One day before the American Legion season was scheduled to start, New England Frozen Lemonade/Shields Post 43 manager Dave McGuirl still hadn’t had his whole team together for a practice. So when the Pilgrim baseball team finished out its season with a playoff loss on June 8, many of the Pats kept their spikes on and stayed on the field for a NEFL practice. They didn’t seem to mind.
It wasn’t ideal, but it was the best opportunity to get some reps for returning players whose seasons hadn’t gone so late.
It was also a sign.
NEFL is ready for the summer.
With a big group of returning players, the summer will be like a reunion. Throw in a big influx of talent, and it could shape up as a very good summer, too.
“We’ve got a good team,” said manager Dave McGuirl. “My expectation is to contend for a state championship. We’ve got the talent and we’ve got great chemistry. There are a lot of quality kids on this team and they’ve been playing together for a long time.”
NEFL, the 2010 state champion, is coming off its first season as the combined NEFL/Shields program. The team had good results last year, advancing deep into the playoffs before a loss to Cumberland Post 14 in the double-elimination portion of the state tournament.
NEFL could be in line for even better results this year. Veterans Dylan Cummiskey, Don McGuirl and Nick Savage exhausted their eligibility last year, but nearly everybody else is back.
The list of returning players includes five post-grads – 2011 Pilgrim grads Zach Blanchard, Teddy Dwyer and Kyle Fitzsimmons, 2011 Toll Gate grad Mike Giard and former Cranston East standout Rob Reardon.
Dwyer and Blanchard are serving as captains and manning the left side of the infield. Dwyer, a third baseman, played at Roger Williams this spring. Blanchard, a former All-State shortstop at Pilgrim, plays for Worcester Polytechnic Institute.
“They’re my captains and they’re both great kids,” McGuirl said. “They really set the tone for us.”
NEFL also has a host of high school players back in the fold, including Pilgrim’s Branden Hoxsie, Nick McGuirl and Colin Douglas, Toll Gate’s Colin Stamps and Vets’ T.J. Boyajian.
For many of the returning players, there isn’t just one summer of experience to lean on when it comes to team chemistry.
“Most of these kids came up through Warwick National together,” Dave McGuirl said. “I coached a lot of them, pretty much since Little League all stars. They really know each other well and they get along great. They’re great kids.”
But for NEFL, the 2012 season won’t be all about the returning players.
They’ll have some help.
Last year’s pitching staff wasn’t overly deep, but this year’s group will get a major boost from three pitchers who were impressive all spring. Recent Vets grads Shane Johnson and Kevin Hickey were dominant at times during the high school season. The same could be said for Pilgrim’s Ryan Morris, who emerged as one of the top sophomore pitchers in the state.
Those three will join Hoxsie and Fitzsimmons to give NEFL a very strong rotation.
“It’s a pretty talented group,” McGuirl said. “Johnson can be dominant when he’s on, and Morris has a lot of college coaches looking at him. Hickey and Hoxsie just know how to pitch and they get the job done no matter what. And Fitzsimmons tried out for RIC and was the last cut. So he’s going to be good too.”
There’s depth on the pitching staff, too. Douglas is a lefty who should be strong out of the bullpen. Newcomers Andrew Bracken, a sophomore at St. Raphael who lives in Warwick, and Pilgrim’s Cole Furney will also get some innings.
Several newcomers will provide a boost to the lineup as well. Shawn Clayton had a strong season with Pilgrim and will split time behind the plate with another newcomer, Lee Verrier. Pilgrim’s Mike Mallozzi will join the outfield mix.
Dwyer returns at third base, Blanchard is at shortstop and Nick McGuirl is at second. There’s currently a platoon at first base, with Clayton, Douglas, Giard and Johnson all seeing time.
In the outfield, Reardon was slated for the left field job, but he injured his arm in one of NEFL’s first games this year and his status for the rest of the summer is up in the air. Hoxsie and Mallozzi are playing there in his absence.
Stamps will patrol center field and Boyajian will be in right.
McGuirl will also have help from veteran coaches Bob Evans and Bill Webb.
It all adds up to a good-looking club, and NEFL is already off to a strong start. As one of the busier teams in the league thus far, NEFL had played seven games as of Tuesday and had gone 6-1.
Boyajian, Dwyer, Giard and Nick McGuirl have been hot so far, with Boyajian hitting .500, Giard batting .462, Dwyer at .429 and McGuirl hitting .400.
On the mound, Johnson dazzled on Saturday in Newport, striking out 11 in a one-hitter against R&R Construction. Hickey is off to a strong start as well, with a 2-0 record and a 1.50 ERA.
“I like the team a lot,” McGuirl said. “We’ve got a lot more pitching depth and I think we’ll hit the ball well. It’s just a great group. Never mind wins and losses. I love coaching them.”
NEFL returns to action Friday at Vets against Collette Vacations Post 79. On Saturday, NEFL will host a doubleheader with Providence Post 56 beginning at 10 a.m.