In each of the last two American Legion seasons, New England Frozen Lemonade/Shields Post 43 has hit the ground running. The Warwick club won eight of its first nine games in 2011 and raced to a 14-1 start last season.
The start may not be quite as fast this year. NEFL has its usual stable of returning players, but there are some new faces too, and the team isn’t quite the finished product that it’s been in past years.
When all is said and done, though, NEFL expects to be near the top of the standings again.
“I do think this team is going to peak a little bit later than we have the past couple of years,” said manager Dave McGuirl. “We have a lot of guys who are unfamiliar with me, unfamiliar with each other. We’ve got some guys who haven’t played Senior Legion. The first few weeks, we’re going to be learning, but I think we’ll be right there pretty soon.”
It’ll be a familiar spot. The joining of the NEFL club and Shields Post 43 into one team, which happened in 2010, has further cemented Warwick’s spot as a legion powerhouse. Shields had won six of 11 state titles from 1999 to 2009, and NEFL/Shields won the 2010 championship. The last two years, the team has been among the top contenders for the crown.
Last season ended in disappointment as NEFL was upset in its first game of the eight-team, double-elimination portion of the state playoffs. The team bounced back to win three straight games before falling to eventual champion Navigant Credit Union in the loser’s bracket final.
This year’s team fully expects to be back in the mix.
“We’re usually in contention,” McGuirl said. “I expect us to do just as well as we did last year.”
One of the reasons for NEFL’s success has been the passing of the torch from veterans to young players, and on down the line year after year. The tradition of success can be traced all the way back to Shields’ last two championships.
A nucleus of returning players is ready to take over leadership roles this season. Branden Hoxsie, Nick McGuirl, Shawn Clayton, Mike Mallozzi and Shane Johnson all return as post-graduates, while high-school players T.J. Boyajian, Cole Furney and Andrew Bracken are also back in the fold.
“It’s only going to help to have those guys,” Dave McGuirl said. “A lot of them, I’ve coached since they were 8 or 9 years old. They know me and I know them. Hopefully the younger guys follow their lead. They all want to win and they all really compete.”
NEFL will also welcome in a talented crop of newcomers, including Toll Gate standouts Ben Mann, Zach Bacon, Ryan Charette and James Meizoso, Pilgrim’s Steve Noti and Mark Lenz, Vets’ Danny Greaves and Hendricken’s Ryan Rotondo.
“It’s a good group,” McGuirl said. “We’ve got a pretty good mix of older returning players and some new guys who should do pretty well.”
Clayton and Mann will both play behind the plate for NEFL. Clayton is a former Pilgrim standout, while Mann had a solid senior season for Toll Gate this year.
At first base, Greaves and Johnson will likely split time. Rotondo, Bacon and Furney will be in the mix at second base, while Nick McGuirl will get a shot to take over for his brother, Don, at shortstop. Mann can also play shortstop, along with Furney.
Clayton, Mann and Furney will be battling for the third base job.
“The infield is all up in the air,” Dave McGuirl said. “We’re just going to see where everybody fits best and it’ll work itself out.”
The outfield is more settled, with Mallozzi returning to center field and Boyajian in right. Hoxsie, Lenz and Meizoso are in the left field mix.
The team’s biggest strength should once again be pitching. Charette is coming off a big senior season with Toll Gate, while Noti held his own in his junior year with the Pats. Bracken, a Warwick resident, saw a lot of innings for St. Raphael.
Johnson, a star for Vets last season, was used as a closer with the CCRI baseball team this spring and will slot into a similar role for NEFL. Hoxsie, a former Pilgrim standout, plays at Salve Regina and saw some innings this season.
“Those guys have done a lot for us the past few years,” McGuirl said. “They didn’t throw as many innings this year so their arms aren’t in shape for starting right now. So we’ll use them in relief.”
NEFL also has some depth beyond its main arms. Meizoso pitched well as a sophomore for Toll Gate this year, and Greaves was the ace of the Vets staff.
“I really like the pitching depth,” McGuirl said.
If all the puzzle pieces fit together like McGuirl hopes, it should be another good summer.
“I think we’ll be in good shape,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of pitching. We’ve just got to find a way to score runs. We should be alright.”
NEFL was slated to open the regular season on Wednesday against R&R Construction, with results unavailable at press time. They’ll play in a tournament in Connecticut this weekend before two league games next week.