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Clippers embrace new underdog role

J.T. Torres knows the chatter around the city and he loves what he hears.

“I think a lot of teams are going to look at us and put us down,” Xaverian’s senior centerfielder said. “But I think we’re going to surprise a lot of teams this year.”

Xaverian, which won the CHSAA Class A intersectional title in 2008, lost its top three pitchers – Anthony Hajjar, Justin Giammarino and Steven Kaplan – to graduation. Other upcoming players have transferred and Dennis Canale, a highly successful coach for a decade, is gone, as well as his entire coaching staff.

Yes, there are changes galore in Bay Ridge.

“Last year we lost some big arms that are hard to replace and such a great coach we had as well,” junior catcher Elvin Soto said. “This year, being the underdogs is a pretty good feeling because it pushes us to work even harder to prove to everyone out there that we’re the team to beat.”

Canale resigned from his coaching position and took a medical leave of absence in late December shortly after prosecutors filed paperwork with the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office fingering a former freshman baseball coach – Gerard Bruzzese – as the head of a multi-million dollar, mob-related illegal sports gambling operation, is gone.

Yet, in many ways the beat goes on at Xaverian. Longtime baseball and basketball coach Lou Piccola is back. He guided the Clippers junior varsity team to its first three titles from 1981-1984 and led the varsity team to the 1990 city title.

Frank Del George, who had a successful two-decade run as St. Francis College coach before the baseball program was disbanded after the 2005 season, joins Piccola on the bench.

“We didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into because it was handed to us late,” Del George said. “Every day we’re just amazed by the talent and the hungriness.”

That was evident early when Del George told the team that batting practice in the morning was optional. The next day, 15 players were at the school at 7 am raring to go.

“We’re going to get on the field and we’re going to work hard,” Torres said. “That’s the most important thing. We’re always going to battle and I think we’re going to surprise a lot of teams.”

In many ways, that starts with Torres, who will play at Iona College next year.

“He gets us going, he bats in the lead-off spot,” Piccola said. “He’s a tremendous baserunner, has good speed, contact hitter.”

Behind the plate for Xaverian this year is Soto, a switch-hitting junior who has already verbally committed to the University of Arizona following a monster summer in which he drew interest from a bevy of major Division I programs.

“He’s got to work on his game a bit as far as defense is concerned, but offensively he swings the bat from both sides very well,” Del George said of Soto. “He swings lefty a bit better because he sees more righty pitching. He calls a good game, gets along with the umpires really well. We’re lucky to have him. Those kinds of kids only come around every so often.”

Senior leftfielder Vinny Esposito will play at Union College, a Division III program in Schenectady, NY, and is expected to be a major contributor and sophomore Kevin Martir, the backup catcher, should also step up for the Clippers, who were 18-4 last season.

The great unknown though, at least for Piccola and Del George, is the pitching staff. Outside of 6-foot-3 junior right-hander Steven Pastrana, who should be the team’s ace, the other hurlers, including senior Kieran Monaghan, are relatively unknown to the new coaches.

“That’s the one question mark,” Del George said. “After [Pastrana], it’s a coin toss. That’s probably the only place we’re not sure.”

Piccola, though, is sure of his team’s ability to hit throughout the lineup and its speed and baseball instincts, qualities that no doubt will be huge during the course of the season.

“We want serious players who want to go to the next level,” Piccola said. “It’s about the program. For us it’s always about the program.”

And that program appears to be in fine shape moving forward.

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