By Jeff Nations
C.J. Rhodes will be taking a load off this season, in both the literal and figurative sense.
The second-year manager of the Valley Baseball League's New Market Rebels plans to relinquish his customary spot in the coaching box along the third-base line to assistant Jeff Jefferson to focus his attention on in-game strategy.
Having that first year of leading a VBL team under his belt has given Rhodes a bit more of a comfort level heading into tonight's season opener on the road against the Harrisonburg Turks.
"I think when it comes to our preparation and my in-game management, I'm excited," said Rhodes, the lead assistant for Randolph-Macon College during the spring. "This year I'm not going to be in the third-base box, and I think it'll give me a better chance to manage from the dugout and concentrate on managing our bullpen more."
Rhodes is excited about that bullpen and the rest of the pitching staff, for that matter. He thinks this year's squad has the potential to be a deeper group than last year's playoff team, which advanced to the VBL semifinals before falling to eventual champion Waynesboro.
It never hurts to have some familiarity with that group, and Rhodes is counting on solid seasons from two holdovers from last year's team in starting pitcher Jake Perkins (Ferrum) and reliever Josh Falbo (West Virginia State).
Perkins is coming off an outstanding sophomore season at Ferrum, where he posted an 8-1 record with a 1.95 ERA and fired two no-hitters to earn the USA South Conference's Pitcher of the Year honor.
Falbo will get a crack at the full-time closer's job for New Market this year after primarily setting up for all-star closer Adam Zipko last season. Falbo set a new West Virginia State record with 14 saves this spring, totaling a 0.68 ERA with 32 strikeouts in 26 1/3 innings as he earned honorable mention All-America status from the National College Baseball Writers Association.
The rest of the staff is the usual VBL blend of experienced small-college pitchers and up-and-coming NCAA Division I hurlers looking to add innings in the summer. Among the group with significant starting experience is Salisbury rising senior Dan Fein, a left-hander who went 8-2 with a 3.74 ERA in 96 1/3 innings this spring. Other possible candidates for the rotation could be right-handers Riley Stephenson (Maryland-Baltimore County) and lefties Wayne Wages (George St.) and Bryan Carr (St. Rose).
"I'm really excited about our staff on the mound," Rhodes said. "I think we are deeper and we'll have guys in roles where they can really flourish. I think that's what one of our strengths will be."
The Rebels are still awaiting the arrival of about 10 players and won't be near full strength to start the season. Among the missing is returning shortstop Brandon Gum (George Mason), who finished second last season in the VBL batting race. He and catcher Walker Haymaker (VCU) are the returning position players from last season's squad.
"I think there's obviously some excitement about bringing back some guys from last year's squad," Rhodes said. "At the same time, for me it's also exciting to see some guys move on to other leagues and continue to develop."
One of those from last year moving on is ace starting pitcher Aaron Cressley, who will pitch for the Cotuit Kettlers in the prestigious Cape Cod League this summer. In an unintentional trade, the Rebels will welcome a two-year member of the Kettlers to this year's squad. Tennessee Wesleyan's Timothy Kiene, a 6-foot-5 infielder who spent three seasons at Maryland and was drafted out of high school by the Washington Nationals, played the past two seasons in the Cape Cod League for Ketuit.
The Rebels' outfield looks to be in good shape with plenty of experience. Temple's Jimmy Kerrigan batted .310 in a full-time starting role for the Owls in the spring, Cody Acker hit .291 as a starter for VCU and Andrew Seigel batted .277 with 22 stolen bases as a starter for Concord University.
Among the experienced infielders joining the Rebels are Josh Mason (Temple), Tanner Dofflemyer (VMI), Dom Wyshinski (Young Harris) and Joe Chittester (Pitt-Bradford).
"We just want them to be aggressive all the time," Rhodes said. "We'll be aggressive on the bases and hopefully be in position to score some runs because of that aggression."
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>