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VHS Baseball Team Off To A Quality 6-1 Start
Two weeks into the high school baseball season, Verona head coach Joe Phelan couldn’t be more pleased with the start his team has had this spring.
Coming off Saturday’s 11-1 victory over Sussex Tech in a non-conference game at Doc Goeltz field, the Hillbillies are 6-1 overall and 4-0 in the Super Essex Conference (SEC) Liberty Division. The team is averaging more than nine runs per game, and the pitching staff has allowed more than three runs in only two of those contests.
In addition, the Hillbillies have impressive conference victories over Newark Academy (11-3 on April 7) and a 3-0 shutout of Caldwell (April 9). Verona takes on undefeated Cedar Grove (4-0) in an early-season battle for first place in the Liberty Division at 4 p.m. Wednesday at home.
Phelan, the former JV coach who succeeded long-time Verona Coach Lou Racioppe in the off-season, attributed the team’s early success to basic baseball fundamentals: quality at bats and sound pitching.
“The pitchers are throwing strikes, and we stress that,” he said following Saturday’s victory. And, at the plate, the Verona hitters are more focused on situational hitting and having the kind of quality at bats that don’t always show up in the stat sheet. “That has been the big difference in our offense this year,” he explained, noting that there are eight different ways a player can achieve a “quality at bat” in his system.
“We have a whole criteria of what constitutes a quality at bat,” he explained. “You can make an out, but move a runner up, or you can hit a sacrifice fly and you are rewarded for that. You can ground out, and still score a run. That counts against your average, but we’re counting it as a quality at bat. “
Base hits, of course, are still a significant part of the game, and the Hillbillies have been getting their share of those, as well. Senior shortstop Matt Rubins (one of 10 seniors on the team) is leading the way at the plate, with a team-leading 10 hits (10 for 21, .476 batting average) and 13 runs scored. Senior first baseman Luke Weiss is hitting .375 (6 for 16 at the plate) with six RBIs, and senior outfielder Dylan Oranges also has come up big in RBI situations, Phelan said on Saturday. “Even with two outs, we’ve been getting some big, big hits. Paul Scully did it today with a big two-out double (against Sussex Tech).”
The pitching also has come up big for Verona this spring, with senior right-hander Max Vasile tossing a three-hit shutout against Caldwell and also recording a victory against Montclair Kimberley Academy in a division game. Vasile, who is in his third season on the mound for the Hillbillies, has a team-leading 0.58 earned-run average this spring.
“Max probably pitched the best game of his career [against Caldwell],” Phelan said.
Junior righty Mike Cifaretto picked up the victory against Newark Academy with eight K’s, and freshman Colin Kiernan pitched six strong innings against Glen Ridge in a game that was tied 1-1 until Verona broke it open with a five-run fifth inning. “Even though he’s a freshman, he was poised,” Phelan noted. “All day long, he pitched ahead in the count.”
Junior right-hander Chris Bujnowski also stayed ahead in the count on Saturday morning when he earned the victory against Sussex Tech with a 13-strikeout performance over six innings. “What I keep telling the pitchers is get ahead of the batters, and that’s what they’ve been doing,” the coach said.
The victory over MKA was particularly pleasing to Phelan, since it demonstrated both the resiliency of this year’s team and its ability to scratch out runs with good fundamental baseball. After seeing MKA rally to tie the contest at 3-3 in the top of the fifth inning, Verona rallied for two runs in the bottom half of the inning with some clutch bunts by senior outfielder Matt McKeown and senior infielder/pitcher Michael Coppola (a right-hander who earned the season-opening win over Science Park).
Still, getting the “W’s” against Caldwell and Newark Academy, two teams considered to be the favorites in the division race at the start of the month, has raised the team’s confidence level and bodes well for what lies ahead. “To get wins against them was really big for our kids,” Phelan said. “It was a big shot of confidence for us.”
Another key factor in the team’s fast start, Phelan said, is the willingness of the players to spend extra time at the end of practice working on their skills. “We call the last 15 or 20 minutes of practice ‘stay late’,” he said. “This stay-late portion of practice is for everybody and I give the guys the opportunity to do what it is they need to do [to correct] what is hurting their game. This has helped us get over the humps a little quicker.”As they say in baseball, there’s still a lot of ballgame to play for the 2014 Hillbillies, but Phelan is certainly happy with the way things are going right now. “We have to forget about what happened [yesterday],” he said, “and we get back to practice and work on the things that each guy needs to work on.”
The high-scoring Verona offense is led, at the top of the batting order, by returning senior starters Tommy DeNicola (center field) and James Hill (second base), but key contributions to run production have come from all nine players in any given day’s lineup this spring. Mike Coppola returns as a starter at third base and he played first base Saturday while Luke Weiss was on a college visit. Senior P.J. Lombardi returns as the starting catcher, while senior outfielders Dylan Oranges, Paul Scully and Matt McKeown and junior Mario Catania all have had playing time in the corner outfield spots. In addition to pitching, junior Mike Cifaretto has played some third base and stepped up in key spots in the designated hitter role.
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