By MICHAEL LETENDRE
BRISTOL – The Bristol Central baseball squad might look a little younger than usual but that’s not a problem at all for the program.
With a boatload of veterans also returning to the mix, don’t expect any kind of drop-off from last season as this hungry group is looking to make some noise in CCC South encounters.
Head coach Bunty Ray might not have a premier starting pitcher in this group but he’ll have plenty of arms to choose from and opponents must be wary of that possibility.
The Rams should be better than a .500 outfit and here’s a look at Bristol Central baseball in 2017:
Head Coach: Bunty Ray (11th year)
Overall Record: 161-58
Last season’s Ledger: 11-9 regular season, 12-10 overall, 4-4 CCC South (third place)
2016 Tournament: The Rams, ranked 20th in Class LL play, upset No. 13 Greenwich 3-0 in round one before falling to No. 4 New Milford by a 4-0 final on the doorstep of the quarterfinals.
All Conference Performers from 2016: Jordan Banks & Noah Plantamuro
Strengths: Pitching and defense, speed
Weakness: Offensive production
Key Losses: Jaeden Rasmus (SS/P); Jalen Benoit (OF/P); Brad Burney (P/OF); Nick Sassu (C); Matt Heffernan (2B); Noah Cruz (3B/P); Jordan Banks (1B)
Players to watch: Noah Plantamuro (jr., SS/P), Jeremy Ganavage (sr., C), Jacob Santiago (fr., C), Eric Gaudreau (sr., INF), Brock Clark (sr., INF/P), Jaylen Dias (so., INF), Kevin White (sr., INF/P), Dathan Hickey (jr., OF), Mike Lemke (sr., OF), Alec DiLoretto (so., OF/P), Kenny Knox (sr. OF/P), Alex Balfour (jr., P), Josh Bodley (sr.), Stephen Warkoski (jr.), Rich Santana (jr.).
What to Expect from Central: Opponents might see a lack of star power from the Bristol Central baseball squad but the group is a very balanced outfit with athletes of various skill levels and abilities.
And if this group can gel quickly and put everything together, this team will be a tough CCC South Blue Division competitor throughout the season.
“I’ve got a mix of veterans and some really young kids that are first time varsity players,” said Ray. “Some kids were able to get some experience in limited roles last year. I’m kind of cautiously optimistic but we have some talent. They just have to get used to the pace of play. But I like what I see so far.”
“They’re hard working and very coachable, buying into team concepts and understanding baseball is a game of failure and responding to every situation.”
One of the leaders of this group will be third year shortstop standout Noah Plantamuro (.242 average in 2016, 16 hits, 14 RBI, seven runs scored), an excellent defensive stopper and Ray’s sole 2016 CCC South All Conference player back in the fold.
If his bat can catch up to the defense he brings to each game, Plantamuro has a chance to be one of the most complete players in the league.
“He’s already shown, even in the preseason scrimmages, that he’s everything I thought he’d be two years ago,” said Ray of his shortstop. “You don’t grow a kid as a freshman and not expect by his junior year to be special and he’s definitely special. He’s a two-out shortstop right now. He plays with a lot of swagger.”
“It’s nice to have a guy in the center of your defense that can help younger players out, that you can count on to make plays, and count on to communicate. I think that was what was missing early on but you’re going to see that this year where he’s going to be really able to help out other players.”
Defense has always been the squad’s calling card and in the outfield, the Rams have several speedsters that can and will track down everything hit to them.
Dathan Hickey (.203, 12 hits, five stolen bases) will get the nod in centerfield and will be joined by several other athletes including sophomore Alec DiLoretto, senior Mike Lemke and the versatile Kenny Knox.
“Dathan is a tremendous athlete,” said Ray. “We have some other guys like Kenny Knox. The kid I expect to do a lot is Alec DiLoretto. He’s going to pitch but he’s also going to be an outfielder for us. I think he’s going to be one of the bigger bats in the line-up as a sophomore.”
And what the Rams baseball team will truly be about this season is extremely versatile.
When the game is on the line, expect Rams to be able to make quick changes to meet the needs of whatever offense or defense Ray wants to apply during crunch time.
“It’s just going to be a matter of mixing and matching pitching,” said Ray. “I have a lot pitchers that play positions so I think what you’re going to see out of this team is a lot of different line-ups. You’re going to see a lot of double switches. You’re going to see a lot of pitching by committee, guys moving around.”
This squad will once again hang its cap on defense but if the bats – which will hopefully start swinging early and often in 2017 – start putting runs on the board, things will balance out very quickly.
But it always starts with defense and that outfield unit can chase down every ball in sight.
“DiLoretto is very capable,” said Ray. “Dathan, last year being a starter, moving him to centerfield, I think will be more natural for him. Lemke is coming off an injury but he’s played baseball for a long time. I’m hoping that even the year off didn’t hurt him too much.”
On the pitching front, the Rams have some covering up to do as starters Brad Burney, Jaeden Rasmus, and Noah Cruz have graduated from the program but Brock Clark (1-0, 18.1 IP, 16 K’s, 0.38 ERA) just needs to stay healthy for Central and could be the top draw of the rotation.
“Block Clark is entering the season as one of our better pitchers but he has an injury right now,” said Ray. “Getting him back healthy is going to be very important if we are to be successful. He was one of our most capable pitchers last year so we have to get him healthy.”
Knox (1-0, 18.2 IP, 12 K’s, 3.00 ERA) also showed promise in a reserve role as did DiLoretto (14.2 IP, 10 K’s, three starts, 3.82 ERA) while the growth of Plantamuro and fellow junior Alex Balfour, along with senior Kevin White, will also be critical in forming the Central pitching rotation.
Getting the offense rolling is the critical element as the squad hit a combined .221 last season and that was with All-State slugger Jordan Banks (.362 average, 21 hits, 12 RBI) in the mix, now playing for Southern Vermont.
The offense must compliment what should be strong pitching by the Rams to keep up with the competitive CCC South Blue Division this year.
“Offensively, we were not very good” in 2016 said Ray. “I think we’ll be better this year. I think we’ll be able to manufacture runs. I think we’re going to make solid contact. I think this team is going to put more pressure on [opponents] than they did last year.”
“We had some talent last year that just didn’t produce offensively. I think this team has the right mindset at the plate. Because it’s just not about ability, it’s about mindset. I think they’ll have that.”
CCC South Blue Outlook: The CCC South Blue division is loaded with talent and Ray sees several contenders right from the start.
“Obviously, Coach Giovinazzo and Eastern, they’ve won the league last two years,” said Ray. “They’re the champs until someone says otherwise. Wethersfield is very good. They probably have one of the best catchers in the state and they have a host of players that are returning. They are very good.”
“They’re expected to be a top team. You’ll see them in the state rankings.”
Ray also expects New Britain and Newington to contend as well.
“New Britain has probably the best pitcher in the league,” said Ray. “I wouldn’t sleep on Newington either in terms of being able to match with athletes. It’s a balanced league as it always is.”
Big Showdowns of the season: Central/Eastern will battle it out on May 1 and May 22 but there are also several other main event showdowns around the season for the Rams.
May 5 sees Newington come to Bristol for a CCC South Blue Division war while three days later, the Rams will take on Northwest Catholic in a big CCC Interdivisional battle.
Bristol Central plays its home games from Bill McCooey at the high school.