With the increasing specialization of sports and the early development of young athletes, it has become a rarity for any high school team to rely heavily on seniors, but Rye Neck is bucking the trend.
The Panthers will travel to Binghamton this weekend to compete in the Class B state final four without a single non-senior starter.
“No, never,” Rye Neck coach Tyler Slater said when asked if he had ever seen such a senior-laden team. “Usually, it’s nice to have that balance of seniors and underclassmen, so this is unusual.”
All nine starters for Rye Neck will graduate this month, including each of the five pitchers that Slater uses. This group lost in the Class B section final last season with almost exclusively junior starters, setting up a 2014 campaign that came with high expectations and lofty goals.
“We’re pumped for this,” senior ace Ryan Aquino said. “We’ve been looking forward to this since we were kids. It feels good to finally be here, and we’re going to put everything that we’ve got into it.”
Outside expectations can often weigh heavily on a team, but the Panthers understood that they had a rare collection of talent and embraced the challenge.
“I kind of knew (when they were in) eighth grade,” Slater said. “Now, I didn’t know it was going to be this special, but when you’re in a small school, you kind of get to see all of the kids all year round. It’s unique to see this class. We didn’t know what they were going to develop into, but we saw the potential.”
Rye Neck has a handful of offensive players who will play at the next level, with UMass-bound shortstop Chris Cascione being the most high profile, but the key to their success this season has been pitching.
Most coaches hope to have one or two quality starting pitchers, but the Panthers have five of them. It’s a collection of arms that even the best large school teams in the state envy.
“Our pitching has carried us all year,” right-hander Chris Pennell said. “We’ve been in numerous close games. Our bats aren’t always there, but our pitching and defense is amazing. We take so many reps in practice, and we have five collegiate starters.”
Slater has frequently used all five, but his No. 1 for the past two seasons has been Aquino.
Despite playing with strained tendons in his left foot, the hard-throwing right-hander threw a three-hitter in the regional semis against Spackenkill after tossing a five-hitter against North Salem in the section championship game.
“He’s been a go-to guy over the past two or three years,” Slater said. “His biggest attribute is his fastball, but he also doesn’t walk anybody. He’s going to have games where he doesn’t have his best fastball and might give up a few hits, but he’s never going to put guys on base with walks.”
Another tall righty who can bring some heat, Spedafino has arguably been the Panthers’ most improved pitcher this season, but Pennell, Matt Franks and Matt Garcia have all pitched in high leverage situations.
“It’s been a combination of things,” Slater said when explaining how Spedafino has emerged as his No. 2. “He’s made a huge jump. He’s one of the guys who has gotten bigger and stronger, and it’s shown on the mound. … But also, having that set infield (with Franks at first base, Pennell at second and Garcia at third) has really been beneficial.”
With Aquino and Spedafino starting all but one of Rye Neck’s six playoff games, the team has allowed a stunningly low total of two runs in the postseason, holding opponents to an average of 0.33 runs per game.
That’s been huge for the Panthers, who have only averaged three runs of their own per game over that span.
“We’ve done it somewhat inconsistently throughout the year, but consistency depends on the pitcher that you’re facing,” Slater said of his lineup. “Obviously, as we get deeper into the playoffs, we’re facing some very good pitching.”
Rye Neck has shown some signs of life in the past few games. Aquino hit a bomb that cleared the fence by 50 feet in the regional final against Mattituck, while No. 3 hitter Thomas Pipolo had two hits, including a long RBI double.
In many ways, Cascione at the top of the order and Pipolo in the middle are the catalysts.
“They’re definitely our leaders,” Slater said. “They play a lot in the summer time, and their experience and composure helps out a lot. We feed off of that.”
If there is any point where having exclusively seniors in your starting lineup could be beneficial, this is it.
The lights will be bright and the pressure will be amped up for the Panthers this weekend, but this even-keeled group has been together for a long time and know they are on the verge of something special.
“I think the year experience that we had last year, combined with losing (in the 2013 section final), made us that much more focused this year,” Slater said. “I had emphasized that we would have a target on our backs and to expect to see every team’s ace pitching. I think all of that helped maturity-wise.”
Photos by John Meore/The Journal News