Spring sports have snuck up on student athletes at Pierson High School this season, especially considering the foot of snow that blanketed local diamonds and closed school earlier this week. There is also change in the air with a new skipper in Jonathan Schwartz taking over the helm of the Whalers’ baseball team, and a fresh, new outlook with the softball program once again led by head coach John “Woody” Kneeland.
Weather — an extension of the severe winter variety, in particular — has wreaked havoc on spring spots schedules in recent years. As things stand now, the baseball team will open its season with a home game on Monday, March 26, against Southold, the defending League IX and Suffolk County Class C champion from a year ago. First pitch is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. at Mashashimuet Park.
The softball team, which stumbled to a 5-12 record last season, has renewed hope going into this season, which will look and feel a whole lot different than it has in years past. A total of 24 teams have been grouped together in League VII, with pre-season power ranking determining every team’s schedule. The Lady Whalers, who are seeded 22nd, will open the season on Wednesday, March 21, at Hampton Bays at 4:30 p.m.
Southold Rebuilds with Whalers Spirit on the Rise
The Southold baseball team has dominated Class C for the last several years, but two-thirds of its murders’ row of starting pitchers graduated — Luke Hansen returns — and long-time head coach Mike Carver has retired.
That leaves a glimmer of hope for the Whalers, who return a strong core of seniors led by Sam Warne, the team’s reliable ace who pitched more than 50 innings last season and has equally impressive offensive skills. Warne, lefty pitcher Tyler LaBorne and catcher Tom Brooks are the team’s senior captains under first-year coach Jonathan Schwartz, who coached the JV team last season and will follow in the footsteps of Jon Tortorella, who led Pierson to a pair of state semifinals, and Sean Crowley, who coached at Pierson for 30-plus years before retiring last spring.
“I’m really excited about the team that we have, the next three years especially,” Schwartz said on Tuesday as a snowstorm closed school and prevented a second straight day of practice outdoors. “Over the last few years there’s been some inconsistency, and with all the different baseball coaches, there hasn’t been a lot of excitement for baseball in general at the middle school level.”
In addition to Warne and LaBorne, junior Cooper Schiavoni will see time on the mound, as will Max Mensch, a promising junior up from the JV, Henry Brooks, Tom’s younger brother, and lefty Matt Hall, who throws a knuckle curveball that Schwartz said, “drops off the face of the earth.”
“I think we’re going to have such good defense I just want to have guys who don’t walk people,” said Schwartz, who has prior varsity coaching experience as an assistant at Huntington.
Catching the pitching staff will be Tom Brooks, who has expressed interest in playing every inning of every game, according to his new coach. “That’s nice to see, as far as work ethic and energy,” Schwartz said. “He has come in confident and knows he is the guy.”
Freshman Tucker Schiavoni, Cooper’s younger brother, will back up Brooks behind the plate and is expected to see time in the middle infield. “He’s got a lot of talent,” Schwartz said about the younger Schiavoni. “He’s just young, but he has a very good glove and a very strong arm.”
Cooper Schiavoni and Hall have the potential to form a talented starting middle infield, Schwartz said, with both seeing time at shortstop last year, Schiavoni on varsity and Hall at JV. Schwartz called Hall “the smoothest fielder I’ve seen in a while,” and that he and Schiavoni should push each other to get better.
“We’re bringing up some really good players,” Schwartz said. “This is an open competition with everybody.”
Senior E.J. Burke will compete with LaBorne at first base, and Pierson Summers, a lefty, will likely play at first base and pitch, when called upon. Henry Brooks and Mensch are getting looks at third base, while Warne and sophomore Nick Egbert are natural outfielders, and will be joined, in some combination, by Greg Burns, Chase Ecke and Oliver Kirwin. Will Martin, a senior basketball star who injured his knee earlier this year, has also joined the team and should be healthy in the near future.
Cox and Powell Take the Mound for Lady Whalers
The Pierson softball team, which navigated a rocky road of inconsistency last season, returns with strong senior leadership and a healthy boost of youthful exuberance. Senior Annabelle Schroeder has decided not to pitch this season, which is not a problem for head coach Woody Kneeland, who has two sophomores, Samantha Cox and Kathryn Powell, ready, willing and able to lead the Lady Whalers from the pitcher’s circle this spring.
“Last year, in many ways, was a lost season,” said Kneeland, whose team suffered from a general lack of focus and distraction. “I never knew who I was going to have from game to game. This year everything seems to be more positive. The camaraderie has been great.”
Seven seniors return for Pierson — including Schroeder, who is expected to compete at first base — to lead the Lady Whalers this season. Leigh Hatfield returns as starting catcher, and Isabella DiRussa, who is one of the team’s best all-around athletes is expected to combine with sophomore Halle Kneeland, the coach’s daughter, to form the middle infield. Cassie Arbia, Ava Kiss and Shannon Sloane also return, and Eleanor Byrne returns after not playing last season. Jade Maldonado, a senior at Bridgehampton who played JV baseball last season, will play softball this year.
The team has no juniors since Paige Schaefer, a field hockey standout, has decided not to play this season. Powell, Kneeland and Cox lead a promising sophomore class that also includes Grace Gawronski, one of the team’s best athletes. Brooke Esposito, a freshman and one of the best young athletes in the school, rounds out the preseason varsity roster.
“In my head, I have 13 kids who can play,” Kneeland said. “I went into this season saying I need everybody ready to play anywhere. I need that kind of attitude. I’m trying to create a very competitive atmosphere.”
The new league structure, which Kneeland said is the result of Class A teams getting beat up by Class AA schools, features all the Class A, B, and C schools. Each school will play the 10 teams closest to them in terms of power points, plus eight other random games for a total of 18. Pierson will get an opportunity to play many more East End teams than it has in years past including Hampton Bays, Westhampton, Southampton and East Hampton.
The top-ranked Class C school is Mercy, followed by Southold/Greenport, Pierson and Port Jefferson.
“When it comes down to it, the most fundamental team seems to win out,” Kneeland said. “We just need to focus on getting better ourselves.”