Shelter Island as the only other Class C school in the league.
“It’s going to be much more competitive,” said Greg Tulley, in his second year as Southold’s coach.
Asked about the difference in leagues, Tulley said: “I’d say it’s pretty sizable. Even if you just talk about the size of the schools, it’s night and day.”
Southold (12-12 last year) has a way of surprising, though. Last year’s team had only three players with previous varsity experience, started at least three eighth-graders every game and lost its first seven games. Yet, despite all of that, it still played Pierson for the county title in the double-elimination tournament. That ended Southold’s string of three straight county championships.
Southold has a pair of All-League players in senior shortstop Jake Okula and freshman outfielder/pitcher Brendan Duffy.
Okula had a .388 batting average, a 1.029 OPS, 23 RBIs and 28 runs scored.
“He just had a really good year last year,” Tulley said. “He’s a pretty sound shortstop, made most of the plays. He can run and his bat came alive the second half of last year. He was one of our better hitters the second half.”
Duffy posted a .351 batting average with a .959 OPS. As a pitcher, he had a 2.39 ERA.
And then there is senior infielder Joe Hayes, who hit .295.
“He’s just a steady player,” Tulley said. “He’ll do anything for you. Last year he caught. Catcher wasn’t his primary position, but it was what we needed. He’s steady Joe.”
Freshman second baseman Connor Wilinski, senior centerfielder/pitcher Michael Daddona and junior infielder/pitcher Nick Eckhardt are returning starters. The First Settlers also have outfielders Eric Connolly, Max Cichanowicz and Tom Cardi back along with catcher John Kaelin.
Ryan Hunstein, who can play first base, the outfield and pitch, is new to the team along with first baseman/outfielder Nick Grathwohl.
The team has had workouts since January to prepare for the challenge League VIII brings.
Tulley said Southold needs to “win the games that we’re supposed to win and kind of steal a couple of others … You always bring hope. I think everyone’s anxious to start playing.”
With some players, you just know.
And that’s how it was in 2016 when Mattituck’s junior varsity coach at the time, Gene Rochler, watched Bryce Grathwohl play for his team. Grathwohl’s JV career lasted all of two games before he was pulled up to the varsity team at Rochler’s recommendation. Rochler told the varsity coach, Steve DeCaro, that Grathwohl would be the Tuckers’ No. 3 hitter and starter for the next four years.
And so it has been.
Now Grathwohl is an All-County senior and the No. 1 pitcher in Mattituck’s starting rotation. He also plays third base.
“You know what’s amazing about him?” Rochler said. “He doesn’t get too emotional either way. He keeps a calm demeanor.”
That calm demeanor helped Grathwohl put up a .385 batting average, drive in 25 runs and score 18 last year. On the mound, he went 4-4 with a 1.23 ERA and 52 strikeouts.
Rochler, who has been coaching in the Mattituck program for 13 years, enters his 40th year in coaching as Mattituck’s new head coach. He succeeds DeCaro, who was placed on administrative leave last October for unspecified reasons. In 16 years under DeCaro, Mattituck went 238-139-1 and won a state Class B championship in 2015.
Rochler inherits a team that he expects to return to the playoffs. Mattituck (12-11) also has All-League players in senior catcher Ryan Mahon (.296, 17 RBIs, 15 runs), senior outfielder Johnny Lisowy (.310, 16 RBIs, 14 runs) and junior centerfielder Chris Nicholson (.279, 14 RBIs, 14 runs).
Ryan Mahon may also do some relief pitching. “He has a great work ethic, never complains,” Rochler said. “The thing about him is he constantly is working hard and when you’re a catcher, a lot of times you’re back there for a long time and I’m always worried that I’m going to wear him out but he never complains. He says, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ I love that about him.”
Once again, Mattituck will have two Tyler Olsens on its lineup card: senior No. 2 pitcher/third baseman Tyler C. Olsen (2-3, 3.06 ERA, 24 strikeouts) and senior first baseman Tyler F. Olsen (.260, 14 RBIs, 26 runs). Senior outfielder Sean McDonald is returning as well.
Nate Demchak, a versatile sophomore, can play any position on the field. Brady Mahon is a middle infielder.
Everyone else is new to the team, including shortstop Connor Fox and outfield candidates Emmett Ryan and Josh Starzee.
Fox, Matt Czjuko, Nicholson and Brady Mahon are competing for the No. 3 spot in the pitching rotation.
In League VIII, Mattituck will have to compete with defending state champion Center Moriches, which returns virtually its entire team, as well as traditionally strong Babylon and Southampton.
“We have a chance to be good,” Rochler said. “I think we can sneak up on some people.”
What would make for a successful season?
Rochler answered, “I’m supposed to say winning the state championship, but realistically, if we compete hard every day and we win more than we lose, I’ll be happy.”
Photo caption: Senior Jake Okula is an All-League player and one of Southold’s veterans. (Credit: Daniel De Mato, file)