Ken Hopkins doesn’t mince words when he talks about this year’s CCRI baseball team.
“As far as talent on the field, they’re as good as any team we’ve had over there,” he said.
That’s high praise coming from the head coach who has pioneered the Knights since 2001, helping them become a fixture in the national rankings and leading them to the 2012 NJCAA Division II World Series.
But that’s how strongly Hopkins feels about the 2014 bunch, which features sophomore veterans all over the field and a bench as deep as any he can remember.
The potential is clearly there. Putting it together is the challenge in front of CCRI as it looks to get back to the World Series after a one-year hiatus. Last season, CCRI went 28-13 overall but lost in the Region XXI championship series to the University of Connecticut-Avery Point.
“Veterans that have been through it, and the depth at every position,” Hopkins said. “We don’t drop off at all. I’m excited about the talent.”
The season has gotten off to a solid start thus far, with the team completing its annual road trip to Florida to begin the year with an above .500 mark. CCRI returned home with a 4-3 record, including a win in its final game over Division I Muscatine Community College.
“That was a good indication of how good we can be,” Hopkins said. “We’ve just got to get a little more consistent with that.”
On the mound in that game was sophomore Ryan O’Dell, the team’s ace, and he allowed two runs in seven innings to pick up the win.
Also the team’s shortstop, O’Dell – from Lincoln – is getting some attention from pro scouts and will be an integral piece of the team’s success.
“When he’s on the mound, we can beat anybody,” Hopkins said.
When O’Dell isn’t pitching and is instead playing short, he’ll be surrounded by familiar faces. Back at third base is Zach Woods, a sophomore from Griswold, Conn. At first base, Jonathan Vasquez, from Bridgeport, Conn., returns as a standout performer. Vasquez is already committed to the University of Rhode Island for next season.
Behind the plate, sophomores Pat O’Keefe from East Greenwich and Ryan Wordell from Portsmouth are in their second seasons as the team’s catchers.
In the outfield, Joe Yankee – another player drawing interest from pro scouts – is in left, with Milford, Conn.’s Jake Saley in centerfield and Jake Tillman, from Scituate, is in right. All three of those players are returning sophomores.
The only starter not returning from last year is second baseman Jacob Waldren, who is from Phoenix, Ariz. He’s already fit right in.
“He is an unbelievable second baseman,” Hopkins said. “He actually plays shortstop when O’Dell pitches. He’s one of our leading hitters after the Florida trip.”
But the buck doesn’t stop with the sophomores.
“It’s a veteran group,” Hopkins said. “But we’ve had an unbelievable recruiting season of transfers and freshman. It’s probably as deep a team as we’ve had, too.”
Two players from North Kingstown are making an impact as freshmen, with Edward Apice playing center field and joining the starting rotation and Austin Barry contributing in the outfield.
Freshman Casey Mack, the son of former Major Leaguer Shane Mack, has come to the team from Trumbull, Conn., and he’s getting some time at third base. Catcher Stephen Adams, from Jacksonville, Fla., is another freshman who provides solid depth behind the plate and can also be used as a designated hitter.
Warwick Vets grad T.J. Boyajian is in the mix in the outfield. Another Warwick native, Mike Evans, is also pushing for time, and he plays first base. Evans grew up in Warwick, then moved to Arizona for his high school years. He’s recently moved back to the city, and then came to CCRI.
The Knights’ depth is critical not only because it gives them more quality players, but because of the way their pitching staff is structured. Three of the four pitchers in the current rotation are regular position players.
“The pitching is very good, but it’s unusual at the college level because we’re going to use position players in the rotation,” Hopkins said. “But we don’t drop off because of our depth, when we bring them in to pitch.”
O’Dell leads that group, and Tillman and Apice are the other two who split time between pitching and playing another position. The fourth pitcher in the rotation is Woonsocket’s Kory Lawrence, a sophomore.
The rest of the pitchers are freshmen, including Cranston West’s Ryan Faria, Middletown’s Braman Stewart, East Providence’s Ben Duarte, Evan Bertone from Douglas, Mass., Paul Watson from Cheshire, Conn., and Newport’s James Riley-Garnett.
Freshman Tyler Brown, from Jacksonville, Fla., has been serving as the closer. Rich Reo, a sophomore from Cranston West, is also on the roster.
The one injury the team has had is to sophomore shortstop Rob DeCosta, from Cranston West. He hurt his ankle when he stepped on a ball after legging out a groundball in his first at-bat of the year, and he’s expected to miss the entire season. He will redshirt.
CCRI hasn’t played since March 16, and it hasn’t yet played in Rhode Island due to some scheduling issues and the inclement weather. Its first home game was scheduled for Wednesday on the road at Mitchell, with the results unavailable at press time. Assuming the field is in shape for this weekend, CCRI will host Dean in its first home games of the year for a doubleheader, beginning at 12 p.m.
And the Knights will have a very defined goal going forward.
“The team’s goal every year is to try to get back to Oklahoma,” Hopkins said. “This team has the talent to do it – we’ll see if they get it done.”