Coming off a 2014 season that culminated with a conference championship, the Como Park Senior High School baseball team is clear about its goal for 2015: compete for another title.
The Cougars coaches and players are not shy about articulating their aims. They believe they have what it takes to be in the mix, even after the graduation of several key players.
The 2014 seniors included starters Peter Schrader, Doug McCune-Zierath, Peter Gaertner, Jonah Leurquin, Tor Will and Chris Heesch, along with Harrison Thompson and Luke Larson, who provided help off the bench.
The class of ’14 played essential roles in propelling the team to their 10-2 conference record. Beyond that, they left a legacy of hard work that remains with the new 2015 team.
Guiding the work are co-coaches Matt Smith and Lenny Franco, now in their seventh year. It’s a unique coaching structure, but it clearly works. They each have specialties and are comfortable sharing the managing roles. When observing them in the dugout before practice, one senses that they enjoy the working relationship and that the players are also comfortable with both personalities.
“It’s two different personalities that are able to help and reach all players,” senior John Wenger says. “They are on the same page, but they have different styles of presenting key information the team needs.”
“It’s kind of a cool situation,” senior Richie Gulner says, “Coach Franco specializes in the mechanics of pitching, and Coach Smith does more swing mechanics and fielding technique. Having in-depth points of view for all aspects of the game really helps us as players.”
Gulner and Wenger were starting pitchers last year in crucial contests and will form the foundation of the rotation this season along with senior Jake Vandome, who was also a big contributor on the mound in 2014. “All three can throw strikes and deliver key pitches in tough situations,” Smith says.
Returning the bulk of the starting pitching provides stability for the defense. The starting infield is likely to feature Vandome or Gulner at shortstop when not pitching, junior Patrick Kolias at third base, senior Matt Klein at second, with juniors Chris Steinhoff and Kevin Smith both capable on first base.
Coach Smith says the infield can “make the routine plays, and that’s what we’re asking them to accomplish right now.” Franco notes that a concern is a lack of varsity experience in the outfield. “We’ll be young out there,” he says.
Offensively, Gulner and Vandome are expected to be leading hitters. They produced last season and are expected to get on base frequently again. Junior catcher Jacob Bernard also swings the bat aggressively and should produce runs. Mix in the patient hitting of Kolias, Smith and Steinhoff, and the Cougars have a formidable lineup.
It’s not a lineup expected to hit mammoth home runs, but the coaches are confident there is enough power for extra-base hits. Franco credits the players for developing disciplined hitting habits, waiting for pitches that they can drive into the gaps.
Depth is provided by seniors Jorge Mendoza, Nate Jackson and Alec Johnson, juniors Alex Ventrilli and Alex Forstrum, and sophomores Charlie Kray and Jackson Muehlbauer. All of these players are prepared to contribute with experience they’ve gained in the program’s JV and C-Team in previous years.
With the “one-game-at-a-time” mantra as a focal point, the Cougars will have a home game and away game against each city opponent. While the games against Central and Highland count the same as all the others, they will be highly anticipated.
Como, Central or Highland has claimed each city crown since 2009, and they’ve been the top three finishers in the conference every year since that time. The rivalries are well-established. It’s certain to be another exciting season in the St. Paul City, and the Cougars are ready to compete.
Eric Erickson teaches at Como Park High School, and has coached a variety of school and youth sports teams in St. Paul over the last 20 years. Follow twitter @eestp for current school sports news.