The New Rochelle baseball team was forced to practice in the school’s cramped wrestling room on Tuesday, but nobody seemed to mind. The boys basketball team—which has garnered national attention since senior Khalil Edney’s buzzer beater to beat Mount Vernon for a section title— was occupying the gym, and the Huguenots’ baseball squad was happy to concede.
“I’m thrilled for coach (Rasaun) Young, so I have no problem living with what’s going on here, because most teams are dealing with tough situations at this time of year anyway,” coach Pete Annunziata said. “Nothing will come easy, so they might as well learn from the very beginning.”
New Ro has had an incredible year for athletics. The football team won a state championship, the cheerleading team took first in the nation and the boys hoops team is preparing for the state final four.
That explains why the Huguenots—who were jammed into the tiny (and hot) room covered with wrestling mats—went about their business with smiles on their faces, hoping that a little of that magic may rub off.
“It’s just an incredible feeling,” senior RHP/SS John Valente said. “To have all of these different teams win and make states, it’s just incredible. Hopefully, we carry on and can do the same thing. With the luck we have right now…”
• New Ro has good reason to be optimistic, and it starts with Valente (pictured to the right). He’ll be one of the most critical players in the section, as he will serve as the team ace, shortstop (on days he isn’t pitching) and likely hit third. That’s a lot of responsibility for one guy to handle, but Annunziata says Valente wouldn’t accept anything less. “I know he can handle it,” Annunziata said. “I’m not worried about John at all. He’s going to want more than probably I’m giving him, but what remains to be seen is how well the pitchers fill in for the loss of Ziggy. That’s a huge loss. Louie Miceli is going to have to step up there, and some of the other guys to fill that void.”
• “Ziggy” is former New Ro ace Andrew Zigmont, who complemented Valente very well from the left side. They formed a dynamic top two to lead the rotation last season, but now that No. 2 spot is the team’s biggest concern. Miceli showed flashes last year as a sophomore, but not enough consistency for Annuniziata’s liking. Still, because of his upside, the big righty is the favorite to land the role. “If I’m being honest, he’s got to prove himself,” Annunziata said. “I’ve got about four or five candidates who could end up being No. 2 or 3. I’m not going to know who they are until we’re out on the field playing scrimmages.”
• Valente said he worked a lot over the summer on his changeup. He was mostly fastball and curve last year, but sounds like he plans on using all three with confidence. He also mentioned righties Kevin To, Josh Stern and Anthony Mirabile, and lefty Matt Seiser, as other arms who he thinks could contribute.
• While the pitching after Valente is still a bit unsettled, the lineup is bringing back some key pieces. Four of the top five hitters from last year’s Class AA quarterfinalist team return in Valente and fellow seniors CF Jared Wiesel, C Daniel Dasgupta and OF/DH Jayson Gray. That gives Annunziata four solid hitters with experience hitting in crucial parts of the lineup. “Those four will be in the first six spots, just depending on how it all shakes out,” Annunziata said. “Leadoff is a spot where I’m not really sure what I’m going to do. Wiesel hit leadoff a lot last year, so hopefully he can come back and do the same thing; get on base and be a table-setter.”
• It may be tempting to hit those four 1-4, but Annunziata sounded a bit hesitant to stack his best hitters and leave the bottom of the order without much experience. Miceli played a lot of third base last year and showed some power potential, so he projects as a guy who could hit in the middle of the order. JV call-up OF Mike Schaub is another guy who is expected to contribute offensively, so Annunziata may play around with different combinations to keep the lineup balanced. “One of the things that I’m thinking about is trying to add depth to the lineup,” he said. “The way that you add depth to the lineup is you take one of your seven, eight, nine hitters and put them in the beginning of the lineup. That’s one of the things that I’m sort of contemplating.”
• While Valente hit over .400 last year and was a known commodity around the section, it was Gray (pictured to the left) who burst on the scene and proved that he could be a run producer. He led the team in RBI last season to earn all-Section honorable mention, and has committed to play at Dominican College next year. He’s got power, but is also very fast, saying “I worked on driving the ball into the gap to use my speed for triples” in the offseason. He’ll likely hit cleanup and be charged with the task of protecting Valente. “I want to be the four-guy; just drive in runs and get it done – just be the guy,” he said. “It’s very important. If (Valente) gets on base, I need to drive him in.”
• After getting a chance to practice outside on Monday to work on fielding specific drills, Tuesday was devoted to hitting. The Huguenots used every inch of the wrestling room and had a cage set up for live BP. They also had guys working on bunting in one corner of the room, and guys hitting off of two tees set up low-inside and high-outside in the last remaining bit of space. It went like clockwork, and Annunziata spoke about the work ethic that he’s seen from this group throughout the offseason. “This is a great mix,” he said, referring to the balance of senior leadership and youth (they had a lot of talented looking sophomores in the room). “First of all, this is the best offseason that we’ve had in a long time. Since I’ve been the coach, but even before that, where guys were committed to getting into the weight room and committed to doing the extra hitting – that kind of thing has really been a great improvement. I think it’s because these guys got a taste of what it could be last year, and actually for the last couple of years. There’s guys who believe that something really special could happen, but as you know, it always comes down to execution and pitching.”
• The taste of success that Annunziata is referring to is last year’s trip to the Class AA quarters. They played a loaded Fox Lane team tough that day, proving that they can hang with some of the best in the section and finishing with a 16-6 record. He wants them to “start believing that the baseball team can win big,” and they seem to be buying in. “It’s always about taking that next step,” Valente said. “It’s never good enough. Once you win the section, you’re never good enough until you get to win states.”
• Finally, I had to ask the Huguenots about their thoughts on competing for a league title. They won every league game last year except for two one-run losses to six-time champ Mamaroneck, so they appear to be closer to unseating the Tigers than they have been since they last won in 2006. “I would say goal No. 1 is to win the league, and I think that we have a team that can compete for that league championship this year,” Annunziata said. “I have a lot of respect for the teams in the league. Obviously, Mamaroneck is king of the hill until somebody knocks them off, so yeah, we’re hoping to be able to do that this year. White Plains definitely has some up-and-comers with a great coach who always gets the most out of that team by the end of the season; Scarsdale has good pitching coming back, so they’re going to be tough; and Mount Vernon has a new coach, so I’m excited for him to hopefully get that program going in the right direction.”
File photos from The Journal News