By Jeff Nations
This is the week that New Market Rebels President Bruce Alger describes as "Christmas in May at Rebel Field."
On Wednesday night, first-year manager C.J. Rhodes was busy unwrapping a whole lot of new presents for Alger and the Rebels' loyal fanbase. With all but one player - Notre Dame outfielder Mac Hudgins - new to the roster this season, Rhodes had plenty of shiny new ballplayers to show off to the crowd during Wednesday's annual exhibition against the Rockingham County Baseball League's New Market Shockers.
"I think we threw about seven guys [Wednesday] night," Rhodes said. "It was a good opportunity for our hitters to see some live pitching and for our defense to make some plays."
Really, the exhibition against their fellow tenants at Rebel Park was just a sneak preview. The real action begins with Friday night's season opener on the road against the Rockbridge Rapids, followed by Saturday's home opener against the Harrisonburg Turks.
Rhodes has been putting his newly-built team through its paces with two-a-day practices since Monday, and he's seen rapid progress for a team which must gel quickly to compete.
"We've looked good," Rhodes said. "For what we're trying to accomplish this season, I kind of expect a lot out of our team this week to try and mesh together."
Since landing the managing job in November - his first head-coaching opportunity - Rhodes had to jump into the recruiting process to put together a competitive roster. The Randolph-Macon College assistant leaned heavily on his college baseball contacts and has pulled in an intriguing assortment of players ranging from NCAA Division I down to NAIA. The common denominator, Rhodes said, was that he sought players who had already been tested on the field.
Against the Rapids, left-handed pitcher Justin Cooper will start. At Division II Young Harris College, Cooper started 10 games and fanned 46 batters over 62 innings. For the home opener Saturday, another small-college hurler with plenty of mound time - righty Cory Rhodes, from NAIA program King College - will get the start. Cory Rhodes made eight starts for King in the spring, fanning 55 in 56 2/3 innings.
Although C.J. Rhodes has the framework of a rotation at least tentatively plotted out, the everyday lineup for the Rebels will likely be an extended tryout process as the New Market coaching staff shifts players in and out of the lineup and around the field in the early going.
"I can promise you that the first lineup we put out there probably won't be the one we put out by the end of the summer," C.J. Rhodes said.
The Rebels feature an assortment of experienced options up the middle, where shortstop Brandon Gum (George Mason), shortstop Ray Lopez (VMI) and shortstop/second baseman Nicholas Lustrino (Temple) were all full-time starters in the spring. Lustrino (.282, 24 RBIs, 8 stolen bases) and Lopez (.279, 18 RBIs, 14 SBs) have also shown speed on the basepaths.
The corner infield spots also look to be in capable hands. Third baseman Derek Peterson (Temple) put up a solid .316 batting average and drove in 31 runs in the spring. Fellow third baseman Kevin McMenamin sported a .339 batting average at DII power Rowan, and first baseman Zachary Sizemore piled up a .331 batting average with four homers and 36 RBIs at NAIA program West Virginia Tech.
The outfield features plenty of talent. In addition to Hudgins, a part-time starter for the Fighting Irish, New Market is counting on VCU's Landon Prentiss (.292, 9 RBIs), Millersville's Mark Stuckey (.274, 4 HRs, 46 RBIs, 16 SBs) and nearby Shepherd University standout Ryan Messina (.456, 15 HRs, 56 RBIs).
"His numbers at Shepherd this past year were just ungodly," Rhodes said of Messina. "We're excited to have him come in here in the middle of our lineup and show us and everybody in the Valley League what he can do."
Messina can also play catcher in a pinch, and the Rebels have VCU's Walker Haymaker and Millersville's David Pine already in place.
Beyond those first two starting pitchers, the Rebels can count on a pair of DI arms with significant starting experience in VMI's Reed Garrett and Alabama State's Joseph Camacho. Aaron Cressley, a right-hander from DIII Pitt-Bradford, was impressive in limited time on the mound (2.25 ERA in 32 innings with 33 strikeouts).
The bullpen has at least one experienced closer in Millersville's Adam Zipko, who tallied nine saves in 30 2/3 innings in the spring.
"I'm just really excited about my whole team," Rhodes said. "One of the first things I told our guys was that we are here collectively as a group, and we're first and foremost a team."
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or email@example.com>