Knights’ baseball team to lean on pitching, defense

By Warren Rappleyea

Pitching and defense will again be the keys for Old Bridge High School’s baseball team as it looks to improve on the 14-13 mark it posted a year ago.

The good news for the Knights is that three pitchers are back, including staff ace Joe Papeo, who went 3-3 last season with 34 strikeouts in 39 innings of work. Jake Kodros and Billy Geiger both posted 3-1 marks last spring, with Kodros notching 45 strikeouts in 32 innings. Geiger pitched a total of 18 innings — primarily as a reliever.

“We have two strong starters and if we get a couple of our other guys to step up and become third and fourth starters, that will help,” coach Jimmy Freel said. “Overall, I like our pitching. If the players behind them catch the ball, we’ll be all right.”

Senior lefty T.J. Hunt; juniors Connor Freel, Andrew Heck and Paul Tannicilli; and sophomore Sonny Fauci round out the Old Bridge pitching staff.

Papeo, who led the team with a .308 batting average in 2016, gives the Knights a strong defensive presence in center field when he’s not on the mound. The other starting outfielders include Kodros, Fauci and T.J. Angstadt, who is coming off a .273 campaign. Jalen Hernandez, Pasquale Fuda and sophomore Mike Bonilla provide depth.

Rob Dacunto, who drove home 11 runs with a .265 average, is the first baseman in an all-senior starting infield. Mike Russo is the second baseman, Rob LaConti will play shortstop and Jon Sammarco handles the hot corner. Carlos Lopez and junior Matt LaConti are the reserves. Zach Scire is the starting catcher with junior designated hitter Rob Bradley in reserve.

“We don’t have a whole lot of varsity experience,” coach Freel said “Even though we have a lot of seniors for many of them, it’s their first year as a starter. They’re going to be learning as they go.”

The Knights got in six scrimmages, and the coach said his team is anxious to get underway after having its April 1 opener with South Brunswick High School postponed by rain. The game has been rescheduled for April 12 in Old Bridge.

“Overall, I think we’ll be OK,” the coach said. “I saw some flashes that were very good. I also saw some flashes that showed we have to work on some things. Right now, we still have a lot of questions to answer.”

Old Bridge was slated to visit South Brunswick April 3 for a Greater Middlesex Conference (GMC) Red Division matchup. The Knights are off until April 8 when Arthur L. Johnson High School visits. Following the makeup date with South Brunswick, Old Bridge will travel to Saint Joseph Regional High School of Montvale before resuming its Red Division schedule by hosting the April 17 opener of a home-and-home series with Monroe Township High School.

“We know that we may have trouble scoring runs,” coach Freel said. “I’m hoping some of our guys can step it up at the plate. But right now, we have to make the runs we get count. It always comes back to pitching and defense.”