Monday, April 3, 2017

St. John's Prep and Billerica Motivated From the Outset of Baseball Season

After back-to-back years of Super 8 disappointment, can St. John's Prep finally get over the hump this season?   Photo by Brendan C. Hall, via ESPN Boston.
DANVERS, Mass. - No matter how the previous season ended, it can motivate teams to put in the extra work in the hopes of going one step further the next year.

For a St. John’s Prep group that lost to Braintree in the MIAA Division 1A “Super 8” Final for the second consecutive season, that motivation runs extremely deep.

On Thursday, March 30, the Eagles hosted a Billerica team that finished the 2016 regular season 17-5 and finished ninth in the voting for the Super 8 tournament, losing out to a dark horse candidate in Newton North.

Avoiding the letdown that can befall spurned Super 8 teams in the Division 1 State Tournament, the Indians rallied for a 5-4 extra innings win over Malden Catholic, before falling to a red-hot Lawrence team in last year’s postseason.

So, like Prep, Billerica comes into this season with a bit of a chip on its shoulder.

The Indians return a few key pieces this year including two-sport standouts Scott Murphy and Kyle Cortese (.301 batting average, .507 OBP, 13 RBI last season), while southpaw Alex Cruwys (3-3, 3.61 ERA, 41 Ks) will be asked to anchor the rotation and provide some pop in the middle of the lineup on his off days.

“We call them the three amigos,” Billerica head coach John Higgins said of those seniors. “They’re great leaders, they’re great captains and they’ve been together for a long time. We’re looking for those guys to take the reins and do the job for us.”

Ranked No. 12 in our preseason poll, Billerica will have to navigate a stacked Merrimack Valley Conference that includes No. 11 Central Catholic, No. 14 Lowell and No. 6 North Andover, a fierce rival for the Indians and a large impediment in their pursuit of a Super 8 bid last season. 

“We’re looking good this year and we can make a push as long as we don’t beat ourselves, which was the biggest issue last year,” said Cruwys, who also hit .354 with 18 RBI last year.  

When asked about a scheduled grudge match with North Andover (the teams split two games last year) Cruwys added, “Hopefully we can beat them by a good amount. They’re pretty good, we’re pretty good and there’s always a bit of tension between us when we play.”

Prior to that initial scrimmage against Billerica, St. John’s Prep senior captain Andrew Selima joked that they wanted to schedule Braintree right out of the gate. While fellow captains Chris Francouer and Frank DiOrio keep the mood light and fiery junior Mike Yarin brings some levity with his gung-ho attitude, there’s no denying that the No. 1 team in our preseason polls is one hundred percent focused on the goal of returning to the Super 8 Final.

“I see the motivation of losing in the finals last year,” Eagles head coach Dan Letarte said about this group. “There’s a lot of players back and some of them have lost two years in a row. I see a group that’s completely focused and trying to get better every day.”

According to Francouer, that group has been working relentlessly at the Route 1 Sports Complex in Danvers. A tradition established by the long list of successful Division 1 collegiate baseball players and propagated by Prep alum such as former Los Angeles Angels scout Ryan Leahy, the Eagles will work on the fundamentals until 11 p.m. some nights as they prepare for the season. 

For the current seniors at a private school in St. John’s Prep, it’s easier to give everything to their sport.

“We really only have 18 school days left as seniors, so that gives us extra time to work and focus,” said Francouer, who worked hard enough to commit just one error in 28 games at shortstop last year. “The senior captains were always focused when we were younger and we’re going to keep it going and keep the guys working.”

Billerica’s Three Amigos also work with Leahy at the Route 1 Sports Complex and his tutelage has helped each of them develop into elite offensive players. 

The Indians piled up 165 runs to carry them into Super 8 contention, yet in the end they fell short due in part to a 13-5 collapse against North Andover in mid May. 

“When we found that out we wanted to go into the state tournament with some fire under us and give it all,” Murphy (.304 average, 23 RBI last year) said about the disappointing news. “Now we want to just keep going into this season with the same mentality of taking it one game at a time.”

While his wound up on the wrong end of a short stick, Higgins maintains his support for the Super 8, which is entering its fourth year as baseball’s premier high school tournament.

“I like the new format,” said Higgins. “You’re trying to showcase what the committee feels are the best eight teams in the entire state. It’s gotten mixed reviews, but I think it’s a great thing because every team is battling to get in there and upgrade on their schedule.  It’s a good thing for baseball.”

At the same time, he recognized the disappointment of being voted as the ninth team during the selection process.

“It’s always a motivation. You want to win your league, you want to get into the Super 8 and those are the two goals we have every year. Hopefully we can squeak in this year instead of squeaking out,” Higgins quipped.

For a perennial powerhouse in St. John’s Prep, simply making the Super 8 isn’t going to qualify as a success. 

The Eagles are stacked with young pitchers ready to make their name and return three key arms in seniors Casey Bussone, Zach Begin and junior Jake Sanderson. Of course, their offense remains extremely potent with UConn commit Mike Yarin ready to build on a breakout campaign in which he hit .317 with 2 HR and 23 RBI as a sophomore.

Another top prospect who works closely with Leahy at Route 1 Sports Complex, Yarin ignited Prep’s offense when he moved from the leadoff spot to the 3-hole midway through the season and brought an emotional attitude to the game that sparked their run into the Super 8.

Yarin, who also starred at quarterback for Prep and played varsity basketball this winter, is the type of natural athlete that lends confidence to his teammates.

“I had a leader type of personality that fit when I started playing QB. I just get amped up and that can get guys going,” Yarin recognized. “You have to have fun playing baseball and I think joking around with guys and loosening things up a little bit can help.”

Bringing a sense of calm and sobrierity as one the Eagles’ leaders, Andrew Selima will look to follow up on a stellar junior campaign in which he hit .303 with 4 HR, including two bombs in the Super 8. 

Like Francouer, he learned a lot from the senior leaders who led Prep into the 2015 Super 8 Tournament and is trying to bring that approach to this group. 

“I definitely learned to focus and not take any practice lightly,” Selima said about his varsity experience as a sophomore. “That doesn’t mean you can’t have fun, but make sure that there’s a purpose and goal to every practice. The season is long, and I learned a lot about remaining mentally tough over a long period of time.”

The players demonstrated important mental toughness, but Letarte pushed all the right buttons to spark last season’s turnaround.

It began with moving Yarin from the leadoff spot to the No. 3 spot, while bumping on-base machine and senior captain Jack Arend to the top of the lineup. Francoeur (3 HR, 17 RBI, .363 batting average last season) moved into the second spot in the lineup and Boston College-bound outfielder Jacob Yish moved to cleanup, as the Eagles offense took flight.

Once his team made it into the double elimination Super 8 format, Letarte executed his most creative gambit by using his three starters in two inning stints during each game, reducing their fatigue and keeping the opposition off balance.

“That going well totally influenced my philosophy this year and my pitching coach Chris Conway says this is the year to do it,” Letarte said about starting pitching by committee. “If that had failed in the Super 8 I might feel differently, but I think we can use all of these young kids and have more confidence about this staff than I have in awhile.”

After losing to Braintree in their first Super 8 tilt last spring, Prep rattled off wins against Plymouth North, BC High, St. John’s (Shrewsbury), and Xaverian before trouncing the Wamps 11-2 to set up a winner-take-all finale. 

The Eagles took a 2-0 lead into the seventh inning, but once again fell victim to some late-game magic from charmed Braintree and went home with the Super 8 Finalist trophy for a second straight year.

Despite another heartbreaking end to their postseason run, these Eagles don’t lack for confidence, and they certainly have the personalities to stay motivated. 

“I expect the same thing every year, and that’s to win the Super 8,” said Yarin. “We came up a little short last year but we have really good leadership and bring plenty of guys back. I’ll make sure that we’re intense from the start this year.”

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