Last season, the CCRI baseball team advanced all the way to the NJCAA Division II World Series in Enid, Oklahoma, but a couple of injuries to its pitching staff sent the team packing after just two games.
With a host of talented returners this year, Knights’ head coach Ken Hopkins set out in recruiting to make sure that if his team reached the World Series, it would be better prepared on the mound.
He wanted his pitching staff to be deeper. It’s obviously still early in the year, but so far it looks like he accomplished the goal.
“If you look at our pitching staff, that’s really our focus,” Hopkins said. “When we went out to Oklahoma last year, we came up with two arm injuries which depleted our pitching staff. We felt that in order to compete at that level – we were pretty even with our defense, with our offense – but they seemed to have deeper pitching staffs. So we went out purposely and recruited extra pitchers so that if somebody doesn’t have it, we’re ready to go, or if someone gets hurt we can throw someone else out there.”
Loaded with that strong pitching and a dynamic, 20-person freshman class, the Knights are setting their goals high. Last year was their first trip to the World Series since 1996, but they’re hoping to make a habit out of it.
They’ve got the horses to do it.
“It’s always our goal over here, to try to get to the World Series,” Hopkins said. “We want to be a national program.”
CCRI opened the season with a No. 7 national ranking, and has already played nine games. Though it is just 4-5 in those games, they’ve all been on the road and they’ve been against upper-echelon competition.
They’ve already played three games against Mercyhurst North East – the team CCRI beat for the Eastern Championship last year – and went 1-2 in those games. But the Knights lost two one-run games. They’ve also already played in Erie, Penn. and in Florida, two long trips for a team to open the season.
Hopkins likes what he sees.
“You can already see it coming together the last five games,” he said. “We tested them, too. We went up to Erie, Penn. last week. It was a 12-hour bus ride. We’re up to play for a 9 o’clock game. It was a little cold. They’ve been tested. And that’s a good sign.”
It starts with the pitching. The team’s ace is sophomore Conor Gleason, who returns after wining 10 games a year ago. He’s already pitched twice and been strong in both outings.
Gleason will pitch next year at Franklin Pierce University, but for now he’s CCRI’s No. 1 option.
“He’s our leader on the mound,” Hopkins said. “He’s a veteran. He’s going to come close to probably setting the school record for wins by the time he’s done.”
Rounding out the rotation will likely be four freshmen, who are part of what Hopkins thinks is one of the best recruiting classes in the program’s history.
Keegan Dellacona, from Hyannis, Mass., is the team’s top recruit. Standing at 6-foot-5, he’s a presence on the mound.
Then there is Dan Depippo, from Scituate, Mass. and he stands 6-foot-3. Former Warwick Vets standout Shane Johnson is also a big piece, and he threw five shutout innings in a game already this year.
The fourth freshman is Coventry’s Matt Laferierre, who stood out during the team’s trip to Florida.
“We’ve got four freshman that we think are as good as we’ve ever had,” Hopkins said. “You take those four guys and throw them with Gleason, we’ve got a five man rotation that’s as good as anybody around.”
Other starters are sophomores Max Perry, Rob West and Dylan Pingatore, who are providing a veteran presence for new crop of freshmen.
In the bullpen, Hopkins has turned to North Kingstown’s Jason Ferri, who pitched at URI last year but has since transferred in to play with the Knights. He’s the team’s closer, and has converted his opportunities up to this point.
And while the pitching is undoubtedly the team’s biggest asset, there is plenty to be excited about defensively, offensively and on the bases as well.
Sophomore right fielder Mike Sherburne, from North Kingstown, returns as one of the top players in New England. He’s already signed a letter of intent to play at URI next season and he’ll hit fifth in the lineup.
Next to him is sophomore Dylan Gracia, from Middletown, who will serve as the team’s leadoff hitter.
In left field is talented freshman Joe Yankee, a standout at Lincoln in high school. He’ll hit third for the Knights.
“Our outfield speed is as good as there is,” Hopkins said. “We’ve got four or five outfielders that are all small, they’re athletic, and they’re all running 6.5, 6.6 in the 60.”
Another important piece for the Knights is shortstop Ryan O’Dell, a URI transfer who will likely hit fourth for the team.
Joining him on the infield are sophomore second baseman Nick Coro, a Central Connecticut commit, freshman first baseman Jonathon Vasquez, who hails from Bridgeport, Conn. and stands 6-foot-5, and a combination of sophomores Andrew Crowley and Tyler Santaniello at third base. Crawley or Santaniello usually serve as the DH as well.
Behind the plate is the duo of Pat O’Keefe, a freshman from East Greenwich, and Ryan Wordell, a freshman from Little Compton.
Also on the roster are freshmen C.J. Angelo, Rob DaCosta, Marc Boutliere, Jake Tillman, Jacob Saley, Gian Abbruzzese, Chris Pistacchio, Pat O’Keefe, Kory Lawrence and Zack Wood, as well as sophomores Chris Girard, Sam Morgan and Kevin Dale.
“I think we’re still a work in progress,” Hopkins said. “There is some definite talent. There’s some ability. It’s probably one of the hardest working teams I’ve ever had, both on and off the field. They’ve done a great job in the classroom, they’ve done a great job in the weight room.”
CCRI has a big weekend coming up, as it will host Monroe College for a doubleheader on Friday, beginning at 12 p.m., and then play Monroe again on Saturday. On Sunday, the Knights will host Northern Essex for a doubleheader starting at 12 p.m.
“I’m trying to get them ready, trying to get them focused and do things the way we do them over here,” Hopkins said. “I think by the time we get towards the end I think we’ll be a tough team to beat.”
And their goal is to be playing in Oklahoma when it’s all said and done.
“I think we’ve got enough to talent to get back,” Hopkins said. “We’ll see how it goes.”