One of the best offensive teams in the state last year, the Pilgrim baseball team always seemed to be able to rely on its ability to score runs when the going got tough.
That likely won’t be the case this year, but the Pats are hoping that even with a slightly different recipe, they can still find similar success.
Gone from the lineup of last season’s 11-7 team is All-State shortstop Zach Blanchard and a number of other important players, and in their place are a few familiar faces and some talented newcomers hoping to pick up the slack.
But realistically, it’s the pitching and defense that will dictate just how far Pilgrim can go.
“We’re just trying to get in the playoffs,” Pilgrim head coach Ed Colvin said. “That’s the thing. We need to develop our No. 3 pitcher, and if we get some infield defense we could be a pretty good team. If our pitchers fail to throw strikes, then we could struggle too.”
Last season’s team advanced to the postseason, where it defeated La Salle before being eliminated after losses to North Kingstown and East Providence.
Getting back to that point won’t be easy, but there are a few standouts that should make the task a little more attainable.
It starts on the mound, where Branden Hoxsie, the team’s ace from last year, is back for his senior season. Hoxsie is also one of the team’s top hitters.
“He’s not overpowering, but he knows how to pitch,” Colvin said. “He’s a tough kid. He goes out there and does what he has to do.”
And right behind Hoxsie is another impact player in sophomore left-hander Ryan Morris.
Morris, who was a contributor on the varsity team as a freshman last year, figures to make a sizeable jump this year and help solidify the front end of Pilgrim’s rotation.
“He looks very, very good,” Colvin said. “He gained some velocity from last year.”
Colvin hasn’t decided on a third starter just yet, but there are certainly some viable candidates. Senior Colin Douglas is in the mix after pitching out of the bullpen a year ago, as is junior Luke Verrier.
Sophomore Stephen Noti is also a candidate, despite not playing baseball a season ago. Junior Austin Lemire and Billy Chase should help shore up the bullpen.
“We’ve got some talent there,” Colvin said.
Defensively, Pilgrim is tasked with replacing last year’s entire infield unit.
It won’t be easy.
To go with replacing Blanchard – who played shortstop – the Pats are also trying to fill in for first baseman Andrew Marks, second baseman Brandon Greenburg and third baseman Thomas Dwyer.
“The key for us is going to be our infield defense, because we lost our whole infield,” Colvin said. “Blanchard being All-State, and Dwyer was a great player. The kid Greenburg was an average hitter, but he was one of the best defensive second basemen I’ve ever had.”
Pilgrim does have some pretty good options, though.
Slotted to play second base is senior Nick McGuirl, who was the team’s starting right fielder a season ago. He also figures to be a crucial middle of the order presence.
“He’s probably one of the returning leading hitters in the state,” Colvin said. “He’s been crushing the ball.”
At shortstop, senior Shawn Clayton is moving from his left field spot last year to replace the departed Blanchard.
When he was a member of the junior varsity team, Clayton did play some shortstop, giving Colvin some precedent for the move.
“We like what we see,” Colvin said. “It’s tough being in a scenario and stepping in at shortstop, but I think he’ll do some decent work for us.”
At third base, senior Kevin Conway and junior Kyle Perry are battling it out for the job, while the first base position is still up in the air as well. Verrier, Douglas and Morris could all see time there when they aren’t pitching.
Behind the plate will be senior Lee Verrier. Verrier, the starting quarterback on the football team, is primed to play a major role offensively.
“He’s been there on and off the last couple years,” Colvin said. “I think he’s going to have a big year for us. He’s got the talent for it, and he’s focused this year. I think he’s going to have a big year.”
The outfield defense should be strong, with above-average speed at all three positions. Leading the way is senior center fielder Mike Mallozzi, who started in the same spot last year.
The No. 9 hitter in the lineup a year ago, Mallozzi could hit leadoff this season.
“He’s very good defensively,” Colvin said. “We hope to get a little more out of his stick this year. Very fast. He’s a threat to steal every time he gets on.”
In right, junior Cole Furney is the current front-runner for the job, while senior Cody Weaver and junior Mark Lenz are handling the duties in left.
The speed in the outfield should also pave the way for Pilgrim to play a little bit of a different offensive game than in the past.
“We’re going to play a little bit of small ball,” Colvin said. “Mallozzi, Furney, Lenz, those guys are three of the fastest guys I’ve ever had.”
That isn’t to say that Pilgrim won’t be able to put up some runs, as McGuirl, Hoxsie and Clayton are all legitimate weapons. But the graduation of so many key players, coupled with the change from metal bats to the BBCOR standard – which is expected to bring about a significant decrease in offense – means the days of double-digit runs on a regular basis are over.
“McGuirl and Hoxsie and Clayton, they’re very good hitters but they’re more line drive guys than pure power guys,” Colvin said. “Couple that with the new bats, and offensively, we’re definitely going to be a different offensive team.”
So Pilgrim will simply try to get it done a different way.
“We’ve got so many guys in new positions it’s hard to know what to expect,” Colvin said. “I think we have some talent. And we have two very good pitchers.”
The Pats first game is Monday at home against Cranston East at 3:45 p.m.