By Will LeBlond
A winless 2016 campaign was tough for the Newfield High School baseball team, but a strong-willed group has the program back to relevance in 2017.
Injuries, including the team’s top two pitchers, and a lack of players made it difficult for the Trojans to pick up a victory last season. With a lot of work to be done to get back to where Coach Jeff Augustine wants his program to be, he took on that task during the offseason.
“I can tell you the truth, I haven’t slept much through the end of last season,” said Augustine jokingly. “Something that has clearly been on our agenda is what we need to do differently and how we accomplish those things.”
Transformation on the field starts with the players and it starts before the season even begins. The Trojans knew that well and, since the cold months of winter, the team has been getting better.
“I’ve been really pleased with the boys’ effort,” said Augustine. “They showed up the first day of preseason in late January and we had 10 kids at a minimum for every session. That’s getting up at 6 a.m. on a Sunday and it’s not fun, but I’ve appreciated the work that they’ve put in to try and get back.”
The group of players for this year’s edition of the Trojans has a rare combination of experience and newcomers, who are picking up the game again after five, and in one case, 10 years away from the sport.
Junior Nolan Ruocco, who had been away from baseball for a decade, has a lot of close friends on the team that he wanted a chance to play with, but his other motive came from Broadway.
Ruocco was the lead professional baseball player in the school’s recent production of “Damn Yankees” and after starring in a role on the stage, he wanted to try it again on the field. From rehearsing lines to taking batting practice, it’s been a unique transition back to the sport.
“The hardest part has been to get back in the groove of everything,” said Ruocco. “It’s been tough to get focused in on hitting and catching all kinds of weird hops and pop flies, I kind of had to re-learn it all.”
Ruocco has benefited from the senior leadership of the team, including four-year player Andrew Miller. Both of them were on the basketball team that lost in the Class D State Championship Game this past winter, and they have brought that relentless attitude into the spring season.
“I feel like we have a good group of kids and we go out every day and we have a goal set,” said Miller. “We want to be competitive and it doesn’t matter who we play, we’ll be gritty and try to get some runs and win games.”
Just like the basketball team, who had to play a good deal of their postseason games far away from town, the baseball team has had to hit the road this season for their games. During the fall, renovations were made on both the varsity baseball and softball fields at Newfield, but the work was not completed in time for the spring season, which forced the teams to juggle their schedule.
In turn, Augustine’s team has practiced on the likes of the school’s tennis courts and a T-ball field, but the players’ spirits have not gone down.
“We’ve been very creative with coming up with drills,” said Augustine. “We try to simulate being out on the diamond, but the kids have been great. Their attitude and their effort have been tremendous.”
They have battled through to start the year with a 3-5 record, but that also includes an important win over Candor. Their victory against the Indians came with celebration, as it clinched a spot in the Class D Section IV playoffs. With Candor being the only fellow Class D school that Newfield plays, they just needed to win one of two games against them to clinch the .500 winning percentage needed to qualify for sectionals.
“We’re excited to know that we’re back in sectionals,” said Miller. “We have a chance to do something this year, but we still have to work hard and make sure that we don’t get complacent.”
With plenty of season still to be played, the Trojans are taking it day-by-day, but their original plan that was set out by Augustine has been executed in spades so far.
“We were very clear at the start of the season that we were going to be road warriors,” said Augustine. “We set the expectation early on that we would be playing all of the games away, it was just easier to accept that right off the break and go to work. They’ve embraced it, they kind of like the role of being the underdog.”
Augustine’s underdogs are back in action on Wednesday, May 3, at Candor for their Senior Recognition Night, then they will take on Groton on Friday, May 5.