A chance not taken

Niles was set to pitch with bullpen ­only

NILES — Those interesting years spent coaching little league baseball were finally about to be pay off for Niles High School coach Mike Guarnieri.

It was back then that Guarnieri first utilized a “bullpen” game, in which several relief pitchers combine to pitch the entire game. The style became popularized in Major League Baseball the last few years, but it has been a regular practice at the youth level.

With a deep, yet inexperienced pitching staff on Guarnieri’s 2020 high school team, he was ready to implement the trendy pitching system.

“The major leagues started to use it, but I kind of pulled it out of just coaching different levels of baseball and seeing how it might help our staff,” Guarnieri said. “… That’s kind of the interesting thing of having coached at every level and taking some things that you might have done at a 9-and-10 tournament and you apply it to your high school baseball team.”

If it wasn’t for the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to the cancellation of high school spring sports, it just might have worked. The Guarnieri brothers often seem to find a way to execute when it comes to baseball.

Either Mike or his brother T.C. has been the head coach of the Red Dragons since 1997, and Niles has been one of the area’s most consistent teams during their tenure. To keep the winning going, the Red Dragons were going to try something different.

“I kind of knew going into this year and at the end of last year that we had quite a few arms,” Mike said, “but nothing that I felt like I wanted to expose to a lineup more than twice. Our younger guys, our sophomores, we were looking to get six outs of, not even go through the order once.

“It was something we had planned on quite a bit from late summer last year into our meetings in the fall.”

Part of the reason for the change in pitching was the Red Dragons lost their top two starters in Dylan Weida and Corbin Foy along with standout catcher Nick Guarnieri, T.C.’s son.

Mike said he had plenty of confidence in returning pitchers Brandon Hayes, a senior, and Zach Leonard, junior. Leonard led the team in wins (5) and ERA (1.44) in 2019, and Mike said without Hayes, who worked mainly as a reliever, Niles probably wouldn’t have won a conference title in 2018.

But the bullpen formula would keep from exposing them to teams throughout the season and, in theory, keep their pitch count down. It was just one of the ways Guarnieri wanted to play to the team’s strengths.

With a potent lineup that featured Leonard, who also played shortstop and hit .413 last year, Joe Gallo, a first baseman who batted .429, Chase Sudzina (.342) and Hayes (.325), just to name a few, there was reason for optimism at Wilder Field.

“At first, there was a little bit of a question of how we were going to do things,” said Gallo, who committed to play baseball at Malone University. “I was kind of curious of how coach Mike was going to run things. He just told us, ‘We have a lost of speed on the team, so we’ll have two or three guys that are really going to swing the bat, and we’re going to have people bunt, we’re going to run and we’re going to put pressure on people.’ It was finally starting to really work out, right around that last week of practice. … I thought we were going to have a really good run this year.”

Defense was another area of strength, according to Guarnieri.

He admitted the Red Dragons struggled a bit defensively over the last few years. Guarnieri felt more confident going into this season, with most of the infield returning and an outfield loaded with athletes, such as Sudzina, Zack Macik, David Mays and Matt Kozak.

A chemistry between a hard-working group seemed to be forming as well.

“We had lot of fun in our early practices, in our innersquad (scrimmages), and we were going to be really fun to watch,” Guarnieri said. “I thought people were going to enjoy the style of baseball we were going to play because it was going to be exciting. We had lot of good athletes and had the ability to do a lot of different things.”

While the Red Dragons won league titles in 2016, ’17 and ’18, they haven’t been able to get over the hump in the district tournament.

In fact, Niles’ last district title in baseball came in 1962. There have been numerous close calls, and while Guarnieri would have liked to see if this was the team to win it, he’s more disappointed they won’t even get a chance to compete.

“The real disappointment I have for our kids is that I know the amount of work that goes in to what we do,” he said. “I’m sure a lot of kids in the area go through similar things. I really don’t know what they go through. I know what our kids go through.

“We’ve always had a saying, ‘Are you going to sacrifice for the unknown?’ You put all this time in the weight room. You sacrifice the time, the blood, the sweat and the tears, and you don’t know if you’re going to be in the starting lineup, and we don’t know if we’re going to win games, but we’re going to make the sacrifice anyway,” he added. “And for that not to be known for these seniors, it rips your heart out, and I feel horrible for those kids.

“But the one thing I know about a Niles kid, is they’re resilient and they’re going to bounce back.”


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