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Defending champ Concord baseball eager to make noise again

There were enough memories made to fill a scrapbook when Dillon Emerson’s single down the right field line scored Pat Cannon to win last year’s Division I championship for the Concord High baseball team. For several of the players and coaches on that team, those are images that will be available to be looked back upon for years to come.

But not this year. No looking back allowed. This year, Coach Scott Owen wants his team to begin its defense of 2012 by focusing on – and only on – the spring of 2013.

“One thing we’ve talked about is ‘Who are we?’ ” he said. “We know what we were last year. Who are we? This is us, and we need to figure out who are we.”

What the Crimson Tide is is the defending state champion, but one that endured the typical side effect of winning it all. Graduation hit Concord hard, depriving the Tide of its top two pitchers and the top and heart of its lineup. So with a brand new rotation, reconfigured lineup and still-forming identity, the Tide is heading into this season ready to take on all comers. And the players think they’ll have an answer for them again.

“We’re confident. As long as we work hard, we’ll be right up in the pack,” senior outfielder and captain Mitch Hayes said. “I can see us competing with every one of them.”

Though the graduations of six seniors left the Tide without some firepower, the team has several holdovers from last year’s squad to man key positions. Junior Ben Bengtson and senior captain Alex Bashios started during the championship run last year, and they’ll top the lineup at shortstop and first base, respectively. Senior outfielder Cody Ferns, slated for the three spot, was injured during the postseason last year but was the team’s fifth hitter when healthy, while senior catcher and captain Braden Smith and Hayes will likely take the cleanup and fifth spots.

With the bottom of last year’s lineup sliding up, the bottom part becomes more nebulous. Senior John Dunn projects as the starter at second base, while a combination of seniors Jon Clary, Nate Mullen, Nate Strozewski and Ryan Place and junior Seimou Smith will play for the remaining outfield spot and third base is up in the air between Strozewski and junior Mike Manoogian. Despite the moving parts, Owen likes what he’s seen from the group defensively in early scrimmages, and he expects the bats to be there as the season rolls on.

“I thought our hitting would be a strength, it wasn’t (in scrimmages) last weekend,” he said. “But that was the first time we’d seen live pitching, so I’m not trying to read too much into that.”

The pitching rotation, though reconstructed after the departures of Eddie Dionne and Emerson, isn’t untested. Clary, whose style is based on control and location, and junior lefty Josh Partridge, a harder thrower, both logged varsity innings last year, as did senior Cam Alosa, who will battle for rotation time as well.

“I honestly think we have a pretty good staff,” Bashios said. “We have some guys looking to fill (Dionne’s and Emerson’s) roles nicely, and I think we can do that. I think we can respond to last year’s championship quite nicely this year.”

The Tide will be throwing the newer arms of Bengtson (the projected closer), Place and Seimou Smith into the mix as well, forcing Braden Smith to handle a staff he’s both familiar with and working with for the first time.

“There are definitely challenges, because guys like Cam Alosa, Josh Partridge, Jon Clary, I’ve been working with those guys personally for years,” he said. “The new guys … it’s all about catching their bullpens and seeing what their strengths as a pitcher are, when and when not to call certain pitches, and what they feel comfortable throwing with guys on base.

“Our pitchers, everybody’s saying, ‘Oh they’re unproven, they don’t have varsity-level skill. But I think as the season goes on, we’ll only get better.”

(Drew Bonifant can be reached at 369-3340 or abonifant@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @dbonifant.)

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