By John Goralski
Southington graduated almost enough baseball players to field a pair of varsity teams. The Blue Knights return only two players with double-digit at bats from last year’s Class LL runner up squad. Last year’s infield is already making plays at a handful of college programs.
Why then is Coach Charlie Lembo smiling? Because he’s been through this before. Southington doesn’t rebuild. They reload.
“This is high school baseball,” he said with grin. “You lose guys like we did last year. It’s hard to replace them, but that’s just what we’re going to do. We have some young guys coming up. We’ll have a sophomore or freshman get some playing time, and we’ll build the experience.”
Lembo did it before, when he welcomed the last class of graduates after a postseason run that finished in a championship game. In that team’s first season, they reached the semifinals. Last year, they almost finished the job.
“It seems like it’s every other year, but I think they’re ready,” said the coach. “They worked hard in the weight room with our off-season conditioning, and I think they’re excited to get back out on the field. This may be a different type of team. We may have to scrap for a few more runs, but we can still be successful.”
The opening day roster is still being scratched out in pencil. The batting lineup is scrambled each game like lottery balls shuffling through the cage. Players are plugged into holes to see what they can do, and Lembo has spent a lot of sleepless nights trying to work it all out in his head.
The players, on the other hand, have taken it all in stride. Lembo describes an all-for-one and one-for-all approach that has helped build excitement for opening day.
“I think our strength will always depend upon our team chemistry,” said the coach. “Right now, the kids genuinely enjoy playing together, being out here together, and doing things off the field. As a coaching staff, we’ll work on the baseball stuff, and hopefully we’ll get up to speed quickly.”
It helps that Southington returns one of the state’s hottest prospects on the mound. Senior co-captain Joe Rivera went 7-2 last spring with a 1.38 ERA. His ERA dropped to 0.88 during the American Legion summer season as the locals surged back to the state finals. Along the way, Rivera struck out 111 batters and allowed just 52 hits.
“Last year was his coming out party. He struggled a little bit early in the cold weather, but he really got into a groove as the season went on,” said Lembo. “The key for him is to throw strikes and to pitch to contact. He’s a power pitcher, but I want to see his pitch count at 80 pitches not 125.”
He’ll be joined on the mound by a deep roster of up-and-coming talent. Kyle Cole didn’t allow an earned run in eight appearances last season. Senior Joe Daigle and junior Austin Bumbera are expected to join the rotation with a number of others ready to step in as needed.
“It’s a big group, and some of them are going to pitch junior varsity,” said Lembo. “I don’t want to bring young guys up just to sit on the varsity bench. I want them to play and get in some work. If they can help us, we’ll bring them up here, but I want to see what our seniors and juniors can do.”
The biggest question marks will be the defense. Southington will open the season with an entirely different infield, but Lembo said that there’s a host of newcomers that are ready to step in. Zac Susi will start behind the plate with Grant Kavanah and Kyle Bunko waiting in the wings. Senior co-captain Mike Rogalski will shift from third base to first. Nick Calabrese and Josh Makles will battle for the starting spot at second base. Daigle should figure prominently at shortstop, but John Mikosz and Luke Krochko will step in when he’s on the mound. At third, the Knights could see Ryan DeAngelo or Krochko as the starter.
“They’ve all worked really hard, and I’ve been pretty impressed,” said Lembo. “We expect a lot out of our infield, so we’ll see. It’s going to be a lot of baby steps. We’ll see how it works out.”
The outfield could see just as much movement and shuffling of players. Rivera will start in center field when he’s not on the mound. Junior Brett Shaw is the main threat in left field. Garrett Gugliotti, RJ Parent, and Liam Scafariello should all figure into the rotation.
“Early in the season, we may be moving some guys around to see who is hot and who can help us score some runs,” said Lembo. “We’re going to be young. We’re going to be gaining experience as the year goes on, but we’re going to be an exciting team. We’re going to have to really concentrate on those little details to be successful, but I expect the same thing from this group as I did from last year’s seniors.”
There will be little room for error because, once again, Southington will sport one of the toughest schedules in the state. The non-conference schedule is packed with perennial powers like Greenwich, tolland, Wethersfield, and Bristol Central. To repeat atop the CCC West, Southington will have to make the most of every game in a conference schedule that’s littered with competitive rivals.
“Our schedule is always packed, and it always will be,” said Lembo. “I’m good with that. If you want to be the best, you have to play the best competition. Do we need to be playing a powerhouse like Greenwich every year? No, but it helps us. If you don’t bring your best and play your best every day, there’s a good chance that you’ll lose.”
Can the Knights continue to battle atop the conference standings? Can this next generation live up to the last? Will Southington be listed among the top seeds again? Will they keep their streak alive with another run to the final four?
Lembo welcomes the challenge.
“Our expectations are the same as always,” he said. “We look to win those eight games as soon as possible to get into the state tournament. Then, we want to win the CCC West. Then, we want to make as much noise as possible in the state tournament.”
It’s business as usual for the Blue Knights.
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By John Goralski