JFK baseball to feature young roster
Last season, John F. Kennedy baseball coach Zack Smith viewed his team — as he believes other followers of the sport in Western New York did as well — as the hunted. But after graduating six seniors off that squad, including Honorable Mention All-WNY all-stars Tyler Bethin and Andrew Czubaj, he concedes that the Bears are more likely to be the hunters this season.
But make no mistake: JFK is going to come out ready to give its opponents everything it has every time it steps on a diamond this season.
“After making it to the finals two years ago in the B-2 bracket, other teams knew we were good, and coaches and people around Western New York baseball certainly knew our program and some of the guys we had last year,” Smith said. “This year, we’ll be trying to prove ourselves every game, and I think the guys have embraced that underdog mentality.
“We are a very young team and don’t have the traditional experience at the varsity level that other teams will,” Smith continued. “There are a few guys on the roster who have good leadership skills, so we are taking it one day at a time and focusing on getting better every day, and waiting to see who steps up and wants to take it over.”
Leading the way among the returning players Smith and his staff will be counting on include sophomore Mark Konczal, junior Mike Nawojski and junior Justin Gerace. All three gained some experience last season, Smith said, with Nawojski and Konczal both being “guys we are counting on to eat up a lot of innings for us.” Gerace, meanwhile, is someone JFK will count on to bat in the middle of the lineup and come up with some big hits.
“They both have similar makeups,” Smith said of two of his leading pitchers. “Mark is the righty and Mike is the lefty. They are both crafty pitchers who embrace pitching to contact. And Justin worked hard in the offseason and was one of the biggest surprises for us last year down the home stretch. I believe he will take the success he had at the end of the season and grow with confidence heading into league play.”
Newcomers to the varsity level who are hoping to do well early and often for the Bears include junior Dylan Belscher and freshman Cameron Ricotta. Belscher took a year off from baseball and “is a great addition to this squad,” Smith said, while Ricotta has the skills to play just about anywhere in the field.
“Dylan has some arm talent and will get a chance to pitch this season, and if he can throw consistent strikes, I think he could really help us out,” Smith said. “Cameron, who is penciled into the starting lineup, has good speed and can be a spark plug to our offense. In general, we have a lot of flexibility with the lineup. We have a bunch of guys who can play a variety of positions, so we will be able to have some options as we go through the season.”
Smith and the Bears were able to get an early look at just what the season could potentially hold when it took on East Aurora in the annual Peter Odrobina Memorial Game on April 10, a first for the program alum after circumstances prevented it from being held last season. Smith noted that the game was a “fun way to pay tribute to the longtime JFK coach, someone who was very special to me and just a great friend,” even though the Bears came out on the wrong end of a 14-4 decision. Belscher and Ricotta each had two hits for the Bears, while sophomore Mitchell Fischer contributed two RBIs.
JFK followed that performance up two days later with a 16-2 loss to Alden, a former league foe that moved out of the division this season.
“Defensively, we are not helping our pitching staff out and walks are coming back to hurt us so far through two games,” Smith said. “We have to stay hungry and trust the process. We have a ton of youth on this team and we have to stay positive. We have to clean some things up and if we do we can turn some heads.”
JFK (0-2 overall) was slated to begin league play Wednesday at crosstown rival Cleveland Hill, but information about that contest — including whether or not the weather even allowed for it to be played — was not available at press time. The Bears are scheduled — weather permitting — to host Eden Friday and travel to Tonawanda Saturday to close out their week, and then pick right up with a stretch of five games in six days that starts at Holland Monday and ends with a doubleheader at Springville on Saturday, April 29.
“There are opportunities for guys to step up and be a big part of our program, and I think guys are hungry to be the face of JFK baseball,” Smith said. “We are trying to keep it simple and want to improve every day so that we can shock some people. If we stay focused and on point we could be right in the middle of the division race. You really never know, especially with the new pitching procedures; anything could happen. We just need to stay positive and not take anything for granted.
“For us, the big test will be defense,” Smith continued. “We need to make plays consistently, and we need to help out our pitching staff. With the new rules on pitch count and being a team with only 12 guys, we need to make the routine plays. Our pitchers need to trust their stuff and trust their teammates to make plays because walks drive up pitch counts as well. Walks and poor defense are a recipe for disaster.”