On baseball team, underclassmen are stepping up to the plate

Norwich Baseball opened its season over spring break in Vero Beach, Fla., with aspirations of improving from last year’s Cinderella run to the GNAC (Great Northeast Athletic Conference) playoffs, for the first time since 2010.

Last season marked a huge step in the right direction for the Cadets, as the previous two seasons (2011 and 2012) combined for a mere 6 wins. In the 2013 season, the Cadets finished with an overall record of 9-20, and a conference record of 7-9.

Strong senior leadership from players like Dustin Shimkus and a strong freshman class are two major reasons why the Cadets had an improved performance last season.

However, the largest reason many cite for the increased success was the addition of former Northfield High School coach Frank Pecora.

Pecora came on as an assistant coach last season, bringing his own brand of “small-ball” offense to the Cadets. Most importantly, Pecora has brought a scrappy mentality that inspired the team to compete and win.

Pecora spent 38 years as head coach at Northfield High, winning almost 500 games and 15 Vermont state championships.

Going into the 2014 campaign, the consensus around the team is that the Cadet’s best opportunity to compete is through the pitching staff.

This season holds significant promise, as a total of 14 freshmen are a part of the team, along with core players in sophomores Cody Lindell at catcher, pitcher Jacob Muetterties, and local pitcher/first baseman, Billy Whaley. All three, as well as others, made significant contributions their freshman year, and with an entire season under their belts, look to improve.

Head coach John Rhoades, who is heading into his 8th season at the helm of the program, is confident in this year’s staff, including the sophomore class that contributed greatly to last season’s on-the-field success. “We have a lot depth this year. That’s something we haven’t had in the past. Our trip to Florida showed us what Jake Muetterties, Brian Whaley, and Billy Whaley can do. They are all a year older, and they know what to expect.”

The Cadets certainly showed improvement over spring training, as the competed in all six games, winning two. This is something that has not happened in previous years.

“Our starting pitching is the biggest difference between this year and last year. An entire season of experience for our young guys will make a huge impact on our season,” added Rhoades.

Another reason for an optimistic outlook on the 2014 season is the Cadets’ depth, as 19-year-old starting catcher Cody Lindell remarked. “All around our team is a lot stronger. Our rotation is really deep and a lot of the guys [Whaley, Muetterties] that pitched a lot last year are back. Younger guys are stepping up, older guys are continuing on our new system. I’m excited. I expect bigger things,” he said.

One of those “young guys” is freshman center fielder, LaShawn Thomas, who has seen significant time in only his first season. Playing in all 7 games so far this season, Thomas batted a respectable .263 batting in two runs, and accounting for three runs scored. However Thomas brings speed as his most valuable asset to the table, as he has already stolen two bases.

“I just want to come in and push everyone to be better and help our team achieve our goals,” remarked Thomas.

Thomas happens to agree with his teammates in saying, “Our senior leadership, positive attitude, and most importantly our depth, is definitely the strength of our team this year. We have really solid captains this year that push us in practice. We may not have had the outcome we wanted [over spring break] but it was a positive trip.”

Senior co-captain and outfielder Nick Gendron, from Alstead, N.H., is also confident about the Cadets’ odds this season. “Our goal for this season is to at least get a home playoff game. Our pitching and defense have been really solid. Our underclassmen are really strong and we have plenty of depth.”

The Athletic Department has stepped up as well. The team got brand new uniforms last year, as well as improvements to the field including a new scoreboard, refurbished dugouts and an improved bullpen for 2014.

The team had a respectable spring training trip that included a win over a Penn State branch campus team. The Cadets also played Johnson and Wales on March 30, one of the top teams in the GNAC.

Brandon Place, a junior pitcher from Concord, N.H., pitched a gem for the Cadets, allowing only five hits in an impressive eight innings on the mound.

It took an outstanding walk-off bunt single in the 11th inning for JWU to put the Cadets away, as Norwich lost a heartbreaker 1-0.

Gendron saw the game as a positive, saying, “They are one of the best teams in the conference. If you would have told me my first year that we would lose to them 1-0 in 11 innings, I would have laughed in your face. Our team has come a long way.”

“That loss really hurts,” added Lindell.

As much as the players account for wins on the field, they consistently credit the coaching staff. “Coach Pecora and [assistant coach] Ryan have honestly forgot more about baseball than most players ever learn. They bring an energy to our team that is such a valuable asset,” remarked Gendron.

One downside to this season is potential scheduling issues, as prolonged winter has really hindered the field being ready.

The Cadets first home game is scheduled for April 10th against Castleton State, but that will likely be rescheduled.

All in all, Norwich fields a grittier, more experienced and an overall more talented baseball team this season. Lindell is confident in saying, ”I feel like double-digit wins is such and attainable goal. We were one win away from that last year and I like our chances.”

Gendron agrees. “Its our goal to have a winning record and get a respectable playoff seed. A good seed, such as a number four or three, is not only realistic but it would give us a home playoff game. That would be the next step for our program.”

Due to the prolonged winter conditions at Norwich, a home game will likely not be within the next week or two due to the field still being covered in ice. Realistically, the Cadets next game will be when they visit Rivier College in Nashua, New Hampshire for a double-header on April 13. The Cadets spilt with Rivier last season and look to build upon recent successes in an important conference matchup.

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