It’s been 41 years since anyone else but the Robinson brothers, Dennis and Mike, were leading a Lakeland baseball practice, so new coach Joe Knapp’s first week was something that I had to see with my own two eyes.
“You know, it’s weird,” senior SS Chris Conklin said. “They helped everybody become a lot better at baseball – great teachers – but I’m really hyped for this year with coach Knapp. We’re going to try to win it for him in his first year.”
Players spoke highly of Knapp because he is a familiar face. He’s been involved with the program for a longtime, spending the past 13 years as the Hornets’ JV coach, so it’s not as much of a shock as it would have been had someone completely new been brought in.
“I am comfortable with all of the guys because I’ve been here for 15 years,” Knapp said. “Mike and Den are really good friends of mine, and I’m sorry not to see them here because of the history of what they’ve developed. I’m just looking to carry it on. I played here. I wasn’t the best player, but to take a line from Billy Martin, I was probably one of the proudest to ever put on a uniform.”
• Knapp seems to carry that scrappy mentality over to his coaching style. He talked a lot about wanting his team to be aggressive and fundamentally sound. “One of my big focuses will be on aggressive base running, because I think with a lot of high schools, taking an extra base can be big in a game – putting that runner in scoring position,” he said. “Fundamentals – bunting, hit-and-run, just making things happen. I don’t think we’ll have the strongest offensive club, so that’s something that we’re really going to have to focus on.”
• Knapp heaped praise on the Robinsons and talked about maintaining their winning tradition, but he also spoke about “looking to make it my own.” He showed me new black hats for the team, saying they’ll be sporting some fresh new unis this season. “I am a different person,” he said.
• While Knapp may not sound convinced that his team is going to be able to hit the ball all over the yard, his players seem much more confident. “Our lineup this year is going to be something to look out for,” senior CF Ray Bozek said. “Each guy one through nine can hit the ball. We have a couple of guys that can hit the long ball; it’s a perfect balance. I’m really liking what I’m seeing from this team so far.”
• Bozek and Conklin (pictured to the right) hit 1-2 most of the time last season, and could end up as the table-setters again this year. Bozek in particular is a speedster. “I batted leadoff last year,” he said. “I had 24 stolen bases, and I’m just trying to get on base and cause havoc. That’s my main tool – speed.”
• While Bozek is probably locked into the leadoff spot, Conklin could possibly move into more of a run producing position, saying, “Wherever coach wants to put me, it’s fine with me.” He hit .420 last year to earn all-Section honors and is one of the top hitters on the team. “If you put him in the two or three spot, I think he can be an RBI machine,” Knapp said. “He just hits gaps.”
• Here’s more from Knapp and what he’s thinking for Bozek and Conklin: “I would like them to be back-to-back somewhere in the lineup. Another kid who just came back from a torn ACL is Andrew Mitgang. Andrew is a burner, as well, so I’m going to be looking to get him somewhere in the lineup. They probably wouldn’t be 1-2-3, but maybe 9-1-2 to get them stacked somewhere. They give us playmaking potential, as far as stealing a base or a bunt, because they can all put a bunt down for a hit.”
• A guy who is certain to hit in the middle of the order is junior catcher Anthony Fava. He hit over .400 last year and was also selected as all-Section. He might be the most talented all-around player on the team. “Anthony Fava, I believe, is the best catcher in the section,” Knapp said. “He’s got a great arm, hits the ball well, and I think he’s a little underrated by people in Section 1.”
• Another guy who will be looked at to drive in runs is senior OF Andrew Martinez, who Bozek says has “the sweetest swing I’ve ever seen.” This team is also loaded with juniors who Knapp says have “good pedigrees.” Matthew deMarte and Ryan Arena are two guys who are expected to take on bigger roles this season and each have older siblings who have made huge impacts on the program. deMarte was playing catcher while I was at practice today, but Knapp says he can play multiple positions. He’s also starting to pitch a bit more. “He’s got a great arm, so we’re starting to develop him a little bit more into a pitcher,” Knapp said. “If he’s going to pitch, it will be as a short reliever.”
• Speaking of pitching, the Lakeland staff is a bit banged up at the moment. The guy I really liked last year was John White (pictured to the left), who gave the Hornets some quality innings as a sophomore. I remember the Dennis Robinson telling me how much he liked his potential, and you can see why. He’s a big, strong righty. He had some elbow issues in the offseason that will cause him to miss the first few weeks, but Knapp sounds confident that he’ll contribute this year. “He went for physical therapy and everything, and he just got cleared to do some light throwing the other day,” Knapp said. “If it was Major League Baseball, that will be like a mid-season acquisition, having a quality arm ready to – and fresh.”
• All in all, Knapp seems to feel that the arms will be the strength of this team. “We’re very deep,” he said. “Every pitcher I have, and I can’t ever say that I’ve had this before – even as the JV coach – every guy I have, I’ll be comfortable putting on the mound. John White is obviously the top returner. He’ll be out for a little while, but he’ll probably be able to throw somewhere in mid-to-late April. Joe Tuccito is another guy who I’m counting on to be one of my top guys. He got hurt in a quading accident and broke his (non-pitching) wrist, but he’s about a week or two away from being able to put a glove on his hand. Kevin Lynch and Chris Didomizio, I don’t know how many people have the luxury of two quality left-handed pitchers. Then also Tommy Harten and John Hodges, who are a little funky in their deliveries. Both of their balls move a lot. And I think one of the underrated guys from last year is Pat McKiernan. Pat I think threw 50 something innings for us last year, and he can eat innings for you. In a high school season, that’s important.”
• This team was young last year, which is why I like their chances to make some noise in Class A this season. They lose a few key pieces from the lineup such as 2B Corey Smith and DH Matt Wright, but a lot of guys who contributed last season are back. The team is all juniors and seniors now, and seem motivated to put it all together after exiting the playoffs a bit sooner than they would have liked the past couple seasons. “We have a great mix,” Conklin said. “We have a lot of kids who know how to win, too. We’ve never had a losing season here at Lakeland, so we have a lot of winning experience coming back.”
File photos from The Journal News