Lions aim to focus on fundamentals

by Matt Couture / Beacon Staff • March 2, 2016

It’s difficult to imagine the Red Sox playing a home game at Yankee Stadium. Away from the comfort of Fenway Park, with unfriendly fans in the stands, the Sox wouldn’t be expected to thrive. 

Division III baseball isn’t the big leagues, but ballplayers are ballplayers. So when Emerson’s team heard it was acquiring its own stadium ahead of the 2016 season, junior pitcher Cal Laird said the club was psyched. 

“That’s the one thing that our whole team’s been wanting, is a place to call home,” Laird said. “It’s a huge relief knowing that we don’t have to jump around from field to field. I think it really boosts our morale as a team.”

Last April, coming off their first win—a conference victory over the United States Coast Guard Academy—the Lions faced an ominous note in fine print on their schedule. It read that their next game would be played “at Babson [College] with Emerson as the ‘home team.’”

Now gearing up for 2016, it’s all about the new for Emerson’s roster of 25. The team hired a new head coach, Nick Vennochi, last summer. They’ll be hosting Babson this April, at Campanelli Stadium in Brockton, their new home field. And they’ll be implementing a newer, more aggressive strategy on the mound and on the basepaths, according to Vennochi.  

Vennochi brings first-hand experience; he played baseball for three years at Emerson between 2009 and 2011. Since taking over, he said he’s tried to instill in his players the need to treat the sport as a priority. 

“[With] baseball, we have to hone our craft every single day,” Vennochi said. “This isn’t just a part-time job here; this is a full-time job. If you want to play varsity athletics in the [New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference], and you want to compete, you’ve got to work on it every day.”

Vennochi’s expanded training schedule hasn’t bothered players, according to sophomore pitcher Henry Schwartz. Schwartz said that, instead, its been designed to fit the needs and wants of his teammates.

“Right away, the change was attitude and effort,” Schwartz, a marketing communication major, said. “Last year, a lot of us wanted more time to practice, more time to work out, but we would only get like an hour. Now, everything is given to us. There’s really no reason for us to fail with everything [Vennochi has] given to us.”

Schwartz said the Lions would prefer to forget last season, a campaign that saw them finish 2-27 overall, and 1-16 in NEWMAC games. Vennochi said that instead of sulking about the past, it’s the team’s job to move into the future.

“The record is something we don’t shy away from, we don’t hide from,” Vennochi said. “I always tell these guys, we are what we are; we were what we were. Just use it as motivation.”

While the Lions were ranked eighth and last in the 2016 NEWMAC pre-season coaches’ poll, Vennochi said they are internally optimistic that they will be on a more level playing field with conference foes Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Springfield College, and Coast Guard. 

Vennochi called the two top-ranked teams in the poll, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Wheaton College, “tougher,” along with Babson. He said the struggle against already elite programs is that their talent isn’t evaporating. 

“We’re going to get better—now,” Vennochi said. “We already are better. But the other teams aren’t going to get any worse. We have to really jump a couple of levels to get up to them. We’ve got to meet them at the top.”

The team’s pitchers, in an effort to do just that, are working on command of the strike zone. Schwartz said that when games spiraled out of control for Emerson last spring, the base on balls was usually to blame.

“A lot of teams, if you put the ball low in the zone [and] you have some good speed on it, there’s nothing they can really do about it,” Schwartz said. “We would just walk the ballpark a lot, and that’s what killed us.”

Schwartz finished the season permitting 11 free passes, while striking out 15 batters in 36 1/3 innings pitched. Laird walked 20 in 45 innings, while registering 22 punch-outs.

Vennochi said he hopes to “stack pitchers together” early in the year to have his best talent on the mound in the closest games, and to get the most out of each hurler.

“Making these guys just sell out is the key,” Vennochi said. “If it’s one batter, if it’s four batters, if it’s four innings, sell out, and then get out of there, because it’s [the] next guy’s turn.”

Laird said the plan should allow starters to pitch under less pressure and will be a welcome change.

“Doing that is going to provide us with more support in the relief innings, and last year that’s something we struggled with,” Laird, a visual and media arts major, said. “I think that late inning support from our starters is really going to help us push through and win those close games that are very hard.”

On the other side of the ball, Vennochi said he expects to exploit the team’s physical advantages, which he hopes will lead to errors by opponents.

“Our biggest strength is our team’s speed,” Vennochi said. “That’s what we’re going to be focusing on this year—our mentality is going to be totally aggressive on the basepaths. That doesn’t always mean stealing, it just means getting big leads [and] forcing the other team to throw the ball places they don’t normally want to throw it to.”

Vennochi said his lineup isn’t set in stone throughout March and April, and he anticipates serious early playing time for underclassmen. Laird, who logged 24 at bats in his first two collegiate seasons despite primarily pitching, said hitters are looking to be on top of opponents’ offerings early in the count.  

“Offensively, we’re trying to get more aggressive attacking pitches,” Laird said. “During the [2015] season, against a lot of the NEWMAC teams, we were pretty passive, which ended up really hurting us in a lot of our games.”

The Lions traveled to Malden Catholic High School to play host to Wentworth in a tune-up for their annual Florida slate on Saturday. Behind a walk-off double from senior Steve Cameron, Emerson defeated the Leopards, 9-8 in 11 innings. As a unit, the team stole eight bases.

The win marked their second straight—last year’s club closed out the season with a 5-2 triumph over Rivier. Vennochi said he’s evaluating every game—conference and nonconference—with the same ultimate goal in mind.

“They all mean the same to me right now,” Vennochi said. “It’s all about getting these reps and having this structure, so when we come back in the fall, we have something that we can actually stand on. I’d love to say we’re going to be in the playoffs, but realistically, we just want to compete; we want the other team to know we’re there. We want them to feel us.”