By Jeff Nations
First-year head coach Rick Almarode isn't new to the Front Royal Post 53 American Legion Senior baseball team, having helped out former head coach Danny Wood for the past few seasons before agreeing to take over this year.
That familiarity is a real plus, considering that Almarode's team had managed just one formal practice before Wednesday's scheduled full-squad workout. It's not a lot of time to get ready for a season that was already supposed to have started -- Post 53's season-opening opponent, Winchester Post 21, had to postpone due to insufficient numbers with so many of its players involved in this week's state tournaments.
Now, Almarode has until at least Sunday to prep his team for the season. That's when Front Royal is slated to host Manassas Post 10 at Bing Crosby Stadium. Game time 1 p.m.
"We should be pretty solid," Almarode said. "Right now to start the season, it's just getting kids to gel together. I think we'll be a very good defensive team."
That cohesiveness could be a bit tougher for Post 53 this year, which in recent seasons has been mostly players from Front Royal schools Skyline and Warren County. Both of those programs are well-represented again, but the team also has players from Clarke County, Central, Shenandoah Valley Christian Academy and a smattering of college players with local ties.
Leading that group of college players is Shenandoah University's Neil Dutton, a standout player last year for Post 53 following his graduation from Randolph-Macon Academy. Dutton will serve in a utility role for Post 53, playing all over the field when he isn't pitching.
Warren County graduate Joey Catalani (pitcher/outfielder) played at Hagerstown Community College in the spring, while SVCA's Patrick McGrath (pitcher/utility) is slated to play for Potomac State next season.
Central's Jordan Rau (outfield), Cody Sager (utility) and Corey Sibert (pitcher) are all first-year players for the team.
"This is the first time in probably three or four years that we had any kid from Central who had any interest in playing," Almarode said. "We're glad to have all three of them."
Clarke County's Travis Elsea (second base) and Kevin Ryan (first base/pitcher) are also on the squad, along with McGrath's SVCA teammate Matt Rogers (outfield).
As always, the bulk of the roster is made up of Skyline and Warren County players.
From Skyline, Post 53 is counting on Sterling Jennings (pitcher/third base), Hunter Partlowe (catcher) and Robert Presley (second base/catcher).
Warren County's contingent includes Eric Baker (outfield), Julian Bussells (outfield), Austin King (first base/pitcher), John Reith (pitcher), Jontae Rollins (outfield) and Joseph Rutherford (outfield/pitcher).
A deep group of outfielders including the speedy Rollins and Rau should be able to track down plenty of fly balls, taking some pressure off Front Royal's pitching staff. The infield also features plenty of returning experience off last season's squad, plus some impact newcomers.
Almarode counts Reith, Catalani, Jennings, Dutton, McGrath and Sager among his options for starting pitching this season.
Although Wood stepped down as head coach, he's still working with the team as an assistant coach this season.
This season, Front Royal will host the District 16 tournament at Bing Crosby Stadium, scheduled for July 22-July 24 with a potential play-in game at the higher seed slated for July 20.
"It's great for us," Almarode said. "The tournament's been in Stafford the past three years, and all the teams up this way had to travel there. It's going to be nice for the teams up in this area not to have to travel so far for the tournament."
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>