After starting last season 0-5, the Spencer-Van Etten varsity baseball team finished with a record of 7-11. The second half turn around, however, was too little too late, as the Panthers failed to make the Section IV Class C tournaments.
This season, head coach Jeremy Kastenhuber hopes his squad gets a better start out of the gate. It will be a tall task considering the second year head coach said goodbye to seven seniors last spring, including his best pitcher, Jesse Tillotson, and his starting shortstop, Tyler Hodges.
“We lost a lot,” Kastenhuber admitted. “We’re starting over with a couple guys coming back – three returners. One of them is a senior with two years of varsity experience and the other two are juniors. Realistically, I just want these guys to improve every day. I think we can make sectionals – that’s our goal. I want to teach these guys how to compete, how to carry themselves. It’s all about preparing them for what’s next: everything is a competition once you leave high school.”
There is, however, excitement over the new faces at the varsity level.
“They won a lot of games at junior varsity last year,” Kastenhuber said, “so there’s some reason to be optimistic about what they bring to the table. They hit the ball pretty well; some of these new faces had very high batting averages. Some of them have been playing for a long time and this is kind of their thing. Zach Sherwood, a tenth grader, is going to catch and pitch for me. I expect a lot out of him. He’ll probably hit in our top four. So, not to throw him in the fire, but things like that are going to have to happen this year.”
“Our pitching is young, but has potential,” he continued. “Alex Root is probably hands down my ace, and then from there we’ll rely on some young arms developing as the season plays out. Several guys are going to have to throw some innings for us and do a good job.”
Root, Kastenhuber’s only senior with varsity experience this year, is the team’s new ace and will also man third base. He has high hopes for his younger peers.
“Really, I just think we need to work hard,” Root said. “Even though we lost some seniors, I just think we need to pick up where we left off and come to practice every day, work hard and get better. I expect to pitch well, personally, and not make a lot of errors and just help this team to the best of my ability. I always looked up to Jesse. I thought he was a great player. I want to fill his shoes. Having a good ace means so much to a team. He was our ace last year. I want to be that guy this season.”
“I think our team chemistry is pretty good, actually,” Root continued. “We argue about stupid things here and there just like anyone else. But at the end of the day, I think we’re better than we were last year with that stuff. We’ve learned to pick each other up and help each other win.”
Kastenhuber said the early goings of practice has been upbeat, and he is comfortable with the culture being built.
“They are great kids to be around,” he said. “They work hard. It’s nice when you come to practice and know what you’re going to get. A couple of times we had to remind them why they’re here, but I think they’re doing a really solid job. But it’s a good bunch. I don’t have to worry about any off-field issues, or performance in the classroom. We can just focus on baseball.”
“Our outfield is probably the biggest wild card,” he added. “If our outfield keeps the ball in front of them, and hinge the gaps so to speak and keep people from taking extra bases on the base paths – we can’t let singles become doubles and doubles become triples. If we can do that, we can exceed expectations. But again, the outfield has no varsity experience to speak of, so it’s going to be a tall task, especially early on. But if we can get that figured out sooner rather than later, we can have a lot of fun.”
In addition to Root, juniors Anthony Chiusano and Nikolai Klimekoski are expected to step into leadership roles, as both have experience at the varsity level.
“We have to put the work in,” Chiusano said. “I expect us to win. I know that’s what everyone says, but I think if we put in the time and effort, we can get it done. Our chemistry is good. We’re all good friends in school and pretty close. I think because we’re a young team, some other teams will think we don’t have the experience, but I think we’re coming together and catch some people by surprise.
Added Klimekoski: “I think the goal is to make a run in sectionals. I think the talent is here. We have a lot of young guys coming up. I think we can do it. I’m excited about our hitting. We have a lot of good contact hitters and should be able to consistently put guys on the bases and score some runs – I’m excited about that.”
Another name to watch out for is Brandon White, Kastenhuber said.
“The biggest surprise to me, earlier on, is the development of Brandon White,” he said. “He played for me as a freshman two years ago when I was the junior varsity coach. Last year he stayed down at junior varsity. I probably could of brought him up last year, but I didn’t. He’s only gotten stronger. He’s a junior now, and he’s going to be a huge contributor for us. He’ll play second base and will also mix it up at shortstop from time to time. He’ll have to be versatile for us in the infield.”
As for those who have graduated, Kastenhuber noted the success Tillotson is having around the corner, as he is now pitching for Tompkins Cortland County College (TC3). He knows it’s an example some of his current players want to follow.
“Success kind of breeds success,” he said. “That’s what we’re hoping for. Jesse will do a good job up there. I’ve had the pleasure to see a lot of guys take that next step. These guys know that. They aspire to that. I know there’s at least two or three guys on this team that would love to play college baseball, so we’ll do everything we can to help them achieve that goal.”