May 31, 2023

Although PHS Baseball Didn’t Meet its Expectations, Tigers Gained Valuable Lessons from Frustrating Campaign

BIG BEN: Princeton High baseball player Ben Walden connects with the ball in game this spring. Junior Walden emerged as key player for PHS this season, helping the Tigers go 6-16. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

Starting the last week of the regular season with a bang, the Princeton High baseball team rallied to defeat Bound Brook 10-9.

“That was a good win, especially at that point because we knew we still had a shot to get into the state tournament,” said PHS head coach Dom Capuano, whose squad scored a run on the bottom of the seventh inning to pull out the victory. “It was a tough one. It was back and forth and to finish that off was good.”

Unable to build on that triumph, the Tigers fell 17-1 to Seneca on May 16 and 10-0 to Franklin two days later as they failed to make the state tournament and ended the spring with a 6-16 record.

“It was definitely more of a transition season, I think everybody involved would say we left some opportunities on the table,” said Capuano. “Making states needs to be an expectation, not a goal and we didn’t get there. If we didn’t get there, that means we didn’t meet our expectations.”

In Capuano’s view, the returning players can take away some valuable lessons after not meeting expectations this spring.

“I think there is some good that will come from this season,” said Capuano. “There are some people who thought they should do better and they didn’t and they are going to learn from that. There were some people who were brand new to varsity and now their feet are wet, there is no longer a learning curve. The lessons learned this year should bode well for next year.”

As for his senior group which included Jon Tao, Wes Price, Jack Durbin, Jude Blaser, Matt Baglio, and Erik Luijendijk, Capuano felt bad that they didn’t get to end their careers with an appearance in the state tournament.

“It is unfortunate for guys like Jonny, Wes and Jack who have really put time into the varsity,” said Capuano. “The seniors, especially offensively, did what they were supposed to do.”

In reflecting on the spring, Capuano credited the seniors with doing a lot of good things.

“Jack was on varsity last year but he didn’t get a whole lot of playing time; for him to step up and hit .333 with a bunch of doubles was good,” said Capuano. “Jon stayed healthy the whole year and hit well. Wes threw a no-hitter. In his last two starts, the defense let him down. Jude stepped up a lot. He continuously gave us something at the plate so that was a nice surprise. Matt had the hardest job in the world, how do you replace Carl [Birge]. Anybody who is going to the catcher after Carl is going to have a tough job. He got better, he really continued to give us everything we could expect. They did a good job and they helped continue to give us a shot. We fell short but without them we would not have had a chance.”

Looking ahead, Capuano is expecting big things from junior outfielder Alex Winters, who hit .385 this season with three homers, 18 RBIs, and 16 runs.

“Alex is a great player, he made the Carpenter Cup county all-stars,” said Capuano. “He was voted in by all of the other coaches so that means they noticed it. To have a presence like that up top is great, but he still has room to grow. Those are the conversations he and I had, you are good but if you want to be great, this is what you have to fix. He is really receptive to that. He had a really good season. I think where his motivation lies next year should be even better. I am expecting him to hit .500.”

Another junior, Ben Walden, grew into a solid player for the Tigers, batting .306 and excelling in the infield. 

“Walden is going to be a very big factor in how we are next year,” said Capuano. “He got his feet wet, he knows what he needs to do. He has to put the work in to continue to grow and evolve. He was able to adapt to shortstop and second base. When we needed to slide him over to short later in the year, he did a good job of that. I liked his approaches at the plate and for him, it is just continuing those approaches and understanding the little things. If he can continue to put in the work and evolve, he is going to be a big part next year.”

While juniors Michael Prete and Dylan Newman had up-and-down campaigns this spring, Capuano believes they will be big factors next year.

“I think both of them didn’t tap their potential this year,” said Capuano. “In talking with both of them, they and I all have higher expectations for them. Mike didn’t play a lot last year on varsity so he had an I need to prove it mentality. Dylan had a slow start this year and started to find it. Part of that was both of them trying to do too much and not simplifying the game for themselves. We are going to lean on those two hard next year and I have all of the confidence in the world that they can do it. They just have to put the work in and I think they both will.”

Two sophomores, Travis Petrone and Jai Justice, put in some good work this season for the Tigers.

“Travis has got to be one of our top three pitchers next year, he was a relied upon guy this year but he has got to step up his game,” said Capuano. “For his sophomore year, his first varsity year, it was good. If he does the same thing next year, that isn’t good. He stepped into some big spots, threw strikes, and did what we needed. When you have that year, the expectation is next year is all that greater. Jai got better as the season went on, especially on the mound. Pitching rules everything so we need him to do the same thing and step up and be that calming force out of the bullpen and then play the infield.”

In Capuano’s view, his players will all be better for the experience of going through the frustrating 2023 campaign.

“It wasn’t the season we wanted but at the end of the day the underclassmen grew a lot,” said Capuano. “I still enjoyed it, they were a good group of guys. It is always tough because we didn’t live up to the expectations. At the end of the day, they can learn from it in life. The juniors, sophomores, and freshmen can learn from it — they don’t want to feel this next year. It is no fun on Monday on the first day of the state tournament and you are hanging out. We will learn from it and we will get better.”