While my Rockland feature was on one of the better pitching staffs in the section, my Westchester/Putnam story focuses on arguably the best lineup. Fox Lane is loaded with big bats, but just as TZ’s biggest question mark is offense, the Foxes will need their pitching to come around to contend in Class AA. If it does, their lineup makes them the team to beat.
Step onto the Fox Lane campus at nearly any point of the year and there’s a good chance that you’ll hear the recurring sound of bat on ball. The Foxes preach hitting like George Steinbrenner preached winning, and the results speak for themselves. The most potent lineup in Section 1 averaged 9.1 runs per game last season.
“The key is, without a doubt, perfect repetitions,” coach Matt Hillis said. “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.”
Hillis is a hitting guru who played some pro ball in the minors, and his team approaches the art of hitting like professionals. No other lineup in the section can boast two Division 1 bats in the middle of its order, which Fox Lane has with Yale-bound shortstop Richard Slenker and Maryland-bound first baseman Matt Oniffrey hitting 3-4, respectively.
“A lot of pitchers probably won’t have an answer for them if they have to come after them,” Hillis said. “But in certain cases, I do expect the answer to be to pitch around them.”
Opposing pitchers can work around Slenker and Oniffrey at their own risk. The Foxes also have proven returning starters in Dion Austrie, Drew Fopeano, Jackson Kushner and Ryan Bailey, so there won’t be any easy outs in this lineup.
“It’s awesome. You’re going to see pitches — you have to,” Slenker said. “We have a pretty similar lineup to last year’s. … We’re going to have power all the way through.”
Of course, it doesn’t matter how many runs a team can put up if they don’t have enough pitching, and that remains the biggest question mark for Fox Lane. The Foxes struggled to find an ace last season, which was the main reason that they couldn’t make it past the Class AA semifinals.
“Unfortunately, I feel like a broken record because I feel like I’m saying the exact same thing every single year,” Hillis said. “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.”
Hillis is hopeful because of the depth he will have this season. Kushner and junior Henry Jacobs each gave the team some quality innings last year, but the wild card is Oniffrey.
In middle school, the big lefty was projected to be Fox Lane’s future ace, but a strained bicep forced him to give up pitching for awhile. He was very effective in limited mound-time last season, but this year, the leash is being taken off. If he can help round out a solid pitching staff, the Foxes should have what it takes to compete for a section title.
“With my arm being back at full strength, it’s not a bad idea to get back on the mound,” Oniffrey said. “I can throw strikes, and I’m pretty confident in myself. I pitched well over the summer and got quality innings in against great teams. No matter how hard you throw, as long as you can battle back, that’s what matters.”
Photo by John Meore/The Journal News