By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
If a team’s preseason record was an accurate indication of its prospects, the schools of the North Bay League would be more worried about wipeouts than rainouts.
Defending league co-champion Cardinal Newman completed its preseason slate with a 5-5 record, which looks pretty good in the NBL right now. Rancho Cotate, which fought the Cardinals tooth and nail all of last season, is 2-6. Montgomery, which made a late-season charge to the 2011 playoffs, is 2-5.
Read between the numbers, though, and you’ll notice some daunting non-league schedules. Newman took a trip to Arizona.
Rancho’s swing through Orange County included a game against Cypress, one of the best teams in California. Disappointed with recent North Coast Section playoff seedings, NBL teams are starting to bulk up their March schedules.
“I was just telling my guys the other day, when you start league, you throw out the preseason records,” Cardinal Newman coach TJ McMahon said. “It’s the first time since I’ve taken over this program that we’ve had this type of record. But we played College Park last Friday, who will be in the playoffs. We played Dublin, we played Clayton Valley, teams that will be in the playoffs. This is how good teams are building their preseason.”
Newman and Rancho Cotate were neck-and-neck last season, and they figure to be in the hunt again this season, but the 2012 race is a little harder to handicap. Maria Carrillo could be right there with the Cardinals and Cougars. Ukiah might sneak up on some teams, and Montgomery, with seven sophomores, is a work in progress.
“This year, it looks like anybody can beat anybody on any given day,” Montgomery coach Dean Haskins said. “I don’t know if anyone will be able to run away with it.”
The Cardinals went 23-6 last year and outscored opponents 13-2 in the NCS Division 2 playoffs. But they lost their ace hurler, Redwood Empire player of the year Jason Alexander (he’s pitching for Santa Rosa JC now), and No. 2 pitcher J.J. Jamerson.
McMahon is still sorting out this year’s pitching. In fact, his lineup is far from set in stone.
“Guys are leading the way at certain spots, but we have other guys right behind them, pushing them,” he said. “I can do different things with the lineup, depending on who’s hot at the time. We’re deep in that way.”
Newman really has just three returning starters, but they’re good ones: catcher/DH Bryan Neuerberg, speedy centerfielder Nolan Formway and left fielder Dylan Eterovich. McMahon seems to have found another slugger in junior right fielder Erik Owenson, though. He currently leads the Cardinals in hits (14) and batting average (.483). Mark Peterson is a strong two-position player at pitcher and first base.
Catcher Ryan Haug was an All-Empire pick last year, and he’s back to lead the Cougars to another run at the NBL title.
“He’s our anchor there,” coach John Morrow said. “He’s an excellent catcher, and he controls the pitchers and controls the opponents’ running game.”
It looks like the guys who will be throwing to Haug the most are junior Will Felton and senior Trevor Dodele, and Morrow likes what he’s seen from them so far this year. The Cougars are strong up the middle, with seniors Tanner Goldman at second base, Kevin Castillo at shortstop and Jeff Bart in center field. As always, this team will manufacture plenty of runs with bunting, stealing, sacrificing and other staples of small ball.
“We’re still trying to operate that way,” Morrow said. “We’re pretty aggressive on the bases. We have been hitting fairly well, but no one has a whole lot of power.”
The Pumas were the last team invited to the NCS D2 playoffs last year, losing in the first round to finish 13-13. They’re hoping to improve on that seed in 2012, and they’ll begin NBL play as the only team in the league with a winning record (5-3).
The basis for Carrillo’s hopes is a strong lineup that returns three starters to the infield (Derek Schmidt, Massimo Smaldino and Christopher Collett) and two to the outfield (Mario Smaldino and Vijay Patel). Mario Smaldino, the Pumas center fielder, was their top hitter last season with a .475 average.
“Carrillo has probably been the most consistent run-scoring team I’ve seen,” McMahon said.
The challenge for the Pumas will be finding the pitchers to make the scoring hold up.
The Vikings have a lot of talent on the field. Still, Haskins is under no illusion about where his team stands.
“We’re just young,” he said. “We have seven sophomores on the varsity team. It’s a very steep learning curve. We just try to take one day at a time, learn how to become better teammates and show signs of improvement.”
For a core of veteran leadership, Haskins will look to seniors Karl Nimtz and Dominic Varner, and junior Hayden Brascia. Nimtz, an outfielder, hit .315 in 54 at-bats last year. The crop of sophs includes shortstop Josh Lenney, right fielder Sam McBeth, catcher Kiel Long and second baseman Mitchell West.
The Wildcats have lost a lot of players from last year’s squad, which went 12-9-1 (8-6 in league) and narrowly missed the playoffs. But don’t sleep on them. You can bet the other coaches of the NBL won’t.
“I think Ukiah will surprise some people,” Haskins said. “They’re better than people think.”
Morrow agreed: “Ukiah is always tough to beat.”
Leading the way for the Wildcats are senior outfielder Lukas Pederson and junior pitcher Jeff Piver, who went 5-2 with a 1.30 ERA in a team-high 59« innings last year.
It’s been a while since the Panthers were competitive in baseball, but there’s one thing that gives them hope in 2012: the right arm of Gabe Cramer, one of the best pitchers in the Empire. Cramer struck out 94 batters and walked just 17 innings in 54» last year.
“They gave us fits last year because we saw Cramer both times we played them,” McMahon said. “Anytime you’ve got a guy like Cramer on the hill, you’ve got a chance to win.”
Supporting the senior this year are junior catcher/outfielder Austen Hotchkiss, junior designated hitter Geno Vannucci and sophomore shortstop Michael Walker.
The Prospectors were competitive last year, going 5-9 in the NBL after a withering 0-8 non-league run. And they do have some talent coming back, including senior outfielder Brandon Mills, sophomore shortstop Niko Formosa and senior first baseman Andrew Jones. Mills was a .400 hitter a year ago.
Piner is another team that must find pitching to balance its run production.
No one puts more effort into coaching than Manny de la O, but the reality for the Lobos is that things probably won’t get a lot better until they move to the Sonoma County League next year, along with Piner. Last year, Elsie struggled through an 0-14 league record.
The Lobos do have solid players returning to the diamond in outfielder Dale Newman, shortstop Romario Alvarenga and right-handed pitcher Noe Nava. Newman hit .373 and drove in 17 runs as a junior last season.
You can reach Press Demcorat Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or firstname.lastname@example.org.