NEWTOWN SQUARE >> Kyle Virbitsky is hard to miss as he fields grounders at shortstop Tuesday afternoon.
The junior Penn State commit’s career at Episcopal Academy has been under the tutelage of manager Mike Hickey.
He’s endured the growing pains inflicted by Hickey’s penchant for crossing league boundaries to compile a hellish schedule and has witnessed the assemblage of a core group that has contributed significantly throughout Hickey’s tenure.
With six returning starters, the bulk of the pitching staff intact and around a half-dozen Division I talents, Virbitsky is understandably bullish about the season ahead.
“I think that if there was ever a year to have a good one, I think it’s this one,” Virbitsky said. “I think now that Coach Hickey is settling in, we all know what the expectations are and what we need to do to compete. I think everyone’s kind of bought in at this point, and I think through all that, we’re ready this year more than we’ve ever been.”
The Churchmen went 12-21 through a difficult slate last year, including the arduous run through the Inter-Ac League, perennially one of the deepest and most daunting in the state. But they did so with a youthful squad that Hickey believes hasn’t finished developing yet.
Let by senior captains Alex Burman and AJ Lotsis, whose futures are pledged to New Jersey Institute of Technology and Georgetown, respectively, the majority of the Churchmen’s lineup returns. Lotsis’s move from second base to center field at the end of last season helps better accommodate him and talented sophomore Isaiah Payton in the same lineup while shoring up a potential weakness.
With big lefty Cam Van Hoorebeke anchoring the staff as just a junior, plus quality innings from the hard-throwing Virbitsky and senior Will Phillips (Amherst commit), EA’s spirits are buoyant as the season beings. Freshman righty Jack O’Reilly is also tipped to contribute from the start.
The talent is certainly there; combined with the cohesion of playing together for several years, Burman hopes that EA can banish some of its recent bugaboos. One was a lack of focus in game situations. Hickey stresses game circumstances often — he devoted the better part of the last hour to it in Tuesday’s practice — and Virbitsky is appreciative to Hickey for expanding his baseball knowledge through the years.
As leaders, the insistence on maintaining focus at those key moments flows from the seniors on down.
“We just need to remind everybody what our goals are and that there are no days off, especially mentally,” said Burman, a first baseman. “Sometimes we lose focus or we’re not energized enough, but as long as we keep that straight and keep that in everyone’s mind and everyone’s motivated, that way we’re going to play the baseball we’re capable of.”
“We have to come every day with the same mentality: We’re coming to get better, and we’re going to improve every single day,” Lotsis said.
Part of the growth stems from the challenges that Hickey furnishes. They’ll often dip into the Friends League and Catholic League for nonleague games, and their early-season preparation includes a trip to Florida. Last year, they entertained teams from out-of-state, like South Jersey power Bishop Eustace.
With greater latitude in scheduling than the stringent PIAA limits, Hickey’s schedule usually creeps toward 40 games (weather permitting) to challenge his team and prep them for the rigors of the Inter-Ac.
“We want to be an elite program,” Lotsis said. “And in order to be an elite program, we need to go up against some of the best teams in the area and learn from what they do and how we can improve our game so that we can be one of those elite teams and end up beating those teams.”
Learning from Hickey and getting attuned to his expectations have the Churchmen very optimistic as the season dawns.
“I think that if we play the baseball that we want to play,” Burman said, “we’re going to beat a lot of teams.”
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