Greenwich senior Cannons loaded with talent

At the midway point of the Connecticut American Legion season, the Greenwich senior Cannons are not only looking to reach where last year’s squad finished the season, but they are also looking to play in a few more state tournament games as well.

So far, so good, as Greenwich currently has a record of 13-2 on the season.

“I think we’re off to a good start,” Greenwich head coach Mike Abate said. “We have a couple of goals in mind and our pitching and defense is helping us get to those goals. That’s the main reason why we have so few losses at this time. Our bats are starting to come alive now. We were struggling to hit the ball earlier in the season, but they are starting to come back to us and things are going to be exciting down the stretch.”

The senior Cannons had quite the memorable season last year, finishing the regular season with a 23-4 record and won Zone IV by three games over Norwalk. Greenwich entered the state tournament as the No. 5 seed and beat Bethel in its opening game, 7-6. A day later, Greenwich had an easier time, beating Southington 15-9, however they lost to Stamford 10-4 the following day.

Greenwich came back to beat fellow Zone IV foe Trumbull 8-1 and stayed alive in the double-elimination tournament. However, Greenwich’s run ended a day later when they fell to top-ranked Branford, 4-1 at Muzzy Field.

“Last year we had a really good shot at winning the state tournament,” Abate said. “Norwalk got hot at the right time. Baseball is a funny game because it’s not always the team that is the best, but is the team that plays the best that day. We understand that, but for a lot of these guys on our team, they have been to the state tournament and been to the final four of the state tournament and were a couple of wins away from winning the state championship. We have two kids (Brendan Hardin and Matt Henkel) that were on the junior legion team that I coached in my first year that won states and regionals.”

Last season, Zone IV flexed its muscle during the American Legion state tournament, as Norwalk, Trumbull, Stamford and Greenwich all made noise in the state tourney. While Abate had one of the four Zone IV teams vying for the state championship last year and saw that talent first-hand, he believes this year’s Zone is actually stronger and more competitive.

“I think the Zone, as a whole, is stronger,” Abate said. “Last year we showed how strong the Zone is and this year is strong again. I think it’s better. A lot of those teams in the middle of the pack are getting better and it’s making the competition better. Ideally, playing better competition will make your team better.”

It’s a good thing that this year’s Greenwich Cannons senior legion team has a plethora of big game experience. During this spring’s high school season, Greenwich High finished a perfect 20-0 during the regular season and advanced to the Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference championship game and the quarterfinals of the CIAC class LL tournament. The Brunswick School baseball team finished the season by capturing the Fairchester Athletic Association championship by slamming Hopkins School.

“Greenwich High had a phenomenal year and Brunswick won the FAAs,” Abate said. “There is no doubt about it that we have good kids on our legion team. We have a lot of talent on the field and a lot of leaders that have been to the legion state tournament before. There is no substitute for experience. We are happy to have these guys.”

Dylan Callahan and Brian Schutzman have been leading the way for Greenwich this season, just like they each did for their high school program. Schutzman is a perfect 3-0 on the season and pitched a no-hitter against defending state champion Norwalk.

“Their leadership and experience is what is the most important,” Abate said. “They pitch in all our tough games. They both pitched in the state tournament for us last year. They experienced playing in those big games and know how to battle. They are our workhorses. They both have three or four pitches that they could throw for strikes at any given time. Dylan has a great fastball and curveball, while Schutzman has a great fastball and slider. Schutzman has been learning to take a little bit off the slider, where they different speeds get the hitters out in front. Dylan has a changeup that he put in this year that has been working great.”

So far this season, the need for a reliever to close out a game hasn’t been an issue, as the Greenwich pitching staff has worked very late into games or has thrown a complete game. When the time comes, Brendan Hardin will fill the hole of a closer, as he can stop the bleeding or can finish out a game.

In addition to the trio of pitchers, Greenwich has been getting stellar pitching from Harry Pawlic and David Berdoff, who already has three win on the season. Bradley Wilpon, who was the starting pitcher when Brunswick won the FAA championship earlier this year, will be splitting time between the Greenwich junior and senior legion teams.

“Our pitching staff has been throwing strikes all year and really pride themselves on not walking anybody,” Abate said. “When the bats weren’t there for us earlier in the season, they really came to play and took their teammates on their back.”

While the Greenwich pitching staff has been light’s out throughout the season, Greenwich’s defense has been firing on all cylinders. This year Greenwich returned its entire outfield from last year’s team and added a few more fresh faces.

Steve Monick will be back in left field, while Hardin will play center field, but can also effectively play any outfield position when needed. Hardin also plays shortstop when Callahan in on the hill. Taylor Olmstead will patrol right field and has been one of the team’s hottest bats, hitting over. 415 on the season. David Berdoff will be playing left or center field when needed.

“They can all get it,” Abate said. “We have a really fast outfield and not a lot of balls are going to drop over there. They all were there last year, so having an experienced outfield is critical to have.”

The Cannons also possess a strong infield.

Newcomer to the team Cameron Fennell will be playing third base and Abate believe he might be the team’s most valuable player early on.

“He’s been making every play and has been hitting the cover off the ball,” Abate said. “He is a phenomenal pick up for us and I couldn’t be happier we have him. He’s been playing great at third base.”

Joining Fennell on the left side of the infield will be Callahan at short. Matt Pruner will be at second base and is one of the best defenders in the Zone. Matt Henkel, who played for Dartmouth last year, returned to the Cannons this year and will be back at first base. Ricky Okazaki will be Greenwich’s catcher. Another newcomer to the team this year is Ryan Hardin and Abate believe he will be Greenwich’s utility player and has the ability to play and position when needed.

As a team, Greenwich has only given up 18 runs through 14 games. The next closest team has been Trumbull and they’ve given up 32 runs in 13 games played.

“Our pitching and defense is going to lead the way,” Abate said. “With a wooden bat, you don’t know when you’re going to score a lot of runs. The deeper you get into the playoffs and Zone, you play teams that don’t throw a lot of balls and don’t throw the ball around the field. You really have to make every play count. We’ve been doing that so far. We really haven’t walked anybody and the other teams are earning it when they score. We don’t give them anything and that’s a big part of our success early on.”

While the team’s pitching and defense has been giving the opposition fits throughout the season, the Cannons might be close to adding another piece to the puzzle. Greenwich’s offense has been finding its groove and has been on fire lately. In 14 games, Greenwich has scored 90 runs, seven more than Stamford.

“We are putting the right pieces in place and juggling the order around in the beginning of the season,” Abate said. “We were trying to find out which players work well together in the lineup. The players are also getting their timing down now because during high school season they are swinging metal. They are getting use to wood bats all over again and it takes a little bit to get the timing down. Once they get it all together, it’s going to be nice to watch.”

With the amount of talent on the Greenwich roster, Abate has high expectations for his team. With the Cannons only a few games away from winning the state tournament last year, Abate wants his team to at least accomplish what last year’s team did.

“This is a program that I believe is one of the top in the state,” Abate said. “Every year you want to make the playoffs. Once we do that, we want to win the Zone and get that bid to the final 16 of the state tournament. We want that free bid and to win a state championship. I think this team has all the tools in place. On paper we are really good and if we come ready to play, hit like we can and pitch and play defense like we can, I think the sky’s the limit.”

 

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