The 2016 season was a season to forget for the Sweet Home Panthers baseball team. The Panthers went a disappointing 5-17, and 2-10 in the ECIC Division II last year before being knocked out of the playoffs in the Class A-1 quarterfinals by Grand Island.
The biggest thing the Panthers learned from 2016 is that you need to do more than show up.
“We need to take practices seriously. There was a lot of joking around at practice last year. For a lot of kids, baseball was an activity for them,” senior Kevin Liska said. “This year there is a more serious vibe at practice. Everyone is buying into the program.”
Head coach Jon Campolo noticed that players began to take things more seriously during the off-season.
“Last year a lot of guys were on their own islands,” Campolo said. “Our guys have been showing up to the baseball open gyms this year. They have taken leadership roles and learned about team.”
The new attitude isn’t the only reason the Panthers are excited for 2017. Sweet Home returns eight starters from last year’s team.
“It’s going to be huge,” senior Mike Romanowski said. “We have a lot of leaders this year.”
Not only does Sweet Home have returning starters, but those starters are also versatile. Six of the Panthers’ starters can play at least two positons on field, including four guys who can play at three more or spots.
“It’s one of the things I’m most excited about. With guys who can play multiple positions, I have the latitude to do so many different things. We’re able to move guys around so if somebody is struggling, we have guys to back them up,” Campolo said. “It’s a luxury.”
Romanowski is returning for his third year on the varsity. The senior is expected to be the Panthers top pitcher this season. Romanowski will also play second and third base. He averaged .382 at the plate last year.
Senior Sean Whitehead will be a three-year varsity starter for Sweet Home. Whitehead lead the team with 18 stolen bases in 2016.
“(Romanowski) and (Whitehead) mean a tremendous amount to this team. They are natural leaders,” Campolo said. “They guys rally around them.”
Liska, who will be the No. 2 man on the pitching staff this year, will start at first base and play in right field for the Panthers. The senior did not strike out once as a junior.
“He made contact every time,” Campolo said. “I know he’s going to be a solid hitter.”
Senior Jake Ohman is back after an injury forced him to miss the entire 2016 season. Ohman is a multi-positional player that will be spend time on the mound this season.
Anthony Frascatore is back for his second season on the varsity. The junior will start in left field. As a sophomore, Frascatore batted .350.
Luke Pappagallo, Luke Dory, Tyler Edholm, and Josh Bystrak will also start for the Panthers.
Campolo is also looking for impact from his underclassmen in freshman Shawn Romanowski and sophomore Keith Murphy.
Juniors Mike McKeehan, Brandon Scott, Brian Lovering, Evan Bezak, and Jack Gardner round out the Sweet Home opening day roster.
The new rule changes regarding pitch counts and nights of rest for pitchers will be an advantage for Sweet Home as the Panthers have at least five guys who they can comfortably put on the mound.
“Our pitching staff is all returning,” Liska said. “We feel we’re going to be solid. We have three fantastic starting pitchers and we have a lot relief pitchers to make sure that pitch counts don’t get too high.”
The Panthers open the season on Saturday against Maryvale, home at 10 a.m.
Campolo has been clear with his team about their expectations in the first two weeks of practices.
“We are very goal driven,” Campolo said. “We know they we can have a winning season. They know they have the potential and the ability and skill to do it.”