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Varsity baseball team — small roster with big expectations

Cold? Ask the Shelter Island High School varsity baseball team at their practice on Monday before the season opener the following day against Greenport — canceled, because of frigid weather.

The boys weren’t answering questions about the weather at practice, but a west wind knifing across Fiske Field at 32 mph bringing wind chills of 15 degrees and driving snow — yes, snow — wasn’t producing much conversation about anything.

Shoulders hunched in hoodies, feet shifting constantly, the boys listened quietly to Coach Peter Miedema and Assistant Coach Mike Dunning, who put their players through their paces for a while before the team headed to the gym for work on drills.

A lap around the field, starting from home, up the first base line and around the outfield warmed things up a bit. Then Coach Dunning had the 10 players — “We can’t afford injuries,” he said — gather around first base.

“Well, you’re going to have a story to tell your kids,” he told the players. “When I played, we used to practice in snowstorms,” getting a few frozen smiles. He then went over the basics of taking a lead, demonstrating stepping off first base and extending it as the pitch home is made.

He and Coach Miedema, at a gathering at the plate later, spoke about focus, preparation and understanding the field you’re playing on. It’s the little things to keep in mind, Coach Dunning said.

For example, every player has to know the distance from the plate to the backstop. He pointed out that the backstop at Greenport was close to the plate, while at Fiske Field it was much roomier in foul ground.

“You’re on base and see a passed ball here, you’ve got to be able to move up,” he said.

Both coaches are optimistic about the chances of success for their small squad. The old saying is that pitching and defense win ball games, and Coach Dunning said they were stocked with live arms.

Their ace is junior Ben Waife, a lefty who has participated in “travel teams,” or teams that train and play outside the varsity season. Lefties always have an advantage, Coach Miedema said, because players don’t face them often, and that number is even lower at the high school level.

But Ben is not the only hard thrower on the team, Coach Dunning said, listing other pitchers who will start and relieve — Elijah Davidson, Bazzy Quigley-Dunning and Harrison Weslek. Coach Dunning noted that high school pitchers are on a pitch count, and that will be even more important for Shelter Island, with a small squad, to keep young arms healthy.

Coach Miedema, at a meeting at home plate, urged his players “to focus, always,” on the game, and not wait for their mates to make a play or get something started, but to take charge themselves.

“Awareness,” again, of the little things was key. One tip he gave his players was, when on base, to focus on the opposition pitcher’s feet to tip off if a pickoff move was coming.

He told his team that they had talent, and if “we win some league games, we’re going upstate,” to the high school championships at the end of the season.

At the gym, the coach sat on a bench in the hallway as his team worked out inside, and said he wasn’t just boosting egos with his talk of playoff success, but believed in his players. “They’ve shown a lot of courage and grit,” he said, and was eager to put his team on the field to compete.