The Kingston High School varsity baseball team isn’t just ready for the season to begin; after a long winter and a wet start to spring, the Tigers are really looking forward to getting outside in the sunshine.
“The weather has been challenging to all of us to say the least,” said head coach Mike Groppuso. “Baseball is meant to be played outside. We haven’t been since March 9 and those days were for tryouts.”
The Tigers have already seen a pair of scrimmages canceled over the last week, visits from John Jay and Wallkill that could have helped the team get into game shape when the games start to count next week. Still on as of press time — but definitely dubious as a forecast of snow is developing for that day — is a scrimmage with FDR at Gruner Field on Friday, March 31, with an exhibition visit from Shenendehowa the following day. But as with spring training in the majors, high school teams need to get out on the field and find their collective rhythm before the actual schedule begins at Minisink Valley on Tuesday, April 4.
“The loss of our scrimmages was significant,” said Groppuso. “As I said we all made adjustments this off-season that we knew needed to be made to make us better. Unfortunately we haven’t been able to get outside and work on them. Things look great indoors but being outside brings a different atmosphere as well as the unexpected in games/scrimmages that you cannot simulate in practices. It will take some time but as I told my guys I am confident that midway through we will be starting to find our stride, and as is always the goal to be playing our best come the postseason.”
That’s how it played out for Kingston in 2016, when the team went 18-6 during a campaign that saw them win the first Section IX title since the state championship run four years earlier. Last season ended in a 3-0 loss to Corning in the Class AA regional semis at Cantine Field in Saugerties in early June. For returning players, that’s a very long time ago.
“Our biggest strength is we are a veteran ball club,” said Groppuso this week, adding that he’ll have to rely on that veteran leadership because of the weather. “Especially this year since we still haven’t had one practice as a team outside and our season starts six days from today. It will help that we know each other and will have some sort of chemistry already built in. But this is a team game and all 17 men on the roster need to learn to play together and work together in order to accomplish our goals.”
A logical necessity, but one which hasn’t happened as quickly as usual. Because the team has been forced to stay indoors, Groppuso said it was still unclear where the team will have to focus its efforts on to ensure it’s prepared for the start of the season. No amount of conditioning or drills on a hardwood gymnasium floor can adequately make up for a lack of time on the diamond.
“As far as areas we need to work on, at this point it is everything since again we haven’t been outside,” he said. “Once we establish our routine again we will pick up where we left off which is working on some of the finer things in baseball that will hopefully help get us to the next level. Everyone can get better and the important thing is my seniors understand this and have worked extremely hard in doing so over the winter. This is a game of adjustments and I am confident we understand that and are continuing to make ourselves better. Not just for this year but for years to come.”
As with all varsity high school teams, the Tigers are dealing with turnover, though perhaps not as much this season as in other years. Of the three starters no longer with the team, only two — centerfielder Justin Tuey and rightfielder Kevin Bryant — were lost to graduation.
“Both played big roles defensively for us and will not be easy to replace,” Groppuso said. “I have some younger talent in sophomore Garrett Warnecke and juniors Max VanWagnenen and Jett Kimberlin but both will need to learn how to play for me at this level and continue to get better. I know my seniors will lead by example and again am confident they will fill in adequately.”
The other key loss was sophomore catcher Tanner Davis, who is currently enrolled at Cheshire Academy in Connecticut, where he’s playing baseball and football.
“He was very solid for us behind the plate and always found a way to get that key at-bat or hit when we needed it,” Groppuso said. “He had great passion for the game that isn’t easy to replace, but Sam Tremper, my senior starting catcher this year, has worked hard both offensively and defensively with the pitchers to build a nice rapport with them. He will do a very nice job for us.”
While the wait to get out on the field has seemed interminable, once the season starts rolling, it’s fairly busy right up into the playoffs. The Tigers don’t host their first regular season game at Gruner Field until Tuesday, April 11 when FDR heads across the Hudson for a visit. Two days later, Kingston visits North Rockland. Another two days after that Shaker High comes to town. In those two games, Groppuso said, the Tigers will get their first real tests of the season.
“North Rockland is always a contender for the Section I championship and we have had some great games over the years with them,” he said. “Shaker has come on strong over the years and was a team we lost to in the State Final Four in 2011. They have a new coach now, but I don’t expect them to be any different talent wise. I know my team is looking forward to the challenge as am I, so hopefully we will get good weather and play some great baseball.”
Groppuso also cited a three-game set with Monroe-Woodbury between April 17-20 as important.
“I believe both teams will be there again in the end,” he said. “They are a solid group and will be another good challenge for us. Their coaches do a great job with them, and I enjoy competing against them.”
While the Tigers will be tested, they also have a favorable schedule as the season progresses, at least from a home field advantage standpoint. The team’s four final regular season games, including the finale against Washingtonville on Tuesday, May 16, are scheduled to be played at Gruner Field. In fact, Kingston hits the road only three times over its final 11 regular season games. Will that help the team roll into the postseason ready for anything? Perhaps. But Groppuso said he’d prefer to let the 2017 Tigers get to wherever they’re going without worrying about where previous teams have gone.
“I don’t like to dwell on the past and every year brings new challenges to teams, especially at the high school level,” he said. “I had a nice sit down with all my seniors this year before one of our indoor practices and explained my thoughts on the upcoming season; I didn’t like what I saw or was feeling. I have been here before they haven’t. It was a great sit down and I truly believe they understood. They are a solid group who had a great run last year and experienced the pinnacle of our league by winning a sectional championship. That experience is irreplaceable, but there are teams out there that lost as well and who are just as hungry to prove themselves.
Groppuso said the Tigers will have to earn every win and can’t coast on past glories. “We need to be hungrier, stay humble and stay in the moment cause as I told them we are not there yet,” he said. “We can only control us. How we come to the field every day, our attitude, our passion, desire and work ethic. If we do that then yes I believe we will put ourselves in a position to be successful once again and use our experiences to get us to the next level. No one is pulling for them more to achieve that than myself. Trust me.”