Is there going to be a scarier lineup in Section 1 than the one that Fox Lane will trout out this season?
Not if you ask me.
“We have a pretty similar lineup to last year’s,” senior SS Richard Slenker said. “Five through seven is going to switch around a little bit and maybe our two-hitter, but we’re definitely confident with who can hit there. We’re going to have power all the way through the lineup.”
No other lineup can boast two Division 1 players in the middle of its lineup like the Foxes will have with the Yale-bound Slenker and Maryland-bound 1B Matt Oniffrey, but it goes deeper than that. Fox Lane returns eight position players who received significant playing time last season, and that lineup may have been the best in the area. Add one more year of experience and tutelage under coach and hitting guru Matt Hillis, and watch out.
“Are they a luxury to have?” Hillis asked rhetorically. ”Absolutely. Rich, Matt probably going 3, 4 – in that order – righty, lefty. A lot of pitchers probably won’t have an answer for them if they have to come after them, but in certain cases I do expect the answer to be to pitch around them.”
• Want hear an even scarier thought? Slenker (pictured to the right) said he played last season about about “60 percent,” and he still managed it hit .473. He’s regarded as the top shortstop in the section, but he was out when practices began last season with a knee issue. He came back to play through it and put together a great year, but he had multiple surgeries in the offseason to repair his meniscus and remove cartilage. Now, he claims he’s 100 percent. “I feel awesome right now,” he said. “I’m happy and good to go. Last year, I wasn’t confident going in because I knew something wasn’t right. I stayed mentally in it last year, but I knew I wasn’t there physically… I couldn’t get off the back foot at all.”
• As Hillis mentioned, Slenker and Oniffrey (pictured below) complement each other so well because they hit from opposite sides of the plate and don’t have many weaknesses. Slenker is a righty who can hit the ball to all fields, and Oniffrey is a power lefty who can yank a ball over the right field porch at any moment. “It’s awesome,” Slenker said of having Oniffrey to protect him in the lineup. “You’re going to see pitches; you have to. Hopefully he’ll see some pitches, too, and I think he will because the guy behind him is going to hit also.”
• I could tell you about about who could hit in which spots in the lineup, but Hillis gave me a great breakdown. You can tell he might have put a little thought into this. “As coaches, I guess you’re never satisfied, so we’re constantly projecting ahead,” he said. “We project ahead two or three years; even during last year, we were projecting what the next year’s lineup would look like. Obviously, we look and we immediately start with Rich and Matt in the middle of the lineup. We expect Ryan Bailey to be a big-time contributor for us in the middle of the lineup, and we have Dion (Austrie) coming back as only a junior somewhere in the front of our lineup. We expect really, really big things from him – his athleticism is just off the charts. He was a great catalyst for us last year, and Drew Fopeano also hit second for us all of last year. If you really look at it, Dion comes back 1, Drew comes back 2, Slenk comes back 3, Matt comes back 4, and we’ll probably look at Ryan Bailey to fill the five-hole. Anthony and Mark Shkrelja, we’re hoping for big things out of our little twin combination at third base and in the outfield. Jackson Kushner comes back to us and he hit over .400, so we’re extremely optimistic about what our lineup looks like right now. And we really like our young talent, as well.”
• As you can tell, most of the lineup already seems to be settled. Bailey is committed to Monmouth and will likely DH, offering Oniffrey some protection. Austrie led off some last year, and will probably start at second base again. Fopeano started at catcher and settled into the two-hole nicely, so there’s your top five in the order. I liked Kushner’s bat as well last year, so I could see him hitting sixth and playing in the outfield when he’s not pitching. The Foxes did lose two starting outfielders in TJ Hallock and Spencer Chernus, so if there is competition anywhere, those are probably the spots. “While it may not appear at some positions that there is an open competition, there sure is at some of our other key spots,” Hillis said. “I’d say five or six guys are set, and the rest are up in the air.”
• With Fox Lane constantly producing so many quality hitters, I had to ask Hillis what he thinks the key is to all of the offensive success. “We take our kids through a progression, and the progression basically involves breaking hitting down into its component parts. There’s certain checkpoints throughout their progressions that they’re able to look at, feel the feedback, and in many cases, self-correct, but in many cases, I’ll be there to make the correction, as well,” he said. “We’re blessed with a really nice facility as far as our hitting cages. Our kids will rotate through the stations and end with me, so by the time they get to me, we’re hoping that all of the work that they’ve been doing translates… But the key is, without a doubt, perfect repetitions. We want them to feel what perfect hitting mechanics feel like, and from there, hopefully it will translate. They do it all day at nauseam.”
• So, we’ve established that the Foxes can hit. But do they have enough pitching? “I don’t know,” Hillis said with a laugh. “Unfortunately, I feel like a broken record because I feel like I’m saying the exact same thing every single year. It’s an unknown this year, but – and this is a big but – I’m significantly more optimistic going into this year than I have been in years past. ”
• Why are you more optimistic, coach? “I’ve seen huge improvement out of Henry Jacobs,” Hillis said. ”We are expecting Matt Oniffrey to help us; Jackson Kushner comes back with some significant innings under his belt; Nick Tortorella we think is an unflappable kid as a lefty, and that can help us out; Alec Brown coming up from our JV I think is another kid that’s definitely going to be able to help us. The depth, I think, is more significant than it’s been in years past, and the quality at the top leads me to be much more optimistic.”
• The three Foxes who logged the most innings last season are gone in Hallock, Robby Seraita, Julian Haddad, but none of them were able to put together consistent performances. The guy who I liked the most last year was Jacobs. He got some innings as a sophomore and looked like he had the most potential of anyone on the staff, which is why Hillis sounds high on him. If he can start developing into an ace and the rest of the staff provides depth, a section title is certainly within reason. It also sounds like Kushner will likely end up in the rotation with Jacobs. “Pitching-wise, I was just watching today, and it’s definitely more than I anticipated us having,” Slenker said. “I think we’re a lot stronger than I thought we were going to be. I think we definitely have a few starters who we can count on.”
• The wild card is Oniffrey. He threw some limited innings last year and showed a very live arm. From what I’m told, the lefty was considered to be the next big pitcher for Fox Lane when this group of seniors was in middle school, but arm issues resulted in him focusing on first base. That’s obviously worked out for him, but with his arm feeling fresh, he knew he could be a big help this season. He pitched all summer and said he feels comfortable with his fastball, curve, change and two-seamer. “We need a lefty,” Oniffrey said. “I don’t know if I’m going to start yet, but I’m definitely going to get more innings on the mound. Back when I was either 13 or 14, I had a really badly strained bicep. It wasn’t that I couldn’t pitch after that, but I kind of wanted to focus on hitting and playing first. With my arm being back at full strength, it’s not a bad idea to get back on the mound.”
• It’s no secret that this team has the makings to compete for a Class AA title, and they aren’t hiding from that fact. If fully healthy, I’d have a hard time picking against them, but of course, it will all come down to consistent pitching. “Those are always our expectations, regardless of what we have returning,” Hillis said. “The expectations are we try to win our league, we try to win the section, and I think going into a season with an attitude of anything less would kind of defeat us. Our expectations are high this year. Our kids know it, and I know it.”
File photos from The Journal News