April 26, 2023

Making the Most of His Final Year for PDS Baseball, Vandal Has been Spark in Tough Spring for Panthers

ON THE BALL: Princeton Day School baseball shortstop Ryan Vandal scoops up a grounder in recent action. Senior star Vandal has been a bright spot for PDS this spring. The Panthers, who fell 18-0 to Princeton High last Monday to move to 0-11, host the Blair Academy on April 26 before playing at the Pennington School on April 27. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

Ryan Vandal got things started on the right note for the Princeton Day School baseball team as it hosted South Hunterdon last Thursday.

Leadoff hitter Vandal drew a walk in the bottom of the first inning, stole a base and came around to score as PDS as jumped out to a 1-0 lead.

“We have been starting to play some better baseball,” said senior shortstop Vandal. “We had a lead against Peddie, that was a shootout (an 18-15 loss on April 14), it was a football score. We are getting some leads. We are starting to play a lot better than at the start of the year.”

But in a microcosm of a frustrating spring, the Panthers yielded five runs in the second inning on the way to losing 10-2 as they remained winless on the spring.

“We just have to work to play a full game,” said Vandal. “We have stretches where we are playing clean innings, getting baserunners but after that one hit or one play in the field, we need to not let it get away. It is just that one inning is killing us right now.”

Vandal has been putting in some good work with his bat, hitting .346 through the first 10 games of the season.

“A lot of times, me and the top of the order are swinging hot sticks,” said Vandal, who smacked a double in the third inning and scored the other run for PDS as he was driven in by sophomore standout Luke Haan.

“It all comes down to the bottom of the order. When they are getting on for the top of the order guys, that is when the runs start coming. We just have to swing hot sticks and score some runs.”

While the steady diet of losing has been frustrating, Vandal is seeing progress.

“At the start of the year we were struggling to play full games and now we are playing competitive games to seven innings,” said  Vandal. “It is improving, you would like to be winning them.”

The arrival of new head coach Eric Schnepf has helped the PDS players be more competitive on a daily basis.

“I love him, he has got the guys invested,” said Vandal. “We all want to play, we are coming to the field excited everyday. He is a great guy. I hope that he sees some more success.”

Having juggled hockey with baseball over his PDS career, Vandal is getting to devote all of his efforts to the diamond this spring.

“For a while I played year-round hockey, it would be a lot; you kind of had to work around it,” said Vandal, who tallied four goals and three assists last winter for the Panthers.

“A lot of times on Saturdays I would be missing practices or games for club hockey. This season, I just played in the fall. I am not playing on the spring and I got to focus on baseball. It was great to be in winter workouts with the team. I just felt like I was more connected than usual, just being able to be around by availability.”

Vandal is determined to make the most of that opportunity. “I am just happy to play my last season with guys I enjoy playing with,” said Vandal, who is headed to Boston University this fall.

“I have been here with all of these guys for three seasons, we didn’t play a freshman year because of COVID. I have been playing in this team with a bunch of guys for three years now. I am just excited to share the experience with them. It is fun to play.”

PDS head coach Schnepf credits Vandal with playing well in all phases of the game.

“He has been doing that all year for us, finding a way to get on base, whether it be a hit, walk, anything, and running the bases really well, stealing bags for us at the top,” said Schnepf.

“He has been playing a good shortstop. He is definitely an anchor on the defensive side and on the offensive side really a spark plug that we need at the top.”

Schnepf likes seeing his team get on top of South Hunterdon in the first inning.

“It is nice to get on the board early, it is something we have struggled with,” said Schnepf.

“We had a good shutdown inning in the first which is something else we have struggled with. There are some signs that we are moving in the right direction but by no means are we there yet.”

Sophomore catcher Haan has been a bright spot for the Panthers.

“Luke has been swinging a fantastic bat this year, not just today but just throughout the whole year,” said Schnepf of Haan, who was batting .400 through 10 games.

“He has been really consistent which is a big thing. He gets into the box ready to compete and he is definitely not going to get cheated out of a swing. He is doing a good job back there at catcher. What people forget is that he is still young. He is handling the staff well. We expect a lot of out of him and he has delivered. He is never afraid to be held accountable and hold others accountable. He is somebody behind the plate who has taken on a real leadership role.”

While things haven’t gone well for the Panthers so far this spring, Schnepf believes his players are keeping their heads up.

“It is just the style and the approach that we want to take, the small ball approach, we are communicating,” said Schnepf, who team lost 18-0 to PHS last Monday to move to 0-11 and will host the Blair Academy on April 26 before playing at the Pennington School on April 27.

“It is just the little things that might not be as noticeable as the doubles in the gaps or home runs. It is just working on the attention to detail, continuing to improve attitude, energy, and effort and just inspiring them to compete and wanting to be out here. They have responded well, there are a lot of changes for them too. They are doing a really good job, obviously we are taking our lumps early here. They are still in it. It is a tough start, we might be down but no means out.”

Vandal, for his part, believes the Panthers can start picking up some wins.

“It just comes down to seven innings of baseball, we play good stretches of baseball but it is that one inning when they put up a crooked number, it is going to be tough to come back,” said Vandal.

“When you’re get into that hole, it becomes harder and hard to see yourself coming back in the game. We have to keep the numbers straight ones or zeroes and then games will start to go our way.”