Trent Valentine could only describe the John Jay High School baseball team’s offseason in one way:
“It was a bummer.”
Shortly after the Patriots were eliminated in the Section 1 Class AA semifinals by rival Roy C. Ketcham, the team was hit with a series of tragic events, the sort that puts balls and strikes into stark perspective.
Pitcher Brandon Johnson, a sophomore a year ago, was diagnosed with leukemia. He underwent chemotherapy and did not return to school this year in order to recover.
Coach Eric Frink’s mother, Carol Frink, lost her own fight with cervical cancer in December.
And this past winter, Frink fell ill and doctors found a benign tumor in his ribs. He had it removed and recuperated.
The offseason took its toll on the Patriots.
“It’s been shot after shot after shot,” Frink said. “But we made it together. Hopefully we’re in the clear, in the sun.”
But on the precipice of a new season, the focus has returned to the diamond. With a pack of leaders, a new face in transfer Johnny Tuccillo and a lot of confidence, the Patriots are hoping for many moments in the sun this season.
John Jay will be heavily reliant on its pitching and defense, as it seeks a title in the perennially strong Section 1 Class AA.
The Patriots will be dedicating the season to the memory of their coach’s mom and their absent teammate, who is being tutored this year from home. The players and coaches will be wearing orange leukemia awareness ribbons on the back of their caps, and have made it their mission to put together a winning campaign.
“We’re going to do everything we can to win,” Valentine said. “They (Carol Frink and Johnson) have been our motivation this whole time.”
Valentine is among John Jay’s top returning players, along with Steve Schoen, Dan DiMarzo, J.D. Lent, Skyler Ohrvall, Nick Stanton, Andrew Zee, Nick Mason and Jack Matero.
Then, of course, there’s the new guy in town.
Tuccillo’s family moved from Pine Plains to Hopewell Junction. A year ago, the catcher and pitcher batted .446 with 12 RBI, 18 runs scored and struck out twice in 67 plate appearances for the Bombers. He also helped lead Pine Plains to the Section 9 Class C title.
He put his pitching skills on display in the sectional final, allowing one run on two hits over 5 2/3 innings against Tri-Valley, and offensively, he was 2 for 2 with an RBI, a run scored and a stolen base.
Tuccillo believes his new team can accomplish just as much as his former team did.
“I feel like we have something special. We can make history,” he said. “I’m really excited to start the season off.”
Even though he’s new to John Jay, Tuccillo knows Johnson. The two played on the same 12-and-under baseball team, and like the rest of the team, he wants to win for him.
“Me and Brandon played together when we were younger. When I heard what happened, I felt bad,” he said. “We’re going to play for him this season, and coach’s mom, as well.”
Valentine and Schoen are touted by the coach to be two of John Jay’s top pitchers. Frink also lauded the skill of Lent and Ohrvall: he called Orvhall “gritty” and said Lent, an outfielder, “runs down every fly ball as if it is his last.”
Frink anticipates his team’s pitching and defense will produce success.
“Defense wins. Pitching wins. We’re trying to put the best product on the field and see what we can do,” Frink said. “We’re hoping it all turns out OK.”
John Jay is slated to begin its season on Tuesday, against visiting Scarsdale.
And, yes. The Patriots are excited.
“We have good pitching. We have good hitting. We’re pretty much equal all around,” Valentine said. “I don’t think one part of our team is stronger than the other. We’re balanced and hopefully that leads to wins.”
A.J. Martelli: email@example.com, 845-437-4836, Twitter: @AJM_PoJoSports