FAIRLESS HILLS – Last year was a season of first times in a long time for the Pennsbury Falcon baseball team. Its Suburban One National League title was the first for the school in almost two decades and the state tournament berth was a first for the Falcons in 22.
Unfortunately for Pennsbury, the Falcons saw the departure of many of the players who were instrumental in a 20-6 campaign that landed the Orange & Black in the top eight in the state in 2015. Infielders D.J. Endler (1B), Pat Lawrence (2B) and Zach Szumigala (SS) – all, Suburban One League (SOL) first team selections last year – have all graduated, along with pitchers Logan Buell, Brody McFadden and Sean Maniatis (Widener). Outfielders Freddie Schrandt, Ryan Sheaffer and Tom Augustin are also gone.
That doesn’t mean this season is a do-over at Pennsbury, says head coach Joe Pesci.
“Even though we lost a lot of leadership that we had and a lot of the offense, we’re returning quite a number of guys who have varsity experience.
“We are also returning a good deal of our pitching and defense, all of which comes with a lot of experience.
Returning to the lineup this season is lefthander Zach Conley, a first team All-SOL selection at pitcher in 2015. Second team all-league selection at third base Billy Bethel has also returned to the starting lineup. After batting near a .450 clip last year as a sophomore, Bethel is among 16 juniors in the 2016 Falcon lineup.
“We’re definitely a junior-based team but we’ve been working hard since August and I think we’re ready to go,” said Bethel. “I think we’re going to have a good team.”
Additionally, outfielders Tyrone Hodges (LF), Justin (RF) and Vaughn Ward (CF) played a significant number of innings last season. Junior Dave Murphy, who started a number of games behind the plate last season when Kyle Marshall (PhillyU) went down with a concussion, takes over at catcher.
That leaves spots open at shortstop, first and second base. And when you boil it down to that, it’s not really that big a deal, now is it?
Taking up Szumigala’s position at short is senior Bryen Kimbrough, who comes with some experience gained with his Tri-State Arsenal showcase team. Junior Nick Price takes up the spot vacated by Endler, who has moved on to Mercer County CC. And classmate Ryan McCarty takes a position at second base after playing JV ball at Notre Dame last season.
Leading the way on the hill this season will be Conley. Zach showed what he was made of in the postseason last year, especially in the playback win over Boyertown when the Falcons had their collective backs against the wall.
“All the seniors were great leaders and they set a great precedent for these younger guys that you can’t just come in and expect to win. You have to work and battle every day,” stated Pesci.
“You look at Conley – he’s the spark on the field; he’s an incredible competitor.
“And that translates – the kids see that and follow him.”
After that, Bethel, along with the Vaughn brothers are there to shore up the starting rotation. Pesci also expects juniors Alec Wilson, Brian Bozina, Jon Deiss, Kyle Dear and Price to see time on the mound at Pennsbury. Bethel didn’t pitch at all last year but has some experience pitching AAU ball for the Reading Blue Rocks.
“A lot of these guys are starting to walk into their roles. Last year, they didn’t have to play that role and this year, someone has to step up as a leader,” said Pesci. “We’re starting to see guys step up as vocal leaders as well as on the field.”
“I think we have a great group of guys who are starting to figure out their identity and the leaders are emerging.”
The Falcons are 1-1 thus far in two scrimmages – a 10-0 win over Interboro and a 3-1 loss to Upper Dublin. Pennsbury pitchers accounted for 21 strikeouts against only six walks in those two preseason skirmishes.
“We kept Upper Dublin to three runs and we shut out Interboro so that’s a great sign,” said Pesci.
“We’re playing decent defense and our pitching has been great.
“We have 13 guys who can pitch – guys who will figure it out and they’ll emerge as the season progresses.”
Currently, there’s some concern about the offense among players and coaches alike. While the bats came through against Interboro, the Falcons managed just three hits vs. Upper Dublin.
“Hitting is our biggest struggle, right now,” said Bethel. “We just need to keep working on it.
“If we get the hitting up, we’ll be perfect.”
“We had opportunities; we just ran out of a few innings,” added Pesci.
For his part, Pesci is not too concerned with the offense. The coach says, this time of year, the pitchers have the advantage because the hitters have been practicing indoors all winter.
“There are guys we need to see develop offensively but there’s also guys like (sophomore) Josh Tesarck, who had two hits against Upper Dublin.
“We kind of have to see what happens and maybe manufacture some runs.
“You never know where the offense is going to come from.”
Pennsbury has little time between now and the start of the season, which is Tuesday, March 29 at defending Philadelphia Catholic League (PCL) champion Archbishop Wood. The Falcons return home Thursday, March 31 against Abington and Friday, April 1 at home vs. Hatboro-Horsham. Both the Ghosts and the Hatters were district qualifiers in 2015.
Pennsbury also has tough battles looming with defending Bicentennial Athletic League (BAL) Independence Division and District 1-AAA champ Holy Ghost Prep (May 14), Notre Dame (the Falcons must travel to New Jersey on Saturday, April 9 to face the Irish who were 21-3 last season) and Plymouth-Whitemarsh (Sat., May 7 at P-W), which topped Pennsbury in a 2015 matchup.
Contact the author Steve Sherman at ssherman@21st-Centurymedia.com or @BucksLocalSport on Twitter