March 4, 2015

Talented Red Dragons anxiously await opener




Sports Editor

Though winter weather interfered with the opportunity to play games over the past two weekends, SUNY Cortland head baseball coach Joe Brown is still unruffled.
“This isn’t panic mode yet,” said Brown just last week, now hoping to begin his 16th season at the Red Dragons’ helm with doubleheaders at Johns Hopkins in Maryland on Saturday and at Wesley in Delaware on Sunday.
“These early season trips are good to get out and get challenged,” added Brown, who is also eager to sort out a deep and talented pitching staff. “We were a little over-scheduled, so we’re not missing out on games.” The Red Dragons are just getting anxious while dealing with a bit of cabin — or Lusk Field House — fever. That is only natural considering the talent returning to a program that has made 22 consecutive appearances in the NCAA Division III tournament, which is the longest active stretch of success in the nation.
Cortland finished 36-10 a year ago in a campaign that ended at the Division III World Series, the Red Dragons also going 15-3 in the SUNY Athletic Conference while capturing regular season and playoff crowns.
And even through six of the top eight hitters from last year have graduated, Brown feels his Red Dragons should continue to be prolific run producers and national contenders.
“There are some tough kids on this team who play hard. It’s going to be more offensively versatile that last year,” says Brown, noting this team will be more aggressive on the base paths than last year’s crew that still averaged just under eight runs per contest.
“They were not the most fleet of foot human beings, so we had to bang them in,” said Brown of last year’s line-up.
With plenty of pitching arms at Brown’s disposal, Cortland should not need an over abundance of runs this coming spring. The Red Dragons’ staff posted an impressive 2.87 earned run average a year ago.
“This pitching staff has depth galore, it really does,” beams Brown.
TWO TOP STARTERS, Brandon McClain and Brandon Serio, will be the stalwarts on this staff coming off strong 2014 seasons.
Senior southpaw McClain went 10-2 with a 2.16 earned run average, coming up with a team-high 78 strikeouts over the 91 and two-thirds innings he worked. Junior righty Serio was 9-3 with an ERA of 2.37, and fanned 68 batters in his 83 and two--thirds innings on the mound.
Some new arms will help, too.
Seth Lamando, a junior transfer from Division I Coastal Carolina, will be a nice addition to the staff and is a player who will also see some time at third base. Evan Honce is a hard-throwing sophomore who arrived from Franklin Pierce in New Hampshire, while junior Alex Wingarten was a past No. 1 starter at Farmingdale.
Getting senior Cody Petre back from Tommy John surgery only adds pitching depth where throwers like senior Ryan McAlary (2.11 ERA last year), junior Travis Laitar, junior Tyler Brien (2.38 ERA) and sophomore Jesse Winters are back and better.
Laitar excelled last summer, when he was an all-star hurler in the Perfect Games League.
“We want to get them out and pitch them, and they’re going to find out how good they are right away,” said Coach Brown, referring to a rugged early season schedule that will include top notch opposition during March’s spring break in Florida.
WHO WILL HANDLE these pitchers was a concern, since Brown’s “Three-Headed Monster” of catchers Tim Panetta, P.J. Rinaldi and team hitting leader Bryan Marotta all graduated.
Three local high school catching prospects were on Brown’s recruiting radar, and to his surprised delight all three decided to become Red Dragons. Matt Personius out of Chenango Valley, Justin Teague from Cicero-North Syracuse and Connor Manderson from New Harttford will be sharing time behind the plate.
“I took a gamble by not having a young catcher last year,” said Brown. “We targeted these three kids, and I think we got lucky. If you’re watching a game this year, you’re not going to know they’re freshmen.”
Brown is also happy to see the trio becoming best of friends, and knows with the heavy slate of games there will be ample playing time for all three.
Those rookie catchers will round out an infield that has senior middle infielders Mark DeMilio and Mark Simon back. Shortstop Simon’s .396 batting average was second best on last year’s squad, while second baseman DeMilio hit .361 and swiped six bases.
Austin Clock is ready to step in for departed Max Rosing at first base, having batted .333 in a limited role a year ago. Third baseman Anthony Iacomini also has to be replaced, newcomer Lamando a possibility there. Cortland High graduate Connor Griffin is back for his junior season, and is looking to break into the infield picture and junior shortstop Keith Andrews started seven games last year.
THE CORTLAND OUTFIELD is “deeper than we’ve ever been” in Brown’s viewpoint, and got deeper when Vestal’s Adam Smith returned for his senior season after missing last season.
Proven performers back in the outfield are junior Conrad Ziemendorf (.315), senior Donny Castaldo (.310) and senior Vinny Bomasuto (.304). Bomasuto has also been used pitching as Cortland’s closer in the past.
Coach Brown is also more than comfortable using sophomore Nick Hart and junior Fabio Ricci in the outfield.
So Brown is confident with this group, and confident Cortland will get in 40 regular season games while chasing after a 23rd consecutive trip to nationals.
“We’re still going to get 40 in, we always do,” says Brown. “The only downside is getting some of these guys on the mound soon and getting them ready for conference play.”
Cortland will actually open conference play to conclude its Florida trip, with three games scheduled against New Paltz.
“We’re proud that 22 years in a row is pretty special, as are all the alums and current and past players,” says Brown. “There’s on thing I believe wholeheartedly, that I think there are 10-15 schools every year that have a legitimate chance every season. We’re right there.”
Not that the road to the World Series is a smooth path.
“It’s a battle to win the league, a battle to win the regionals, a battle to get to the World Series,” adds Brown. “But I think we can do it. I’m not selling any garbage to the guys because we have what we need.”

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