Although Post 218 Baseball Took its Lumps in 2021, Future Looks Bright with Foundation of Young Talent
MIDDLE OF THE ACTION: Infielder Kenny Schiavone waits for the ball in action this summer for the Princeton Post 218 American Legion baseball team. Middle infielder/pitcher Schiavone was a stalwart this summer for Post 218 as it went 4-14. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
By Bill Alden
In one sense, it was a disappointing season for the Princeton Post 218 American Legion baseball team as it went 4-14 this summer.
“That is the nature of the American Legion season once you run into a stretch of eight or nine games in a row, it takes a lot of mental discipline to keep doing well,” said Post 218 manager Benito Gonzalez, who was in his first summer at the helm of the program after the 2020 season was canceled due to the pandemic.
“I think this is where I get a little competitive with myself thinking about it. The record really wasn’t what we wanted in the end at all which was frustrating.”
On the other hand, Gonzalez saw a lot of positives despite the record.
“But then if I look at it in another way, too, there was only one game where were truly outclassed,” said Gonzalez, whose squad won three out of four games after a 1-6 start but faded down the stretch with seven straight defeats.
“We had younger players getting experience. I would say we also had a much more cohesive team experience. There are a lot of people who have a stake in playing with each other because they also play with each other at the high school. The main bulk of the program was Princeton High students. It was people, for the most part, who either had a decent amount of varsity time this year or are going to in the next year or so. It felt more like a team. We had a lot more buy-in, people are around. The games were close. If we play a little bit better, we improve and people grow, I could see us maybe getting back a few of those games.”
While those young players took their lumps down the stretch, Gonzalez sees plenty of hope for the future.
“They are a bunch of kids and I think this is a league-wide trend whose first year of varsity was this year as junior because they missed their sophomore year,” said Gonzalez.
“We only have one person leaving who was our best pitcher [Aidan Regan]. But that being said, I think that especially if we can get everybody to come back and then secure maybe a greater commitment it will be good next year.”
The trio of Princeton High alum Regan and a pair of current PHS players, Kenny Schiavone and Jaxon Petrone, led the team’s mound corps.
“Regan did a great job, it was really great to have a kid in a college program,” said Gonzalez of Regan who plays for Hamilton College.
“Kenny really stood out to me pitching-wise this summer because he commands a breaking ball very well for a high school pitcher. He is a rare type of kid in school where if you are calling pitches for him, you can call a curve ball or a slider comfortably in the count and it really makes a huge difference. He can really work around with it, he ended up being a starter for us. With Jaxon, he had a couple of complete games in the end which was good. He had a really good start against Lawrence. He was very efficient on the mound. He is not just a pitcher, he is a guy that does the little things to keep the game moving. He is an athlete on the mound, he plays his position very well at the mound. He is really good at holding guys on.”
Another PHS standout, Jensen Bergman, proved to be an offensive catalyst for Post 218 from the leadoff spot and a defensive standout in center field.
“Bergman hit really well for high school too, we were definitely excited to have him,” said Gonzalez.
“He is probably one of the best outfielders I have seen in the league. He makes routine plays but when people hit the ball deep and someone has to range back like 40, 50, 60 feet or more. I feel confident in him doing that because not everybody is that good, especially in the high school or Legion level.”
One of the best stories for Princeton this summer was the emergence of Zachary Okoye, who was returning to baseball after a six-year hiatus.
“He is a really special kid to me because what he is doing is pretty nuts if you really think about it,” said Gonzalez.
“I can’t think of very many people who take that long off from a sport, especially baseball. In terms of kids who were around all summer, I think he was clearly our best hitter. Tying in with what I think kids need to do, he is a kid who has done a lot to become bigger, stronger, and more athletic. He has some weight behind him on the field. That is something we need to see from more of the kids.”
Gonzalez believes that Hun School player Rohan Sheth could grow into a special performer.
“He is not a big kid but he has gotten bigger since I coached him in middle school,” said Gonzalez, who teaches at the Princeton Unified Middle School and coaches with the PHS baseball program during the school year.
“There is a lot of good stuff there. He moves well on the mound. He puts good swings up there. He is the type of kid who we are very interested to see how much bigger and stronger he gets over the next year or two because. If he does, I can see him being very surprising, like where did this kid come from.”
In the view of Gonzalez, things are coming together for Post 218 even as it struggled in the latter stages of the campaign.
“If you compared how I felt at the end of 2019 summer versus 2021, there are drastically different feelings,” said Gonzalez.
“The kids feel more connected which makes me happy. I think we were a part of that. I also got to coach with other people which was a really great experience because as a JV coach I am almost always alone. Working with guys like Thomas Ramsay from Hun and Tom Bocian from PDS, the practices are so much more productive. Talking during the game is more productive, if I see something or if someone else sees something. It is more of an organization than a summer team.”
Looking ahead, that organization should yield dividends for the Princeton program.
“I told the kids that the league is much more open than I can think of in the past,” said Gonzalez.
“I have had coaches come up to me and say at a couple of meetings and say your team looks really different this summer. It looked more organized, it looked more focused and like more of a cohesive unit. You were playing well. You are not a team that bowed out and was an easy win. I can say it but the players have to believe it and they have to commit to it in the end. This can be a different team for a few years if we make the strides that we need to make.”