Penncrest is ready to grind it out

MIDDLETOWN — Through an endless winter that has scarcely allowed most baseball teams on their fields even after their seasons are supposed to have started, Penncrest’s anticipation hasn’t waned.

There have been workouts, mornings in the weight room, attention devoted nearly seven days a week through the frigid toil of winter. And there’s been a refrain to reflect the mindset that has accompanied all that work.

“We love it,’ senior pitcher Rob Brown said. “Our motto is, ‘˜embrace the grind.’ We work day after day to get better.’

This spring has been the subject of years of hopeful expectation for Penncrest, which returns eight starters from a squad that made the District One Class AAAA tournament a season ago before losing in the first round to eventual champion Methacton. That number includes the top three pitchers in their arsenal and essentially the entire lineup.

The Lions hope that advantage is perpetuated by the way the team has worked through the offseason. Voluntary workouts were organized by the players around three times a week. There was more time in the weight room. Coupled with the fact that the core of the team has been together on the field for years and the players spend much of their time off of it together, and the chemistry that they hope will underpin a successful spring is well established.

“We have a great relationship with each other,’ catcher Billy McCarthy said. “… It makes sense why we have such great chemistry on the field. There’s communication between all of us. We all trust each other, we work together and we go to school together, so it makes sense.’

The relationships start with the battery of McCarthy, who started all last season, and Penncrest’s pitching big three of Brown, All Delco Matt Briner and Tyler Kight. In addition to the left-right balance — Briner and Brown are both southpaws — they provide pop to the middle of the lineup, with Briner and Brown likely to platoon at first base when not on the hill and Kight often DHing last season.

The other returnees include Steve Moppert, who’ll move from third base to the outfield to complement Pete Muavero, and shortstop Nate Sides. It may be the same names as a season ago, but manager Dan Sardella knows that each has improved greatly since last season ended.

“I think every at-bat you get, every pitch I call, I think it just grows — you as a player and with your team,’ McCarthy said. “They know my game, and I know their game. I know what’s working on some days, they know what’s working some days, and the communication is perfect between that. I think that’s one advantage we have.’

That continuity is vital in a season where talent across the county is at a historically significant level. Briner is one of five returning All-Delcos in the class of 2015. Those seniors include six District One commits around the county — Brown (Binghamton), Kevin McGowan of Haverford School (La Salle), Ben Faso (La Salle) and Jeff Shanfeldt (Lehigh) of Garnet Valley, Richie Tecco of Bonner-Prendergast (Rider) and CJ Pruitt of Sun Valley (La Salle) — a remarkable volume of talent.

Penncrest also isn’t alone in having the majority of its talent return from last season. Radnor, coming off its first Class AAAA district win in program history, has most of its nucleus back, led by All-Delco Sean Corelli. Faso and Shanfeldt lead a talented group for the Jaguars, while Strath Haven returns five pitchers with varsity experience, led by Ashton Raines and Will Carey. The Central League also boasts the defending PIAA Class AAAA runners-up in Conestoga.

That’s in addition to an abundance of talent at Bonner-Prendergast, Cardinal O’Hara and Haverford School, all of which should be factors in their respective leagues.

All that ability in the county makes the continuity that Penncrest has fostered this offseason all the more valuable. Talent can get teams most of the way, but the Lions’ hope is that when push comes to shove in nip-and-tuck games, as it inevitably will, the relationships that have been built over the course of years will translate into victories … maybe even, into some monumental history.

“We definitely want to win the Central league this year and make a run at districts and get into the state tournament,’ Briner said. “We want to definitely get a banner up there, because we don’t have one. No baseball team has ever won here, so we want to get that first banner up here. We want to do something like the (PIAA champion boys) lacrosse team last year, do something special.’

“We want to win,’ McCarthy said. “And we think we’re going to. That’s what it means. We’ve got to win.’

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