Spring is just around the corner, and in Saugerties, that means one thing: baseball. And though hundreds of Saugerties kids of all ages take to the diamond this time of year, the flagship squad is the high school varsity team.
If you wanna know how much this community cares about what’s happening with this team, swing by any Saugerties barbershop this time of year and you’ll hear Sawyer alums prognosticating on this club’s chances.
The team knows this, and a sense of community pride runs deep.
“It’s not just this team, but every year they have the highest expectations on them,” said coach Steve Below. “Not just from ourselves, but from the town and everything else. They expect us to be on top every year, and we should be.”
Going into this year, Below and assistant coach Chris Freeburg were anticipating a veteran squad.
“This year, I lost one major player in Sean Wachtel,” Below said. “Knowing that I was going to come back with a full roster of possibly 15 seniors, there wasn’t really much to replace. We just needed to make sure all our pitching was ready.”
But some seniors, like Jim Zmiyarch and Oliver Pulver, chose not to return.
“We lost some good arms,” Below said. “They’re seniors, and maybe they just wanted to try something different. As long as they’re being active and participating in athletics, I’m okay with it.”
While challenging, it’s not all bad. Bringing up some younger players will ensure the Sawyers won’t be week on experience in the years to come.
“Two of them are middle infielders; Eli Riozzi and Chris DePoala,” Below said. “They’re going to give us more depth behind Bowie (Matteson) and Matt (Dittus). And they’re both pitchers, too. They’re working on their strength and getting their speed up.”
Below added that he expected Justin Whittaker and Aaron Caskey to make significant contributions in the outfield this season and next.
Returning to the fold are some seniors who were part of last year’s Sawyer squad, a team which had something of an off year before falling 18-10 to New Paltz in the Section IX semifinals.
“Mike Dodig is a big bat and a big pitching arm coming back for us,” Below said. “And Bowie Matteson and Matt Dittus are already throwing well for us.”
Dodig, who missed most of last season with an injury, signed a letter of intent last month to play baseball for South Florida Community College on a full athletic scholarship.
The Sawyers are looking to rebound from a 9-9 season, one which could have been markedly different had they been able to win close games.
“What can we do differently to change those six one-run losses we had,” Below said. “There’s a lot of little things like that we’re working on; it could have been one at-bat we didn’t have.”
Elan Trischitta, a senior third baseman and outfielder in his second year on the varsity team, said he believes the Sawyers will be able to overcome any lingering issues form last season.
“I think we will have to stay within ourselves and just stay focused because we have the ability and we all know that,” he said. “It’s a matter of executing.”
In the Hudson Valley, high school baseball’s version of spring training is often begun indoors, with fundamentals being taught as best as they can on a gymnasium floor. In recent years, the Sawyers have joined teams from all across the country on a spring break trip to Florida. For a few reasons, that trip isn’t happening this year.
“With all the fundraising we did for sports, I don’t think we could justify taking our money we fundraised toward a trip,” Below said. “Plus, the break runs so late, so we’ll already be seven games into the season.”
The Sawyers will instead tune up for the season with a pair of home scrimmages, the first against Newburgh Free Academy on Wednesday, March 30. The season officially kicks off on Monday, April 1, when Saugerties hosts non-league opponent Monticello. They hit the road the following Tuesday to take on league rival Marlboro.
Looking forward to some choice matchups
The players are looking forward to different games during the season, matchups they expect will bring out the best in the Sawyers.
“Teams I’m most looking forward to playing are FDR and Red Hook,” said senior pitcher, centerfielder and first baseman Jordan Baschnagel. “We always play close and intense games against them and in my opinion have developed a rivalry against them. We eliminated Red Hook from the section tournament last year, and they eliminated us the year before, so it’s always fun to play them.”
Senior Jordan Garrett, who catches, pitches and plays the outfield said he was looking forward to Newburgh as well as Wallkill, with the latter for personal reasons.
“Because my girlfriend goes there,” he said.
Senior Zack Ball, a pitcher and outfielder, is also looking forward to Wallkill.
“I’m definitely looking forward to playing Wallkill, my least favorite team,” he said. “And probably Cornwall possibly in the playoffs. They’re always good.”
Dittus, a third-year varsity shortstop and second baseman, said the Sawyers can beat anyone.
“We are looking forward to playing every team this year but we really want to get back at New Paltz this year after they beat us in the sectionals last year,” he said.
Keys to victory
With the team Below and Freeburg have put together, the Sawyers are hoping to return to former glories. Part of that journey, they feel, will hinge on how well they can showcase their strengths and improve on their weaknesses.
“We definitely need to improve on pitching this year,” said Ball. “Last year we won all of our games on one pitcher and he graduated, so everyone has to step it up.”
Whittaker said the team’s depth on the mound should help bridge that gap.
“Out of the players on the team there’s only three that can’t pitch,” he said. “Pitching will be our upper hand to win ballgames. We need to hit in the key spots, and execute in the field to be a success.”
Alex Lindsay, a senior pitcher and outfielder, said the team needs to come up bigger in the clutch than last year.
“We need to get those important hits late in the game,” he said. “We suffered several losses last year due to one-run games. If we can just get one or two extra hits, we will show ourselves how good we can be.”
Senior Darren Lareau said he thought the team had the depth from top to bottom to get where they want to go this season.
“I feel very good,” he said. “The starting line-up is going to be very strong and the bench back up is just as strong.”
Garrett said he believes the team should be able to focus and draw on its experience.
“I feel like if we don’t fool around at all and take everything we’ve learned our whole lives from playing baseball, we won’t have anything to be worried about,” he said.
Below agreed, saying the team is already remarkably focused.
“These guys are focused and they’ll be ready,” he said. “What I have to do is get them more into game experience, more inter-squad and more live drills. Pitchers going against batters, running, game situation practices.”
Below said the team’s goals are the same as any other’s in the league: Win, and keep winning.
“Obviously we want to come together as a team, we want to win the MHAL’s and bring it back to Saugerties,” he said. We’ll work hard, look to win a section championship, and strive to go as far as we can to get that state championship.”