Greenwich High baseball out for revenge on FCIAC, class LL

Greenwich High first baseman Justin Gaccione looks to pick off the Darien High School runner during Saturday’s preseason scrimmage against the Blue Wave. — Paul Silverfarb photo

Greenwich High first baseman Justin Gaccione looks to pick off the Darien High School runner during Saturday’s preseason scrimmage against the Blue Wave. — John Ferris Robben photo

With nearly the entire roster back from last year’s team, head coach Mike Mora has plenty of reasons to be optimistic about this year’s Greenwich High School baseball team.

“I see a bunch of ballplayers that love baseball, but we aren’t a team yet,” Mora said. “I think the kids are starting to learn their roles. Once we can figure that out, we’ll be in a better position.”

Last year, Greenwich had an undefeated regular season, was at one point ranked 19th in the country in the USA Today national high school baseball poll, and was looking to bring home some hardware to the GHS trophy case.

However, the Cardinals came up short in their goals, falling to Trumbull High School in the Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference championship game and to East Hartford in the CIAC class LL tournament.

With the loss to the Hornets in the class LL quarterfinals, Big Red also lost some top talent to graduation. Offensive leader and shortstop Dylan Callahan, first baseman Kyle Ballone, second baseman Matt Pruner, centerfielder David Berdoff, leading pitcher Casey Gaynor, and fellow pitcher Stephen Fisher all graduated.

“They definitely want to finish off what we started last year,” Mora said. “A lot of these guys were a big part of our success we had last year. The fact that we have that taste in our mouth and that we lost should motivate them. They’ve been talking about wanting to win. They are a laid-back group and I think are going to take it one game at a time. They don’t look at the big picture too much, and that’s a good thing in my opinion.”

Leading the way for Greenwich this season are senior captains Taylor Olmstead and Ryan Marks. Olmstead, who will play right field for GHS this year, has committed to the University of Connecticut. Marks, one of Greenwich’s aces on the mound, has committed to Columbia.

“Both are quiet kids and aren’t necessarily kids that get in your face,” Mora said. “I think Taylor is the toughest on himself, which can help him or hurt him. Ryan is very even-keel. Nothing bothers him, and that’s a great mental approach when it comes to baseball. They both lead by example, both work hard, both get to practice on time and set a good example. They are both great kids and great captains.”

Marks will be one of the hurlers on the GHS pitching staff, the team’s biggest strength this season.

Marks and Kyle Dunster were two of the top pitchers from last year, and Greenwich is hoping that both won’t be the top pitchers just on the team but also in the FCIAC. Throw in J.T. Hentzen, who came on strong at the end of the season for Big Red and has been stellar early in the preseason, and Greenwich has quite the rotation heading into the season.

Marks will be leading the team’s pitching staff. As a tall lefty who throws a fastball, changeup and curveball for strikes, Marks also has a stellar pick-off move and throws hard.

“He throws mid to high 80s and has a great changeup and good breaking ball,” Mora said. “He’s going to be tough for anybody to deal with. He’s just as good with righties as he is with lefties.”

GHS pitcher Kyle Dunster hurls the ball to the plate during Saturday’s scrimmage. — John Ferris Robben photo

GHS pitcher Kyle Dunster hurls the ball to the plate during Saturday’s scrimmage. — John Ferris Robben photo

Dunster, a junior, has a lot of the same stuff on the mound that Marks has, and he has been working on his changeup a lot this preseason.

“He’s an 87-, 88-mph kid with a lot of movement, and his breaking ball is in the high 70s,” Mora said. “He’s developing a changeup and I look for him to improve on holding runners on. As far as raw ability, I think he’s one of the top kids in the state. He throws so hard with movement. Last year he came in during pressure situations and it didn’t faze him, so I’m not worried about him in a tight spot.”

With Dunster moving into the starting role this season, Greenwich misses out of the luxury of having the team’s single-season record holder for saves coming into the game to close the door.

“It wasn’t played that Dunster was a closer last year,” Mora said. “I think it kind of just happened. Marks was young, Casey had a pitch count early and Dylan played a lot of time at short. It saved everybody’s arm. This year we are going with a closer by committee. If you start on Monday, you’ll close on Friday and get your bullpen in. We’re looking for something like what happened last year this year, but you never know. There are surprises every year.”

Big Red’s No. 3 starter will be Hentzen. Last year he came on toward the end of the season and Mora said that he is playing with a chip on his shoulder.

“He wants to prove that he’s up there with those two top guys we have,” Mora said. “He’s got a good fastball, a decent changeup and he has been working on his breaking pitch. He holds runners on pretty well for a righty and competes hard.”

Big Red’s defense will be strong when it irons out who will be occupying positions.

Senior Ricky Okazaki was Greenwich’s catcher for the past two years but might not see that much time behind the plate, as juniors Sean Marks and Jonathan Dreher will battle for that catching spot. Okazaki, who will be playing catcher and some infield at college next spring, will get some quality time around the Greenwich infield. With the loss of Ballone at first, Pruner at second and Callahan at short last year to graduation, Okazaki’s defense will be needed.

“I really think Ricky is going to be a key for us,” Mora said. “He can play so many positions in the infield. Wherever we put him, he’ll be the best player at that position. He loves to play defense and that’s a big part of his game.”

Playing the hot corner this year will be returning senior Cameron Fennell. At second will be senior Ryota Fujikara. The duo of Ozakaki and senior Vincent Ferraro could also see some time at second, but both could also find their way to shortstop as well.

Junior Justin Gaccione has been hitting the ball well during the preseason and has been strong defensively at first base. When Gaccione isn’t at first, senior Liam O’Neill and Marks could see time at first when not pitching.

When it comes to the outfield, seniors Olmstead and Nick Bancroft will patrol right and left field, respectively. Junior Zach Monick will see time at center, as will Dunster when he’s not on the mound.

During the past few years, Greenwich’s biggest obstacle to overcome has been its offensive output. Last year was no exception, as in the two games Greenwich lost in the postseason, they fell behind and weren’t able to get over the hump. Mora said that while winning close games was a staple for the team last year, it ended up putting stress on the team’s pitching staff.

“I am confident that our hitting will be better this year,” Mora said. “That’s going to help us big in games where our pitchers aren’t throwing strikes or a guy gets hit around a little bit. Last year we were winning a lot of our games by one or two runs. We banged the ball around only a few games. A win is a win, but I would like for our bats to do a little more this year.

“I am hoping that we can hit in the playoffs,” Mora added. “That would be great to see. I am hoping we can get over the hump and believe in ourselves. Last year when we were behind and in a tight game, I think we gave up. In that Trumbull game last year, I think we were more mentally out of it, and I would like to see that change this year every day.”

When it comes to goals, Mora and the Cardinals are taking games one at a time. However, getting back to where the team finished last year is a priority.

“Ideally I would like to see this team finish in the top four, but I wouldn’t mind a top eight finish,” Mora said. “Finishing in the top four, you get a home game in the FCIAC, and to do that, you need to go 15-5 or 16-4, and that’s not easy to do in such a competitive league. It’s very important to start off well. If you could get a few wins early, that could be very important and really get a team rolling. I expect to make the tournament.”

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