After a whirlwind season last year in which Mike Wasienko’s first year as head coach of the Lenape baseball team coincided with the return of high-school sports after COVID, he had a number of things he wanted to implement and see unfold during his second season at the helm.
After watching then-junior Chase Topolski lead the staff in both innings pitched and strikeouts during the 2020-’21 season, one of the things Wasienko was most looking forward to this year was seeing his now-senior ace develop in his final year at Lenape.
“I told Chase when I first got the job before last season that I was going to challenge him for the next two years to make sure that he’s ready to go to college and pitch at the next level,” the coach said. “We’ve asked him to pitch in pretty much all of our big games this season.
“If you look at the teams he’s played against, it would be hard to find someone that has gone against as many tough teams as he has and he’s done a great job in doing so,” he added. “We’ve asked a ton of him and we owe a lot of our success to him.
“We wouldn’t be here without him.”
Following a 14-11 first season last year, the Indians sit at 18-5 after a 9-3 win over Cherry Hill East that concluded the regular season. Earlier in May, Lenape played in the Joe Hartmann Diamond Classic final, the program’s first championship appearance in the South Jersey baseball tournament since 2010.
Topolski started on the mound in the Diamond Classic final game against St. Augustine; he’s also been on the hill for the team’s games against Shawnee, Eastern and Cherokee.
Topolski said he likes the pressure and has enjoyed the added push from his coach the past two seasons.
“It was expected before the start of these last two years that I would probably face everybody’s best … and it would be a real duel every time I’m out there,” Topolski said. “It’s definitely tough, but it’s exciting knowing that I can compete with any team we might face.
“I go out there with a chip on my shoulder and I trust the guys that are out there with me,” he added. “I honestly trust them more than myself. I know the bats are always alive when I’m pitching.”
Topolski and the rest of the senior class are a group Wasienko felt fairly comfortable with entering the 2021-’22 season. He had confidence they would produce and hold their weight over the course of the year.
What Wasienko was uncertain of at first was the potential of the underclassman to find their footing. But after the implementation of a new strength and conditioning plan during the offseason, he said his team entered the year more prepared than ever.
“This senior class was really strong coming into the season, so I was confident about what they could do,” Wasienko said. “It was just a matter of getting the team together. This was the first real, normal offseason we’d had [since he became head coach], so getting our guys in the weight room three days a week was really big.”
One of the team’s biggest bats has been senior Max D’Alessandro, who between getting the first year of varsity baseball under his belt last season and a full offseason program, has emerged as one of the most dangerous hitters in the Olympic Conference.
D’Alessandro is hitting an even .400 while leading the team in runs and being among its top producers of homers, doubles and RBIs. The senior also has the highest slugging percentage among the team’s starters.
The senior had a rough introduction to varsity baseball last season: He missed the entire preseason schedule after getting COVID, then suffered an injury early on that limited the number of games in which he saw action. Being healthy and seeing consistent at-bats this year has been beyond beneficial.
“I missed the preseason because I had COVID and then I got back to start our first game but got hurt in the second one, which kept me out for a while,” D’Alessandro said. “I had to jump through hoops to really get to even play last year. So this year, after playing summer ball, I got my confidence back and I brought it into this season, which has helped a lot.”
Wasienko said what his team has been able to accomplish in terms of its overall record and improvement in general has been huge over the past few months, perhaps more than he initially expected. But after a postseason run last spring that saw Lenape make it to the NJSIAA South Jersey Group 4 semifinal round against Clearview, the coach is eager to see what his guys can do early this month.
“These guys are hungry to get in another playoff run, much like they did last year,” Wasineko said. “What they’ve been able to do this season so far is amazing. Not many people would’ve picked us to be in the position we were in earlier this season to have a chance to win the Diamond Classic. So these guys have surprised a lot of people, including myself.
“They’ve exceeded my expectations as a whole big time.”