AYER -- In his third season at the helm of the Ayer Shirley Regional baseball team, Scott Callanan believes this is his deepest lineup yet. But with the graduation of sure-swinging right fielder Luke Snyder, the Panthers are still searching for that big-bat in the middle of the lineup. Ayer Shirley also took a hit to its pitching rotation with the graduation of No. 2 starter, Kyle Larter.
The Panthers have a lot of depth and chemistry, especially within the junior class. The team expects to play a lot of close games this season with a solid contingent of ground ball pitchers.
"We have about five kids who are ready to pitch right now," Callanan said. "I have three players who also can pitch, and they will likely be ready to help us further on down the road. I think we have some promise with about eight or nine kids in total that have the ability to pitch. Our offense needs to score at least four-to-five runs per game, if we want to have a chance to win."
Last season, the Panthers went a staggering 1-6 in games decided by one run. If Ayer Shirley had been victorious in at least half of those games, it might have been looking at a postseason berth. Ayer Shirley finished 5-12 overall.
"We need to find a way to score runs no matter who is pitching," the coach said. "The big goal this year is to make districts. If we had one less error or one more hit in half of those one-run games, we are suddenly a nine win team last year. We have been talking a lot about what it is going to take to win those games. It's a lot of mental preparation."
The Panthers have just two seniors on the roster in catcher Jake Hannon and Seth Newell.
"Jake is hoping that he can guide this team to districts in his senior year," Callanan said. "I think we are close. Hannon does a good job in the off-season communicating with the guys to get them together and do some swinging."
Hannon is projected to be Ayer Shirley's starting catcher, and he will also see time at first base during the course of the season. Newell is projected to play in left field and will pick up innings in the infield as needed. Also in the outfield mix are Tyler Mayo in right field and Alex Walker in center field. Walker is the most athletic of the outfielders with blazing speed and a strong arm.
"Seth had a very good year for us last year," Callanan said. "Seth was a super utility guy for us. Newell was very steady and reliable. Tyler has seemed to have improved from his sophomore year.
"Walker will play his second full year starting in center field," said Callanan. "His athletic ability goes without saying. He is like a football player when he plays baseball -- he leaves it all on the field. Walker will be a constant threat when he is at the plate and on the base paths. Walker is as fast as they come. I expect him to have a big year for us."
Sophomore Mike Tonelli is projected to play at third-base, and will likely land the No. 2 spot on the rotation behind junior ace Danny Baldino. Baldino will also see time at catcher and shortstop. Sophomore Kyle Jumper will be in the mix at third and shortstop. At second base will be junior Alex Calabrese. Sophomore Austin Schmalz will be a catcher/utility player. Schmalz bats lefty and pitches right-handed.
Aside from Walker and Baldino, Schmalz is the third fastest kid on the team. Schmalz is competing to catch, pitch and play in the outfield. Junior Bobby Lawton will see time at designated hitter and in the outfield.
"Lawton has the potential to extend our line-up," he said. "He has the potential to be a middle-of-the-order guy. He hurt his shoulder last year. He had a very promising JV campaign as a freshman. He was called up for one game his freshman year and in his only at-bat, he hit a home run. He hit the ball halfway across the parking lot." Finding their niche and earning their stripes will be Jason Boutlier, Deven Keady and lefty Elric Cahill.
"The team wants to win," Callanan said. "They expect to win. This is probably the most athletic group I have had."