Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Post 295 juniors make splash in 1st season

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Laurie DeWitt⁄The Gazette
Gaithersburg Post 295 junior team member Brian Black (right) gets congratulated by teammates after socking a solo home run against Damascus Post 171 Saturday in the team’s final game of the season. Post 295 finished its inaugural season with an 11-12 record.
When Steve Cononie’s son, Charlie, who is now a pitcher on Gaithersburg Post 295’s American Legion baseball team, was in the under-17 category, the only thing available to him if he wanted to keep playing baseball in the summer were the Montgomery County Rec summer-league programs. When Charlie started playing high level baseball every day with Post 295, Steve Cononie sat down with Gaithersburg Post 295 manager Rick Price to devise a way to reach out to the younger high school players that Charlie Cononie used to be. With that thought in mind, Gaithersburg Post 295’s junior American Legion Baseball team was born.

‘‘We were looking to give kids that were under 17 a place to play higher level baseball,” Cononie said. ‘‘It was also a chance to develop them before they came to the American Legion team. Even though we were in our first year, we had more than 40 kids come to the first tryouts, so we clearly tapped into a need.”

Of those 40 players that tried out, drawn from the same Gaithersburg-Northwest-Seneca Valley cluster that Gaithersburg Post 295 draws from, 18 players made the Jr. American Legion squad. Six of those players were 15 years old; six were 16 and six were 17, an ideal breakdown for Cononie and his staff.

‘‘We were really happy with the way that the numbers broke down,” Cononie said. ‘‘It was just the way that we wanted them to. The kids are getting a lot of playing time and doing better than we anticipated.”

In its first season in the Potomac Junior American Legion League, Gaithersburg Post 295 finished its season (which ended on Sunday) in fourth place out of six teams, with an 11-12 record overall against several established clubs. One mark of distinction was that Post 295 finished ahead of the other Montgomery County entry, Damascus Post 171, which finished in sixth place (8-16 overall). After getting used to playing baseball almost every day, Cononie felt that the players relished the opportunity.

‘‘When they came out the tryouts we told them that if they were on this team they could expect to play 25 games in 40 days,” he said. ‘‘The kids we have, they are here because they want to play baseball. They were happy to be there and we were happy to be in the league, which featured good teams with good defense playing low-scoring games. Any team could win on any night.”

Several players distinguished themselves this summer, and will return to happy high school coaches who should be able to build on their exposure to a higher level of play. Northwest’s Nick Karis pitched, played outfield and sometimes caught for Post 295’s junior American Legion squad, and established himself as the leading hitter on the team with a .427 batting average and a .500 on-base percentage. He also led the team in hits (32) and triples (five). Seneca Valley’s Brian Black also hit .406, and according to Cononie was the team’s most consistent pitcher. From Quince Orchard, Frank Barkanic alternated between shortstop and second base and hit .316 in the process.

Yet, some of the most interesting work was done with the 15 and 16-year-old players that are a year or two away from potentially moving up the Gaithersburg’s senior team. With the work of bullpen coaches and hitting coaches on the Jr. American Legion staff, Northwest’s Nick Pak hit .302 while playing four positions and pitching, and his Cougar teammate Brandon Baker hit .375. Quince Orchard’s Andrew Rodgers, who at 15 is already 6-foot-2, also developed as a pitcher.

‘‘I think he is a guy that has an awesome future on the mound,” Cononie said.

With a year of experience under its belt, the Jr. American Legion team expects to win more games next season, and potentially help the senior squad add to its list of county titles.

‘‘We’re almost like a minor-league farm system,” Cononie said. ‘‘We’ve already seen competition and conversations among the guys about who is ready to move up to the senior club. This has been a great opportunity to develop them before they move on to [senior] American Legion.”