Heavy Graduation Losses Don’t Deter NBHS Baseball Team
In the cyclical realm of high school baseball, New Britain is coming off its best season in the post-Ken Kezer era.
Extensive graduation losses followed the stirring 18-6 campaign but former NBHS star Roberto Mercado, who took over for Brian Crowley last year, doesn’t buy into the mundane rebuilding presumption.
The youth baseball programs in the city continue to churn out quality players and Mercado feels he can accelerate the learning curve so the Hurricanes can compete in a CCC West division that includes the two Class LL finalists Southington and Newington, the Class L runner-up in Farmington, a Northwest Catholic squad that figured to make a deep run in Class S, two competitive West Hartford teams and always competitive Simsbury.
“We have two returning starters after graduating 15 guys but we’re working hard,” he said prior to falling to 1-2 after an extra-inning loss to Northwest April 11.
“There’s stiff competition for who will start and we’re still trying to figure out who is going to play where.”
But excuses are not part of Mercado’s repertoire.
“I promised myself that I would never use being too young as an excuse,” he said. “That’s unacceptable for me. We try to prepare them the best we can and get them ready. Inexperienced? Yes, but you’ve got to make plays, throw strikes and score runs. People say it’s a rebuilding year but I’m not a believer. Every year we’ll be capable of competing.”
One of New Britain’s most talented classes donned caps and gowns last June. Fleet leadoff hitter Allen Nunez, shortstop Bryan Rivera, middle-of-the-order outfielders Matt Martinez and Kian Downes, first baseman Mike Sturges and catcher Donovan Carrasquillo were among the wave of departing seniors.
Third baseman Kenny Noyola and center fielder Nestor Velazquez started last year and Mercado is counting on them to lead. Eighth and ninth hitters a year ago, they are expected to populate the middle of the order as New Britain seeks its place among CCC West heavyweights.
“Velazquez batted.333 and he’s a solid defender,” Mercado said. “He can run the bases and hit the ball. Last year he batted at the bottom when we were stacked, but this year he has to be more of a run producer. I expect a little more out of him.”
Noyola and Greg Boncek, the Hurricanes’ top hurler, were elected captains by their peers. Boncek plays first base when he’s not pitching. Senior Robert Turka fills the number two pitching slot.
“He throws strikes and lets the defense do the job,” Mercado said.
Shortstop Nick Rodriguez replaces Nunez at the leadoff spot.
“He’s getting better every day,” Mercado said. “He’s got decent wheels and gives us good at-bats. He didn’t play much last year but his approach at the plate has been solid. His seven- and eight-pitch at-bats gives us the opportunity to see what the pitcher has.”
Brendan Emmons looms as a run-producing hitter who hits with power to all fields. He’ll play first when Boncek pitches and he’ll get some time on the mound in relief.
Junior outfielder Jon Aleman offers a good glove and strong top-of-the-order offensive skills.
Perhaps Mercado’s ace in the hole is senior second sacker Jack Fazzino, who didn’t play last year for reasons that Mercado understands and respects.
“He’s number two in his class,” Mercado said. “He was concentrating on getting into an Ivy League school. He’s been accepted to Boston College and he’s on the waiting list for Harvard. He’s a very bright kid and a great role model.”
Fazzino hits in the cleanup slot.
Mercado sees a great future for catcher Kevin Dukes, a position where sophomores rarely start.
“He’s very talented and has a lot of potential,” Mercado said. “He’s going to make mistakes but I’m willing to live with that. He’s strong and mature for a 15-year-old and a solid leader. I’m happy to have him for three years.”
Dylan Heath opened the season as the starting left fielder. He’ll have to fend off competition from Tyler Gamber and sophomore Miguel Ortiz Jr. is also waiting in the wings. Infielder Manny Gonzalez is also bidding for playing time. Junior Ben Fischbein is a reserve catcher.
The CCC West isn’t likely to be what it was a year ago – hands down the best league in the state – but the competition won’t fall off too much. While Farmington is in the same mode as New Britain, Northwest Catholic is on the upswing. Programs at Southington and Newington always benefit from big numbers and fruitful youth programs. A fundamentally sound Hall squad isn’t apt to finish last again while Conard tries to recover from losing its ace hurler Nick Miceli to prep school.
Mercado wouldn’t want the competition to line up any other way.
“It just makes us better long run,” he said. “Every team we play is quality, even [games outside the West],” he said. We’ll take it one game at a time. It’s a tough conference and that’s how we want it. I don’t want cupcake wins.
“We’ve got a good group of kids and they’ll come through.”