Last year, the Cherokee High School baseball team was one of the state’s biggest surprises in the playoffs when they advanced all the way to the South Jersey Group IV championship game as the №13 seed. The Chiefs won three straight road games and upset №1 seed Eastern Regional High School in the semifinals before losing to Williamstown High School in the title game.
This year, the Chiefs don’t expect to sneak up on anyone. They expect to be one of the area’s top teams from the beginning of the season to the end.
“This is the team we’ve been anticipating for years and years,” junior pitcher Jarrad Delarso said. “Our whole field is all returning players. Last year, everyone was a rookie to varsity. Now everyone has a lot of experience.”
Cherokee will be bringing back a very experienced starting lineup, with six seniors anchoring positions in the field. One of those is outfielder Evan Powell, who hit four home runs for the Chiefs last year. Powell fractured his fibula during the football season, but was able to recover from the injury during the winter. He was cleared for full baseball activity just as practice began in March.
“I feel completely back to normal,” Powell said. “It feels great running around again.”
Powell emphasized the importance of scoring runs for Cherokee this season. The Chiefs only have two pitchers from last year’s staff returning in 2016. With a young pitching staff expected to toss some games in the regular season, Cherokee hopes to give them plenty of run support.
“One thing we must do is get a lot of runs,” Powell said. “They don’t necessarily need to be the prettiest runs, we just needs to get runs on the board.”
On the mound, Delarso and senior Nick Snyder will be the workhorses for Cherokee. Snyder shut down Eastern in Cherokee’s upset win last May, while Delarso tossed three strong innings of one-hit ball the round prior in an upset victory over Washington Township.
“It was huge. It was a lot of fun,” Snyder said of last year’s playoff run. “Pitching in an atmosphere like that isn’t going to make any other game easier, but it definitely helps with confidence.”
This preseason, both players have worked with the pitchers vying for the other varsity spots. Delarso said it’s important for the pitching staff to work as a unit.
“The chemistry as a team is a big thing, especially for the pitchers,” he said. “We have four sophomores who are trying to get up to the varsity level. They are all pretty well-conditioned.”
Snyder believes a lot in winning the mental battle on the mound. To help his teammates with this, he keeps notes during their outings.
“Last year, I would take notes on every pitcher,” Snyder said. “First-pitch strikes, what counts they would throw certain pitches. I’m going to do the same thing this year. After the game, I would always write up a report on things they would need to work on.”
Senior catcher Mike Borucki will also play a big role in getting the new pitchers acclimated to throwing on the varsity level.
“I really focus on developing a bond with all these pitchers and really getting to know them well and seeing what they like to throw on different spots,” Borucki said. “We always have to have the communication together. Without that, we won’t be able to win games.”
Head coach Marc Petragnani said the team likely won’t determine who exactly will start behind Snyder and Delarso until just before the season begins.
“We had two inter-squad scrimmages and everyone has had a chance to throw at least once in a live situation,” he said. “It’s really wide open.”
Regardless of who fills out the pitching staff, Petragnani said Snyder and Delarso will be on the mound in the big games for the Chiefs.
“They know what they’re capable of,” he said. “We know what they’re capable of. They know their expectations of themselves are higher than ours will ever be.”
Expectations are sky high for Cherokee this season. The returning players know they won’t be able to sneak up on the opposition this season and are prepared for the challenge.
“I expect us to get more aces than we did last year,” Delarso said. “I guess some teams took us lightly. But they know what we’re capable of now.”
“To get that close and come up short, we’re never going to take a moment for granted this year,” Borucki added. “We’re going to work as hard as we can to get back there.”