Pictured: Coginchaug baseball coach Mark Basil with the Blue Devils after they just won the CIAC Class S championship at Palmer Field last June. (Photo by Paul Augeri)

By Paul Augeri

The feel of a new baseball is in the air and every team in the county is optimistic about what lies ahead for them.

There are three new head coaches in Dan Botti at Middletown, Ryan Fraser at Old Saybrook and Phil Cohen at Old Lyme. At the front of the stage once again is Mark Brookes, who begins his 46th year at Haddam-Killingworth and is now part of Connecticut’s exclusive 700-win club.

Coginchaug’s spectacular 2021 season ended at Palmer Field with the Blue Devils holding the CIAC Class S championship trophy. The Devils were the prohibitive Shoreline Conference favorite a year ago, but 2022 will be different. Having lost a boatload of talented seniors, Coginchaug this time around is expected to be part of a wide-open race that includes East Hampton, Valley Regional, Morgan, H-K and Cromwell. And there’s sure to be a surprise team (Old Saybrook, maybe?) that pops up along the way in one of the state’s most competitive leagues.

Here’s a look at our 2022 preseason capsules:

Middletown Blue Dragons

Head coach: Dan Botti

2021 regular season: 5-13

2022 opener: Beat Haddam-Killingworth 11-2

Players to watch: Sr. OF Ryan Quinn; Sr. P/INF Dan Lapham; Sr. 1B Drew Strickland, Soph. P/SS Luke Weisenberg; Jr. P/3B Tyler Powell; Jr. P/OF Caleb Reed.

Outlook: Botti, 23, played at Middletown High and knows the players, having coached several in the Middletown American Legion Post 75 program. This is a well-rounded team with pitching depth and a hunger to get back to being a state tournament qualifier (Class L this year). And the team’s offense in the preseason has impressed Botti. “I’m trying to breed confidence in the guys. We do have a good team. There’s only 14 on the varsity team, but the 14 are really strong players. I’m just trying to take it day by day,” he said.

Diamond Notes: Botti’s assistants are Brendan Ebert, an All-CCC pitcher at Berlin who played five seasons at Southern Connecticut State, and Ryan Famiglietti, who played at Xavier and caught on at Sacred Heart as its bullpen catcher … Quinn, Strickland and Lapham are the captains … Powell is a first-year Blue Dragon, having transferred home from Capital Prep. Powell, Sr. Mason Neumann, Jr. Diego Carrillo and Soph. Corey Turcotte will provide innings behind the top 3 of Lapham, Reed and Weisenberg. No lefties here … Soph. AJ Quinn will do the catching … Strickland is an elite swimmer who will go on to compete at Division I Wagner … Lapham will be attending Eastern Connecticut. He was recruited as a pitcher … Middletown filled two open dates with a home-and-away against Coginchaug.

Xavier Falcons

Head coach: Nick Cerreta

2021 regular season: 12-5

2022 opener: Monday vs. Fairfield Prep at Palmer Field, 4pm.

Players to watch: Sr. OF Drew Kron; Sr. SS Colin Loria; Sr. P Tyler Hartley; Sr. RF Dillon Luke, Jr. LF JP Hosney; Jr. C Brandon Gaer; Sr. 2B Vik Vakati.

Outlook: The Falcons’ outfield, led by UConn commit Kron, returns intact. Hartley, a right-hander, is the ace. “He looks great,” Cerreta said. Luke will be in the rotation. Cerreta said if some sophomore arms develop, the Falcons will have the depth they are hoping for. The Falcons are trying to shore up their corner infield spots, with Jr. Mason Breton, Jr. Blake Beattie and Sr. Kyle Noska in contention for starting roles. “We play a hard schedule, but we have a great group of kids who are committed and have high character. We just gotta play.”

Diamond Notes: Jr. Spencer Misenti will be the fourth outfielder and a utilityman … Loria, Kron and Luke are the captains … Xavier filled a final date on the schedule with Cromwell. That game will move to a Saturday night, May 14, at Palmer Field … Graduate Luke Lappe, a 6-foot-3, 195-pound first baseman, is on the roster at North Alabama.

Coginchaug Blue Devils

Head coach: Mark Basil

2021 overall: 22-3

2022 opener: Beat Portland 9-1

Players to watch: Sr. SS/P Connor Willett; Sr. 3B/CL Jeremy Mangiameli; Sr. 1B/P Anthony Morro; Sr. OF Ethan Kupec; Jr. P/INF Jayson Penney; Jr. C/INF Ethan Covello.

Outlook: Basil said his team is “loaded” in the pitching department, with Willett at the top of the rotation and Morro right after him. Mangiameli, All-Shoreline First Team last season, is among the top power hitters in the conference and will bat out of the 3-hole. With Mangiameli and Willett on the left side and Morro capable of playing 2B and SS as well, Basil loves his infield defense. Coginchaug will be a running team this year, too. “Our team speed is as good or better than last year,” he said, “as long as we get on base. I don’t think we’ll be a small-ball team, but we’ll be as aggressive.”

Diamond Notes: Coginchaug and Valley Regional were declared Shoreline co-champions last year when the final could not be played because of a scheduling conflict … Penney, the basketball team’s point guard, returns to the program after not playing last year … Covello moved into the district from Branford … sophomores Henry Bugai and Ryan Grant are pitchers to watch. “Both will be a big part of this team,” Basil said … 6-foot left-hander Alex Tawa transferred out to Loomis Chaffee.

Cromwell Panthers

Head coach: Christian Budzik

2021 regular season: 13-5

2022 opener: Monday at East Hampton, 4pm

Players to watch: Sr. P/C Zach Zajac, Sr. CF Ian McMillan, Sr. SS, Sr. OF Elias DeLeon; Jr. P/INF Brandon Berean; Jr. 2B/UT Ethan Ucol; Sr. UT Tysen Billings.

Outlook: Zajac is the ace and will be among the Shoreline’s top arms after a strong junior season and summer season with RCP Post 105. He’ll be followed in the rotation by Berean. From there, Budzik said youngers players will have to step up. Only Zajac, McMillan and DeLeon were lineup regulars a year ago, and there are seniors this spring who will be first-time varsity starters. Budzik praised the growth of Billings. McMillan is a very good left-handed hitter. “We look good at the plate,” Budzik said, “and we’re not striking out as much as we were last year. Our pitching and defense have to get better.”

East Hampton Bellringers

Head coach: Tom Seidl

2021 regular season: 10-8

2022 opener: Beat Morgan 8-7

Players to watch: Sr. 1B/P Dan Cascio ; Sr. 3B/P Nathan Bigelow; Jr. CF/LHP James Quinn; Sr. 3B/DH Javy Diaz; Soph. P Baden Plante; Jr. C Avery Hall; Sr. P/2B Carter Scovill; Sr. 2B Hunter Peszynski.

Outlook: East Hampton is a long way from 2018, when it had just 15 players in the program and no JV squad. Seidl now has three dozen ballplayers at his disposal and an experienced varsity roster returning, although the Bellringers have been held back in the preseason – their new field has been off limits for practices and scrimmages. “Our pitching is unsettled because of it,” said Seidl. East Hampton has played just one scrimmage (at Watertown) and spent the rest of the time on the school’s soccer field and inside the gym. “We are up and coming but have a lot to prove,” the coach said. “There are a lot of unknowns and we haven’t been able to evaluate players.”

Diamond Notes: Cascio, Scovill and Peszynski are the captains … Peszynski was the Bellringers’ defensive player of the year in his junior season … The Bellringers were one of just three teams to defeat Coginchaug last season … Emilio Magnano, who played at Middletown High in the 2000s, is Seidl’s pitching coach.

Haddam-Killingworth Cougars

Head coach: Mark Brookes

2021 regular season: 15-5

2022 opener: Lost 11-2 to Middletown

Players to watch: Sr. CF/P Alex Sheehan; Jr. P/3B Callen Powers; Sr. C Nick Glynn; Jr. P Liam Gordon; Sr. INF/P Lucas Kamoen; Soph. 2B Ryan Erskine; Soph. SS Blake Kamoen.

Outlook: The Cougars historically average 14 wins a season under Brookes. This year’s squad is young, especially in the infield, but has potential. Whether it’s successful depends on “how fast we can get that potential out of them. It’s certainly possible we stumble out of the blocks,” Brookes said. “It’s why I schedule so many preseason scrimmages, to get a sense of who’s capable of playing right now.”

Diamond Notes: Lucas Kamoen is recovering from a badly sprained ankle. He could be ready to play sometime in April, Brookes said … former Middletown coach Josh Cofield is now Brookes’ assistant after Ryan Fraser got the head coaching job at Old Saybrook. “Josh is very knowledgeable and good with the kids,” his boss said … Middletown and H-K have scrimmaged annually. This is the first time they’ll meet in the regular season in close to two decades.

Hale-Ray Noises

Head coach: Rich Gable

2021 regular season: 12-8

2022 opener: Lost 8-4 to Old Lyme

Players to watch: Sr. CF/P Nathan Wanderman; Sr. C Oliver Ross; Sr. 2B Charlie Gable; Sr. P/3B/1B Miles Gagne; Jr. P/OF Austin Sevigny; Sr. OF Jackson Hill; Jr. P/INF Sam Forsyth.

Outlook: Coach Gable begins his 23rd season as coach with five starters returning. The team lost its “catalysts” from last season in pitcher Matt Lauria (Western New England) and Cam Watkins (Dean). “We’re not necessarily a rebuilding team, but not necessarily an experienced juggernaut,” Gable said. “We’ll compete every game. Our intent is to win as many games so can make the state tournament and hopefully be in the top 8 (eligible) for the Shoreline tournament, because anything can happen.”

Diamond Notes: Ross, a Second Team All-Shoreline performer last year, will hit leadoff … Avery Gugliotti tore his meniscus in basketball season and might be healthy in time to play this season. He was elected a team captain along with Gagne and Charlie Cable … Fourteen players made the trip to Cocoa Beach, Florida, earlier this month to practice and play scrimmages against teams on similar visits. “It was a nice team building experience,” Gable said. “Just fantastic. The trip was scheduled for 2020 but was canceled because of the pandemic, so this was three years in the making. Unfortunately, the last two senior classes didn’t have a chance to experience it.”

Morgan Huskies

Head coach: Michael Grant

2021 regular season: 10-8

2022 opener: Lost 8-7 to East Hampton

Players to watch: Sr. P/SS Garret Garbinski; Sr. P/3B/SS Bailey Goss, Sr. 1B Ethan Reemsnyder; Sr. CF/P Brady Fritz; Sr. RF Ethan Ranaudo.

Outook: The Huskies have the talent to make a run at the Shoreline title starting with their core of five seniors. Garbinski, their ace, is committed to Division I Manhattan. Goss is their No. 2 starter. “If we pitch and play good defense and get a few timely hits, we’ll be OK,” Grant said. “We definitely have to pitch and play defense.” Grant is keeping his team loose and he liked what he saw in scrimmages against Cromwell, Old Saybrook at Branford. “There aren’t too many expectations going into the year. We’re trying to make these guys the best version of themselves that they can be. The journey is just getting started with this group and we’ll see where it takes us.”

Diamond Notes: Grant said there will be contributions from the underclassmen, including Ryan Donadio, Rob Estabrook, Andy Darr, Jake Jones, Ryan Luciani, Sean Green and Lucus Hoadley.

Old Lyme Wildcats

Head coach: Phil Cohen

2021 regular season: 7-11

2022 opener: Beat Hale-Ray 8-4

Players to watch: Sr. OF Jimmy Creagan; Sr. P/2B Riley Warecke; Sr. 1B/P Mav Swaney; Sr. C Alex Roth; Sr. LF Aidan Ward; Soph. SS Grady Lacourciere.

Outlook: Cohen’s debut as coach on Saturday was a thriller — the Wildcats defeated Hale-Ray on a walk-off home run by Roth. Cohen replaced longtime head coach Randy St. Germain, who retired, and takes over a team with a mix of seniors and underclassmen who have a lot of promise.

Old Saybrook Rams

Head coach: Ryan Fraser

2021 regular season: 5-13

2022 opener: 11-1 win over Westbrook

Players to watch: Soph. C Connor Lane; Sr. RHP/SS/3B Jake Butler; Sr. SS Noah Hester; Sr. RHP/1B Noah Grace; Sr. UT/RHP Carson Brown; Sr. OF Nick Rothman; Sr. OF Nick Scalzo.

Outlook: The job unexpectedly opened in late winter and the 27-year-old Fraser, an H-K assistant the last three years, jumped at the opportunity. With just 18 players and no JV team this season, he gets to put his imprint on the program right away. “Our biggest goal right now is to try and get numbers,” he said. “Our senior class is really strong and our sophomore class is stronger.”

Diamond Notes: “We’re trying to build the program from Little League up, which the seniors have helped me with a lot. We’ve done some things with baseball at the middle school, too,” said Fraser … Only a sophomore, Lane is committed to UConn. “He’ll be well-recognized across the Shoreline,” his coach said. “He’s a really big, mature kid and a good player.” … Butler, Hester and Brown are the captains … Butler will see a lot of innings, Fraser said … Hester is a solid bat from the left side … Rothman, a standout soccer player for the state champion Rams, is back in the program after taking last spring off … Fraser likes the Rams’ team speed while adding their defense will be a key to a winning season … After a 3-1 start under former coach Nick Hahn, the Rams lost 12 of 14. Still, Valley coach Brian Drinkard felt that the Rams “were the best 5-13 team in the state.” … Fraser played at Guilford High School when Hahn was an assistant there. “I kind of knew his style. I’ve changed it up a little bit, but the expectations (from Hahn) were already in place.

Valley Regional Warriors

Head coach: Brian Drinkard

2021 regular season: 13-6

2022 opener: 6-5 win over North Branford

Players to watch: Sr. 3B/1B Andrew Salbinski; Jr. P Brayden Sparaco; Jr. P Colin Carver; Jr. CF Sam Hutchinson; Jr. SS Jack Finnegan.

Outlook: Valley had a strong second of the 2021 season and reached the Shoreline tournament final, having to share it with Coginchaug when the game couldn’t be played because of a scheduling conflict. Drinkard has numbers in the junior class. That crop could meld with the seniors as the season goes on. “I’m just trying to stay above water in this league,” Drinkard said. “I’m not any more optimistic than in any other season. We lost eight seniors. We got ourselves in a decent position at the end of the year, but it all starts at zero. There are no easy games.” For the rotation, he’s looking for a No. 3 starter to emerge.

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