In 2008, Gershkoff Auto Body/Auburn Post 20 had a deep, experienced team that included several college players and a Major League Draft pick. That team won the state title and came close to winning the regional tournament.
The next year, despite having a young team full of up and coming players, Gershkoff delivered a successful season and almost won the state championship again.
With the 2012 season set to begin, Gershkoff wouldn’t mind if history repeated itself.
Last year’s Gershkoff team looked a lot like that 2008 club. College players like Steve Beneduce and Anthony Pagano led the way, with veterans like Mike Hayden and Major League draft pick Jeff Diehl shouldering a big load, too. Gershkoff won the state title and played at regionals.
A younger team will take the field this year, and they need only look at 2009 to know that success is still possible.
“This reminds me of the team we had several years back,” said manager Dave Schiappa. “We lost a lot of talent from the year before but we came back and almost won it. So you just never know.”
How the team jells remains to be seen. At this point, all Schiappa knows is that his team doesn’t have a ton of experience. Gershkoff lost eight players from last year’s club, many of whom were mainstays. Diehl signed with the New York Mets, while Beneduce, Pagano and Hayden are now in the midst of college baseball careers. Key veterans like Jake Ciolfi, Conor Fahey and Rob Madonna are also gone.
As always, though, Gershkoff’s cupboard is far from bare.
Eight players return, with post-grads Travis Collins, Matt Pagano, John Razzino and Brandon Ruggieri leading the way. Collins played at Rhode Island College this season, while Pagano spent the year at Bridgton Academy and has committed to play baseball at Marist College. Razzino, a former East standout, played at CCRI this spring. Ruggieri, a 2011 graduate of La Salle, also returns after a solid summer last year.
“We lost a lot of good players, so our veterans are going to have to step up,” Schiappa said. “You look at guys like Pagano and Razzino and they don’t lose. They’ve already shown they can be strong leaders.”
The other returnees are 2012 East graduates Bobby D’Arezzo and Kyle Tracy, 2012 West grad Rich Reo and 2012 Moses Brown graduate Tony Mattiello.
Newcomers include Garrett Demers, Joe Nicolace, Rob DeCosta, Sean Hayden and Ryan Long of Cranston West and Stephen Bucci, Josmar Ventura, Ivan Reyes, Brandan Budlong and Taylor Pacific of East.
Most of those newcomers won a state championship with Cranston’s junior legion team last summer, so they’re no strangers to success.
It’ll just take some time for this team to find itself.
“I think it’s going to take a couple of weeks, especially with the offense,” Schiappa said. “Some of these guys struggled with the new bats in high school and now they’re going to wood. It’s definitely going to take some time.”
Collins and Demers are both in the mix behind the plate, while Nicolace and D’Arezzo can play first when they’re not pitching. Ruggieri and Bucci are in line for time at second base, Mattiello and Ventura are competing for the third base job, and DeCosta and Reyes are at shortstop. Most of those players can play other infield positions, as well, giving Gershkoff a lot of versatility. Razzino, Pagano and Hayden will see most of the time in the outfield.
The pitching staff should be deep. Tracy, D’Arezzo and Reo had good campaigns with Gershkoff last summer, and they return to lead the starting rotation. Budlong, Long and Pacific are coming off of good springs.
On top of those top pitchers, Gershkoff has at least seven other players who have some amount of experience on the mound.
“Thirteen of 18 guys can throw,” Schiappa said. “That’s going to be a strength for us.”
And Gershkoff will need to be strong as the schedule continues to get tougher. In 2009, there were 21 teams in the league. That dropped to 19 in 2010, and the consolidation trend really took off last summer when several communities combined teams and brought the total to 16. Two more teams – powerhouse Cumberland Post 14 and Upper Deck of Cumberland – combined for this season, bringing the number to 15.
There are now three divisions of five teams. Each team will play the others in its division three times, while playing one crossover against all the teams outside its division. That makes for a challenging 22-game slate.
“The league is a little different this year,” Schiappa said. “It’s going to be interesting.”
Gershkoff will also host a tournament from June 28 through July 1, which will include some of the top teams from around the region. The team will then test itself out-of-state, as it heads to Colorado and Wyoming.
With the stage set, Gershkoff is just hoping for another good summer.
“We’re expected to win and play well,” Schiappa said. “We always have. That motivates the team to work hard and do well. Our goals are always the same. We want to go a little further than we did last year.”