COVENTRY — If you’re planning on going to a Coventry baseball game this season you might want to bring a roster because nearly every starter from last season’s team has graduated.
For the first time in two decades the Oakers reached the Division I semifinals where they lost a pair of one-run games to eventual state champion Hendricken, but All-State pitchers Matt Laferriere and Cote Nichols along with talented players Alex Zannella, Blake Rapecis, Troy Fredette and Brandon Sullivan have moved on.
In their place is a group of young players who make up for their lack of varsity experience with bundles of untapped potential.
“Practice has been pretty up beat because we have no experience at the varsity level and we have a lot of guys who are pretty hungry and a lot of guys who are ready to hit the ball field,” Coventry coach Leo Bush said after the Oakers scrimmaged Exeter-West Greenwich Friday.
If the situation sounds familiar for Bush it’s because he went through something similar in the fall when he had to replace nearly every member of his state championship volleyball team. All Bush did was develop a squad that came out of nowhere to win the program’s second straight state title.
But Bush was quick to point out it’s much harder to make up for talented experience in baseball than it is in volleyball. Plus, there is no Bishop Hendricken competing for the volleyball title.
“It’s like comparing apples and oranges,” Bush said. “With volleyball you are dealing with six positions that are all working as one. In baseball you’re dealing with nine positions that all revolve around the guy on the bump [the pitcher]. We lost two All-Staters that always had us in a position to win games.”
Bush found himself in the same position four years ago when Nichols, Sullivan, Fredette, Zannella and John Croft entered the program as freshmen and were asked to play valuable varsity innings right away because they were simply better than the upperclassmen in the program.
The Oakers struggled to a three-win season in 2009, but as the young kids started growing up, the wins started to increase. The Oakers won six games in 2010 and 2011 before winning nine games and advancing to the D-I semifinals even though Croft, the team’s ace for the previous three seasons, didn’t throw an inning because of an elbow injury.
Coventry is obviously going to go through some growing pains and the main goal this season is to improve as the Division I-South campaign churns along.
“It’s going to be a big learning experience for them,” Bush said. “We don’t know exactly what’s going to happen in our division, but we’re going to make some mistakes due to our inexperience. We’re going to make some good plays and put some good swings on balls. We’re going to have to maintain a pretty positive outlook and work hard to get ourselves in position to make the postseason.”
While many teams in I-South look at the Oakers’ roster and see fresh meat, the reality is Coventry has plenty of emerging talent on the squad, including junior shortstop Shaun Vigeant. Vigeant is the only player on the team with any measurable varsity experience because he started a shortstop when Nichols was on the mound last season.
“Shaun’s come into the season in great shape,” Bush said of Vigeant, who was one of the stars of Coventry’s 15-year-old Babe Ruth state championship team last year. “He’s improved a lot offensively and I’m really impressed with his defense.”
Aaron Guenet, Brandon Pare and Justin Jadach are the team’s other top returning upperclassmen, but there are also plenty of underclassmen battling for a job. The future spine of the team is made up of kids who played with Vigeant on the Babe Ruth state title team, including Eric O’Connell, Max Marcotte and Nick Bolcon.
A number of freshmen and sophomores could also see time on the varsity team. Kids from Central Coventry’s back-to-back-to-back Major Division District 3 championship team have started to matriculate into the high school and could make an impact on the varsity team as early as this season.
“We’ve got a real nice thing going on in our younger classes,” Bush said. “This is probably the biggest number of kids we’ve had come out since I’ve been here. We have 11 juniors and seniors who will give us some experience. Look at the future – without looking past this year – our numbers our strong in the bottom half.”