NAUGATUCK — Naugatuck baseball coach Tom Deller is hoping his team can bounce back after a couple rough seasons—the squad went 10-10 in 2008 and 7-13 in 2009—and bring home not only a winning record, but the Copper Division crown as well.
“We have a very good nucleus of kids returning,” Deller said last Thursday. “The key is they’re working hard to get better. If we work hard to get better every day then we have the opportunity to compete with anybody. I don’t care who it is.”
The team to beat will be Holy Cross, he said with a grin, and “they should be, you know, they’re a Catholic school. They can recruit students who are good athletes. But they should be [competitive], just like we should be, being the only [Class] LL team in the NVL. We should be competing at the top every year.”
Deller said it’s open season for the rest of the NVL.
“There’s not the clear-cuts; there’s not a pitcher who’s going to sit everybody down, throw perfect games and whatnot,” he said. “On any given day, anybody will beat you, if you’re not prepared.”
But it wasn’t always like that—“Seymour was pretty dominant and, not for nothing, we were pretty good a few years ago,” he said.
Deller lamented that participation in baseball seems to be trending downward.
“I think it’s a sport that not a lot of kids play anymore. The youth leagues are dropping teams left and right,” he noted. “Kids don’t play it, and when they do play, they don’t play at the level that we’re at. That’s the hardest thing for these guys to realize—this is not the youth league or a rec. league; this is actually a competitive program. People want to beat you bad.”
The Hounds are fielding a diverse roster this season; the varsity team comprises six sophomores, three juniors and five seniors—all of whom Deller considers captains. And spots on the starting lineup, Deller said, are as open as the top ranks in the NVL field.
“We’re always counting on the younger kids to mix things up and push the [upperclassmen] to get better,” he said. “Nobody’s anchored at a position; they all know there’s somebody there that can push them, and this year they’re doing that. They’re pushing each other to get better. … Last year, I don’t know, out of 20 games, if we had the same starting lineup 10 times. I do rotate kids. I try to stick with the hot bats. … If we have a kid who’s been hitting well, at the freshman or the JV level, we’ll bring him up and see if he can help us score some runs. So yeah, I’m all about trying to bring the kids up.”
Senior Zac Dreher, the starting shortshop who will try his arm on the mound this season—and who hit over .400 last year, according to Deller—seemed to agree.
“I think we’re returning a lot of experience; we’ve got a lot of starters coming back, a lot of guys who want to win,” he said. “A couple of young guys are competing for spots, too, so it looks better every day.”
Dreher said most players in what looks to be the initial starting lineup have been playing together for a long while, a dynamic he sees as a boon to defensive coordination.
“We’ve been playing together since we’ve been in little league, so you kind of build a chemistry throughout the years,” he said. “When it comes down to the double plays and stuff like that, it’s just muscle memory. We’ve been doing it for a lot of years together.”
Muscle memory seems to be the goal of Deller’s practice regimen, as well. As far as he’s concerned, the players have their “baseball IQs”; it’s just a simple matter of repetition.
“It’s got to be something that, when the ball’s hit to you, you’ve been through it 50 times already, 100 times already, and it’s just a matter of executing,” Deller said. “It’s our job to put the kids in those positions in practice, make it difficult for them, make them fail and have them make mistakes so when they get in a game, they’ve been there and there’s no reason to panic or get nervous. It’s not something that’s new. And they’ve already done it and they can have the confidence that they can execute it once they get out there.”
It’s only a matter of time, Deller said, before the team starts to look more like a well-oiled machine.
“We tell the kids it’s not how you play in March, it’s how you’re playing in May,” he said. “We just hope to be in a position where we’re still playing in May.”
The squad’s first regular-season game will be at Torrington April 7.