New Britain City Journal

New Britain's Weekly Online Newspaper

The Sports Journal

Mercado Forecasts Success For Junior-Laden ‘Canes

The sub-.500 season that the New Britain High baseball team endured last year by no means indicates any trace of failure or lack of respect among opponents.

The Hurricanes were somewhat challenged offensively, but most of the defeats were close, hard-fought affairs in the CCC West, probably the best top-to-bottom league in the state.

The 5-15 campaign served as an effective building block that should lead head coach Roberto Mercado and the ’Canes to happier outcomes. Mercado expects some of those difficult losses to blossom into enough wins this spring to return to the postseason.

“I expect to compete,” Mercado said Tuesday, after his charges battled the elements to play outside for the first time. “It’s a tough conference with a lot of good coaching and you’ve got to be ready to play. We’ve got to get to the postseason then take it from there.”

As Mercado notes, there are no days off in the CCC West.

Southington and Newington are just two years removed from their epic battle in the Class LL championship. Hall and Conard have reaped the benefits of improved youth programs in West Hartford. Defending league champion Northwest Catholic made it to the Class S semifinals. Farmington is two years removed from playing in the Class L championship game and Simsbury has always been a baseball stronghold.

To weather that storm, Mercado has a solid group of juniors along with a core of senior leaders and exceptional talent at key positions.

Among the upperclassmen, Nick Rodriguez flashes superior tools at shortstop. Mercado said he wears the crown of leadership. He earned the respect around the circuit as his being named to the All-CCC West team will attest. The only other returning starter is junior catcher Kevin Dukes, who emerged as a starter and potentially one of the top players in the league.

“Dukes can be special,” Mercado said. “He does a great job behind the plate and he can swing it.

“I didn’t expect much last year. He struggled, but then his first varsity hit was a home run out of Rock Cats Stadium. He swung the bat well ever since. He did well the second half of the season once he got his feet wet.”

“Small ball” generally is New Britain’s forte, and Mercado has plenty of speed at the top of the lineup. Home runs have diminished since the specifications of the alloy bats were altered to enhance safety.

“We’ll hit and run and steal a lot of bases,” Mercado said. “Pitching and defense is our big thing.”

While Mercado’s top hurlers from a year ago have graduated, his stable of live arms is plentiful enough that the decision on who’s to start opening day remains a pleasant dilemma.

“We have about seven guys,” he said. “I have an idea but not 100 percent.

“[Junior] Gabe Santana, a transfer from Boston, is going to be good for us. There’s Danny Annear. Sunday Okoro throws hard. Malcolm McLeod and Kevin Fazio have a shot as well.

“The great thing is, they’re all juniors. If they need a start with the [junior varsity], they can work on the things they want to work on. It’s like a flex thing where we can bring guys up and send them down.”

Others in the starting mix are three seniors – outfielders Tyler Gamber and Jon Aleman, and versatile Ben Fischbein. Mercado cited the intelligence with which Fischbein plays the game as a major asset. He gives Mercado a second option behind the plate if he chooses to use Dukes as a designated hitter.

Big first baseman Hugh Crundwell is being counted on to generate some power in the middle of the order. Miguel Ortiz Jr. is set to replace dynamic Nestor Velazquez in center field. Mike Calvo, beset by injuries a year ago, has emerged as the starting second baseman. Elvin Silva and Toby Taradeina are also competing for starting slots.

Perhaps the most promising aspect of all is the chemistry that New Britain’s young ballplayers have forged through a well-organized, year-round commitment to the game.

“The summer team was excellent under Randy Brochu,” Mercado said. “The fall as well. The kids got to know each other, even Gabe after he transferred over. They worked out three days a week with the school trainer and hit on their own.

“They’ve really prepared themselves for a solid season. Their work ethic has been excellent.”

AUTISM AWARENESS: The first home game against Goodwin Tech at Beehive Stadium Friday, April 5 will be a day for raising autism awareness.

“April is Autism Awareness Month and we wanted to do something, not necessarily a fund-raiser but mainly for awareness,” Mercado said. “The players will be wearing blue items and we’ll be handing out pamphlets. The Hospital for Special Care and Jason Jakubowski are involved. We’re asking [school board president] Sharon Saavedra to get involved.”

He said he hopes the effort will call attention to the programs for the city’s autistic children at Gaffney School.

Game time is 3:45 p.m. Those planning to attend are asked to wear something blue.

NEW BRITAIN

Coach: Roberto Mercado (3rd year, 23-21)

Last Year: 5-15, 3-11 (CCC West, 6th place)

Key Losses: Nestor Velazquez, Greg Boncek, Bobby Turca, Kenny Noyola, Dylan Heath, Rafael Gonzalez, Brendan Emmons, Jack Fazzino, Manny Gonzalez

2013 Lineup: Tyler Gamber (sr. OF), Nick Rodriguez (sr. SS), Kevin Dukes (jr. C), Miguel Ortiz Jr. (jr. CF), Jon Aleman (sr. OF), Ben Fischbein (sr. OF, C), Danny Annear (jr. P/IF), Hugh Crundwell (jr. 1B), Mike Calvo (jr. 2B), Gabe Santana (jr. P/IF), Elvin Silva (so. OF), Toby Taradeina (jr.), Sunday Okoro (jr. P), Malcolm McLeod (jr. P), Kevin Fazio (jr. P)

Of Note: Six former ’Canes are playing college ball at SUNY Adirondack in Queensbury, N.Y.