Northwestern Press

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PRESS PHOTO BY NANCY SCHOLZNorthwestern’s Dakota Laudenslager rounds second base during Tuesday’s win over Saucon Valley. PRESS PHOTO BY NANCY SCHOLZNorthwestern’s Dakota Laudenslager rounds second base during Tuesday’s win over Saucon Valley.

Baseball team has high expectations for season

Wednesday, March 30, 2016 by CHUCK HIXSON Special to the Press in Sports

Last season, the Northwestern Tigers were three outs away from capturing the Colonial League Baseball championship, but came up short in a 3-2 loss to Saucon Valley. This season isn’t just about avenging that loss, but it also opens a new era in the team’s history.

Gone is longtime coach Len Smith, who retired after 33 seasons leading the program. There was actually somewhat of a succession plan in place for when Smith did leave and the plan came to fruition with the hiring of assistant Duran Porrino, who served as Smith’s assistant for seven seasons. Porrino is well known around Northwestern athletics for his work as an assistant on the wrestling and football teams, as well as having served as Smith’s right-hand man.

Porrino doesn’t feel much pressure in taking over for Smith, in part because it was part of the plan, and also because Smith had been giving Porrino more and more input and control over the team in the past few seasons to prepare him for this day.

“The one change in the program is that I am looking to build excitement within the school about baseball - similar to football - where students, players, and teachers are all supporting the program,” said Porrino. “Len will be the first to admit that it was very difficult for him to do that the past few years because he was retired from teaching and was not in the school anymore.”

The situation is similar to the one faced by Porrino’s friend Josh Snyder, who took over the football program just a few years after the retirement of long-time head coach Bob Mitchell and looked to put his own stamp on the team. Porrino and Snyder have talked about the challenge of the situation and Porrino hopes to draw from those discussions.

“Josh is one of my best friends, even outside of school, and he is probably the person I have leaned on the most during this transition,” said Porrino. “I was fortunate enough to also be on Bob Mitchell’s and Tom Linette’s staffs for football, so I got to see firsthand what Josh had to do to make the football program his and move out of their shadows.

“Josh had his own vision for the program that he believed in 100 percent and that confidence spilled over to the coaching staff and players. His favorite quote to me whenever I ask him for advice is ‘stay the course,’ which means stay with my vision and don’t let other people outside the program try to influence what we do as a baseball program.”

As for the team, Porrino is fortunate to have a solid core of returning players ready to make a run at the Colonial League Championship that eluded them last season. Four key players – seniors Brady Mengel and Jake Augustus, along with junior Tyler Schreiner and sophomore Tyler Wiik – are all back. Plus, players like senior Brandon Miller and juniors Niko Fager, Isaac Fatzinger and Zach Stanley, who also saw considerable time on the field return to help give Porrino experienced leadership.

Porrino plans on leaning on the experienced players, but is excited about younger players who are joining the team this season.

“We have a very strong sophomore class that every coach in the program is excited about, Trevor Schreiner (1B), Mason Vogwill (OF/P), Jacob Haas (OF/P) and Drew White (P),” he said. “Overall expectations are very high this year for our program.”

When it comes to pitching, Porrino believes that the Tigers may have the best pitcher in the league in Jake Augustus, who pitched well in the Colonial League semifinals against Salisbury and then turned in a big outing against Tamaqua in districts.

Fortunately for Northwestern, the pitching staff doesn’t begin and end with Augustus, thanks to plenty of depth.

“We also believe we have the deepest pitching staff we have had since I have been involved with the program,” said Porrino. “Even though they lack experience we are still extremely high on them. That includes Niko Fager, and a tremendous sophomore group of Vogwill, Haas and White.”

Mengel went 2-for-4 with an RBI and Wiik drove in two runs in a road win for Northwestern to get a little revenge over Saucon Valley in the Colonial League season opener on Tuesday, perhaps sending a bit of a message about their plans for the 2016 season. The home schedule opens Thursday against Palmerton and continues Saturday against Southern Lehigh.

Northwestern opened its schedule with a pair of nonleague games last week. The Tigers beat Blue Mountain in their opener but fell to Tamaqua on Saturday. See this week’s Varsity Sports Roundup for box scores and highlights of the Tigers’ first three games.