Good things often spring from adversity and that's what Tewksbury High baseball coach Ron Drouin hopes will be the case for his TMHS Redmen this srping.
Coming off a disappointing 9-11 season in which his star pitcher, Matt Luppi, missed most of the year with health concerns, Drouin is guardedly optimistic that his squad can return to the winning ways that saw Tewksbury High win 10 of the last 13 Merrimack Valley Conference Division 2 championships.
"I like the way this roster is shaping up," Drouin said. "We've been through some injuries and some adversity over the last couple years, but I like the team and I like the athleticism. I think this team is more athletic than we've been in the last two years."
Much of the team's success will depend on Luppi, a senior right hander who accepted a scholarship to play baseball at the University of Connecticut before his junior season. Unfortunately for Luppi and the Redmen, their projected top starter barely pitched at all last year, sitting out much of the season with an unusual illness that was caused by an adverse reaction to an acne medication.
"The medication (Luppi) took dried out the fluid in his joints, and he ended up with all kinds of problems with his nerves and pain in his joints," Drouin explained.
Luppi's velocity dropped from the high 80's to the high 70's, and he recorded just one victory as a junior.
The good news is that the negative effects soon wore off after Luppi came off the medication, and his velocity has returned. Luppi's fastball is clocking in the high '80s again, and Drouin says the entire experience has actually made him a better pitcher.
"He's a better pitcher now because when his velocity dropped he had to learn how to throw a change-up and a curve," Drouin said. "He had to learn how to pitch instead of just throw."
The rest of the TMHS staff may have benefited from Luppi's injury, too, as many underclassmen were called on to throw more innings than expected last year. Senior righthander Sean McCarthy became Tewksbury's workhorse last season, leading the team in innings pitched while recording three wins and a save. Senior righthander Ryan White and juniors John Chotkowski and Allyn Hood also return with experience from last year.
"A lot of kids got thrown into the fire last year and hopefully some good comes out of that," Drouin said. "A lot hinges on Matt Luppi's health but as long as Matt is healthy, I like our staff."
The pitching staff will be in good hands, too as senior catcher Rob Wallace returns for his third year as the team's starter behind the plate.
"Robbie is a great captain and a great leader and he's as hard a worker as we have," Drouin said.
The Redmen infield returns two starters as Luppi, McCarthy and senior will rotate at first base. , a senior three-sport star, returns as the team's second baseman. Hulme led the team in stolen bases last spring and will bat lead-off.
Junior Eric Heider will start at shortstop. Heider played well on the TMHS freshman team two years ago but did not play baseball in 2010.
"He's been a real nice surprise so far," Drouin said. "I think he's going to give us a real nice lift and stabilize that position."
Drouin is also optimistic about sophomore third baseman Cam Oliveira, who brings speed an athleticism to the infield.
"I've been around this program for 18 years and Cam's skill set is in the top five or 10 percent of all the kids I've ever seen here," Drouin said.
In the outfield, seniors and Chris Andella will anchor left and center fields. Both were standout football players this past fall, and both bring defensive speed and offensive power to the team.
"Sean is real competitive and he's got good instincts," Drouin said. "Chris didn't get into the line-up until about eight games into the season last year, but then he became our best hitter."
Sophomore Matt Skotes looks to be the starting right fielder while Frankie McLaughlin, a junior, will also vye for time in the outfield. Junior Brad Gahajan will be the utility infielder while Derek Sabbag, a junior, will back up Wallace behind the plate.
Offensively, Drouin hopes the Redmen can get back to their old ways of making things happen on the base paths.
"We've got several guys with a lot of punch in their bats and we can hit a little bit," Drouin said. "But I also like the fact that seven or eight of the guys in our line-up can steal a base.
"We've got to get back to pressing people," he added. "Earlier in the decade we stole 40 or 50 bases a season, but we haven't been able to do that the last couple years. This year we should be back to playing baseball that way."
Overall, the big picture looks bright for Drouin and the Redmen, who have their sights set on returning to the state tournament this spring.
"I like our senior class," Drouin said. "I'd want to see them in the state tournament. We'd like to build off some of the momentum the (Division 2 state champion) hockey team started. We want to grab some of their mojo and go out with a bang."
Tewksbury opens its season at home against Wimington April 11.