Baseball preview: Young team embraces rebuilding challenge

By BRIAN JENNINGS

STAFF WRITER

They lost in the second round of last year’s state tournament. They almost all of their starting lineup from last season. They lost most of their experience. But they didn’t lose hope.

The one big thing that Southington coach Charlie Lembo is noticing about this year’s Blue Knight baseball team is that they’re willing to work and put in the effort.

“They come to practice, and they’re ready to compete,” said Lembo. “With all of our losses from last season, we have a lot of things to work on and go over, and I’m looking forward to that.”

If this year’s team works as hard as he believes they will and buys into throwing strikes and playing good defense, Lembo said that he has no doubt they can go as far as they want.

“Even though we have a lot of guys that are going to playing this year that don’t have a ton of varsity experience, there’s talent there,” said Lembo.

The Knights finished the 2017 regular season at 15-5 overall, winning the CCC Central Blue Division with a 10-1 record in the CCC Central Region (4-0 in CCC Central Blue) and tying for third in the CCC. A 4-0 loss to No. 25 Fairfield Ludlowe in the second round of last year’s Class LL Tournament marked the first time Southington didn’t advance past the second round of the state tournament since 2010.

Lembo said that the lesson his returning players took from last season into this season is not to take anything for granted.

“They’re just not going to open up a door and put out a red carpet for you to walk into the state semifinals or finals,” said Lembo. “You have to come prepared to play every day, and that’s what we’re working on right now.”

The Knights were hit hard by graduation, losing their entire starting lineup, 13 of 19 players, after last season. All 13 players were contributors to the varsity team, including an all-state pitcher and shortstop and three all-conference infielders.

Seniors returning to this year’s team include Dylan Chiaro (OF), Brandon Kohl (P/OF), Kyle Leifert (IF), Jeremy Mercier (P/IF), Joshua Panarella (C), Dan Topper (IF), Christian Vargas (C), Justin Verrilli (P), and Jacob Weed (P). Mercier is the most productive player from last season as the team’s top returning hitter.

He started in all 22 games last season and garnered a batting average of .323 with 20 hits, 14 RBI, and 11 runs scored, and seven walks in 62 at-bats. Mercier is also one of three returners with varsity experience on the mound.

Lembo said that Mercier came up with a lot of big hits last year.

“They could have been hits where we were struggling offensively in a game, and he came up with a big double,” said Lembo. “He played a really good first base. We really wanted to use him more pitching last year, but we didn’t get that opportunity. He will pitch this year.”

Leifert and Weed pitched some innings last season as well. Leifert played in 12 games.

Kohl is coming off an injury that he suffered during football season this past fall, but he’s returning as another threat at the plate for the Knights who wasn’t too far behind Mercier in the hitting department. Starting in 21 games last season, he finished with a batting average of .233 with 18 runs scored, 14 hits, nine walks, seven RBI, and seven stolen bases in 60 at-bats.

Although Kohl was another player who Lembo thought would get some innings on the mound last year, Lembo said that Kohl still benefited the team with good instincts in the outfield.

“He has a strong arm and tracks the ball very well,” said Lembo. “He’s a kid that we look who can hit with some power too and run the bases very well.”

As a commit to play baseball at the University of New Haven, Dylan Chiaro didn’t receive much varsity playing time last year, but Lembo said that Chiaro has the potential to do it all this season.

“Dylan can hit for average and with some power,” said Lembo. “He can run some bases well, and he has a strong arm in the outfield.”

Panarella played in 11 games last season. Topper played in eight.

Junior newcomers to the team this season include Nico Gaudio, Ryan Henderson, Brendan Kavanagh, Jason Krar, JT Martin, Jake Romano, Hunter Salvatore, Tyler Strong, and Bryce Worth. Lembo said that the junior newcomers are all fighting for spots in the starting lineup on the varsity roster.

Looking at the Knights on the field, Lembo said that they’re going to have to do everything well.

“We have a good amount of arms that are good pitchers,” said Lembo. “Without extending anyone early in the season, we have enough guys that we can put out on the mound to get the job done, and the defense is going to be part of that equation.”

Lembo said that they also have a lot of good line-drive hitters with gap-to-gap power.

“If a few balls happen to carry out this year, that would be great too, but we never focus on that,” said Lembo. “We’re focused on hitting the ball hard and getting on base.”

As far as the area of the field where the Knights need the most improvement in, Lembo said that he doesn’t see anything physically where this team needs the most improvement. It’s just gaining varsity experience.

Following a realignment of the CCC, Southington is now in the West Colonial Division along with Conard, Hall, and NW Catholic. The West Patriot Division consists of Avon, Farmington, Glastonbury, and Simsbury.

To comment on this story or to contact sports writer Brian Jennings, email him at bjennings@southingtonobserver.com.

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