Portland Bulldogs Spring Sports Preview

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Senior Jake Knop is a defensive standout extraordinaire for a Portland baseball team which should again be in the mix for a Class A South title.

File photos.

More photos below.

BASEBALL

Coach: Mike Rutherford (third year, 27-11 overall record)

2016 record: 13-6 (Lost, 5-0, to Falmouth in Class A South semifinals)

Top returning players: Nick Archambault (Senior), Jake Knop (Senior), Thomas Joyce (Senior), Dom Tocci (Senior), Cam King (Junior), Donnie Tocci (Sophomore)

Pivotal games: April 27 SCARBOROUGH, May 5 @ Deering, May 9 @ South Portland, May 11 WINDHAM, May 20 CHEVERUS, May 25 THORNTON ACADEMY

Coach’s comment: “We lost seven starters, so we’ve got some holes to fill. We’ll be really good in the field, we have the best shortstop/second base combo in the league, and we’ll swing the bats. The issue is our pitching depth. We’ll have to pitch some younger kids. The SMAA is a young league this year. A lot of teams lost a lot of talent. If our pitching gets good, we’ll compete at the end of the year.”

The Forecaster’s forecast: Portland has been extremely competitive the past two seasons, but last spring, the Bulldogs couldn’t solve Falmouth’s Reece Armitage in the semifinals and fell a game shy of a return trip to the regional final. Graduation then hit the program hard, but the cupboard isn’t bare and when all is said and done, don’t be surprised if Portland emerges as a top title threat in June.

Last year, the Bulldogs could rest easily with Spring Male Athlete of the Year Dan Marzilli and Charlie Bernard eating up most of the innings. They’ve departed and others will have to quickly find their form. Donnie Tocci, who showed great promise as a freshman, will be the number one pitcher. Knop, who is bound for Manhattan College next year, is known as one of the state’s top defensive shortstops. He also swings a potent bat (.389 last season) and will pitch, as will senior Giovanni Ruotolo and sophomore Jackson Villani. King returns as catcher, but he’ll see time in the outfield as well, giving senior Dylan Wike an opportunity to see time behind the plate. Dom Tocci (second base) joins Knop to make up a terrific middle infield (both players were first-team league all-stars last season). Joyce, who was a terrific pinch-hitter in 2016, will be the first baseman this season. Junior Will Snyder will step in at third base. Sophomore Ben Stasium will anchor the outfield. The great unknown is Archambault, who suffered a knee injury during football season and won’t likely be cleared to play until the middle of next month. Once he returns, Rutherford plans to play him in leftfield and at designated hitter. Archambault, who missed out on playing in the football state game, would love to make some memories on the diamond before graduating. 

The pieces are in place for greatness this season, but there will be growing pains. Portland will spend part of the preseason playing at the Disney complex in Florida, then will benefit from there not being an overwhelming favorite in the Southwestern Maine Activities Association this season (Falmouth will likely be the favorite come the postseason) and it will be one of many teams in contention for a winning record and a high playoff seed. The Bulldogs will be fun to watch as they hit the ball, make things happen on the basepaths and play solid defense. If the pitching comes around, Portland will be a team to be reckoned with once again.

SOFTBALL

Coach: Robbie Ferrante (third year, 14-20 overall record)

2016 record: 10-8 (Lost, 12-0, in six innings, to Scarborough in Class A South quarterfinals)

Top returning players: Morgan Boyle (Senior), Taylor Crosby (Senior), Jess Brown (Junior), Sydney Gilbert (Junior), Kit Rosmus (Junior)

Pivotal games: May 1 @ Thornton Academy, May 2 @ Scarborough, May 5 SOUTH PORTLAND, May 8 @ Noble, May 10 DEERING, May 17 @ Biddeford, May 19 @ Deering, May 22 GORHAM, May 24 WINDHAM

Coach’s comment: “We won’t sneak up on anyone this year, but the kids are more hungry and they’re working hard. We’re starting from a stronger place this year. I hope we’ll be in the mix. The kids would like to take an extra step, maybe two or three. It’s there for the taking.”

The Forecaster’s forecast: Portland stole the headlines a year ago, in a season of first-time-in-a-long-time. Not only did the Bulldogs beat South Portland and eventual state champion Biddeford for the first time since 2005, they posted their first winning record since that same season, then earned their first playoff victory in a decade by surviving Marshwood in an extra inning classic. Portland met its match in Scarborough, but achieved its mission of returning to relevance and this season, the Bulldogs hope to solidify their status as a contender.

To be a strong softball team you need a great pitcher and Portland certainly has that in reigning Spring Female Athlete of the Year Brown, who went 8-6 with a 2.63 earned run average with 113 strikeouts in 83 innings in 2016. Brown, who was also a league all-star honorable mention last spring, can make contact with the bat as well, hitting .335 with 11 runs batted in last season. She’ll be the lead pitcher, but Gilbert will see some key innings as well. Senior Annie Twombly, who saw limited time a year ago, will replace Gianna Gaudet as catcher. Boyle will spark the offense. The leadoff hitter has paced the team in hitting the past couple seasons (she hit .382 a year ago) and she’s also a three-year starter at shortstop. Crosby, whose triple and ensuing run helped end Portland’s playoff drought last spring, is another three-year starter. She’ll be back at second base. Rosmus can hit as well and she’ll anchor the outfield. Several other girls will look to provide depth and contribute when called upon.

The Bulldogs will be tested by everyone they meet this year because it’s much more difficult to stay a winner than to become one. Portland will ride Brown’s talented right arm far and if it can play steady defense and get key hits, more memories will be made. Look for the Bulldogs to get back to the postseason and again make life difficult for the opposition.

BOYS’ LACROSSE

Coach: Mike DiFusco (fifth year, 19-32 overall record)

2016 record: 4-8 (no postseason)

Top returning players: Wes Bryan (Senior), Aaron Hoekstra (Junior), Joe Herboldsheimer (Junior), Kevin Moore (Junior), Reilly O’Brien (Junior), Sam Shaw (Junior), Evan Bay (Sophomore), Koa Farnsworth (Sophomore), Nico Leavitt (Sophomore), Ben McCallum (Sophomore), Max Valmond (Sophomore)

Pivotal games: April 25 WINDHAM, May 2 DEERING, May 4 @ Scarborough, May 9 @ TA, May 13 @ EL, May 23 SOUTH PORTLAND, May 26 CHEVERUS

Coach’s comment: “We graduated a good chunk of our offense, but a lot of guys got thrown into the fire last year. They have experience now and I hope that translates into success. Our go-to guy will be the open guy. We want to distribute the ball and attack when we can. We missed the playoffs last year. We want to get in this year.”

The Forecaster’s forecast: Portland started 4-1 a year ago, but didn’t win again and its 15-year streak of qualifying for the postseason came to a close. That figures to be an aberration, as the Bulldogs are primed to bounce back with a talented roster.

Hoekstra could be one of the league’s top goalies. He was an honorable mention league all-star last season. He’s aided by a strong defensive unit which features Farnsworth, Herboldsheimer and Valmond, along with long-poles Leavitt and McCallum. On offense, Bay will take faceoffs and play the midfield. He’s joined by Moore and Shaw. On attack, Bryan and O’Brien will look to score on a regular basis. The pieces are in place for Portland to be strong at all positions.

The Bulldogs have some tough games awaiting them, but the squad boasts cohesiveness and that should translate into more victories and a trip to the postseason where Portland could be one of the top threats in the Class A North field.

GIRLS’ LACROSSE

Coach: Beth Broderick (first year)

2016 record: 1-11 (no postseason)

Top returning players: Grace Cox (Senior), Sophia Leavitt (Senior), Ellie Zukowski (Senior), Morgan Kierstead (Junior), Abby Krieckhaus (Junior), Georgia Stoddard (Junior), Chloe Kilbride (Sophomore)

Pivotal games: May 9 CHEVERUS, May 11 @ South Portland, May 18 MGA, May 31 @ Deering

Coach’s comment: “It’s been a very smooth transition. We have a lot of returning players. We only lost two seniors last year. We have a great freshman class. I feel good about our defense. We have good leadership in the midfield. We’ll be scrappy and balanced. I don’t think our record reflected our talent or effort last year. We want to get in unison and be able to compete against anyone.”

The Forecaster’s forecast: Portland suffered four one-goal losses in 2016 and looks to turn those setbacks into victories this spring under a new coach. Broderick was the program’s junior varsity/assistant a year ago. She played at Columbia University and is optimistic about her team’s chances.

While the offense will miss 100-plus-goal scorer Merritt Ryan, Kierstead and Kilbride will look to fill the void. Cox and Leavitt are top midfielders. Stoddard and Zukowski (a second-team league all-star in 2016) anchor the defense in front of returning goalie Krieckhaus, an All-Rookie team selection last year, who is also a goalie for the Maine team. That’s a solid starting point and several youngsters will look to step in and make their mark.

The Bulldogs need to learn how to close out games and gain confidence. They have several contests on the schedule that will help that cause. As this team hits its stride, look out, it will be able to compete with anyone. If Portland can get to the postseason, it could be a matchup nightmare, just as it was in 2015.

OUTDOOR TRACK

Boys’ Coach: Dan Deniso (first year)

Girls’ Coach: Bill LeRoy (third year)

2016 results:

(Boys) No score @ Class A state meet

(Girls) Tie-25th @ Class A state meet

Top returning athletes:

(Boys) Keller Clinton (Junior), Cam Connelly (Sophomore), Nate Kapongo (Sophomore), Schilo Tshimbumbe (Sophomore)

(Girls) Maggie Hosmer (Senior), Ella Altidor (Junior)

Coach Deniso’s comment: “Our strength within the team is a healthy core of middle distance runners.We are all learning and figuring out what we can do and what events to compete in. Our goal is to build on each day and each meet.”

Coach LeRoy’s comment: “I’m excited that our numbers are up. We’ve got about 35 girls. We’re trying to rebuild the program. We have a lot of kids with potential. We’re looking for consistency. We want to be competitive where in the past we weren’t because of lack of numbers. It’s going to be a good year. We’ll show signs of improvement.”

The Forecaster’s forecast: Portland features some promising athletes as a new outdoor season dawns.

The boys didn’t score at states a year ago and would like to do so this time around under Deniso, the longtime boys’ cross country coach, who takes over the program from the retired Carroll Nappi. He inherits some talent. The Bulldogs should be strong in field events, as Clinton, Kapongo and Tshimbumbe will throw. Connelly has experience in the 400. Three newcomers will help the cause as well. Junior Kyle Caron is a sprinter and sophomore Joe Harrington and freshman Will Brewster will compete in the distance races. Portland should show steady improvement in the weeks to come and a few athletes could be in position to steal headlines when the championship meets roll around.

On the girls’ side, Hosmer is coming off a strong indoor season (she placed fifth in the 800) which saw her earn Portland Winter Female Athlete of the Year honors. She’ll look to score outdoors as well. Altidor is a top-notch sprinter. She came in fourth in the 100 and seventh in the 200 a year ago and could move up. Other athletes will have their chance to move into contention as well as the season progresses. The Bulldogs are a team on the rise. That climb will begin this year. Look for Portland to shoot up the standings at the state meet.

BOYS’ TENNIS

Coach: James Siegel (fourth year)

2016 record: 11-3 (Lost, 5-0, to eventual state champion Thornton Academy in Class A South semifinals)

Top returning players: Peter Barry (Senior), Henry Gates (Senior), Peter Gribizis (Senior), Daniel Mencher (Senior), Quinn Clarke (Junior), Dana Hinchliffe (Junior), Jack Kovarik (Junior)

Coach’s comment: “The varsity team is all upperclassmen. Every varsity player has returned, so if everyone is healthy and available, we have a chance at going 11-1. With a little luck and strong play, it’s possible all three singles players qualify for the state tournament this year.”

The Forecaster’s forecast: Portland is nothing if not seasoned this winter. The Bulldogs are coming off their best season in 15 years and every varsity player from that squad returns looking to make an even deeper run into the postseason.

Gribizis was a league all-star a year ago and will play first singles. Clarke is another returning all-star and he’ll be in the No. 3 singles spot (Barry is holding down the second singles position). Gates and Mencher, who made the league all-star team in 2016, will be the No. 1 doubles team. Hinchliffe and Kovarik make up the second doubles squad. Juniors Ian McCallum and Sam Mermin will also see time. This is a group that will be difficult for the opposition to match up with.

While Thornton Academy is the favorite, Portland likes its chances to not only enjoy regular season success, but position itself to be a top seed in the playoffs. The Bulldogs last got to a regional final in 1995. This veteran group could be the team that ends that drought and perhaps takes Portland all the way to the final day of the season.

GIRLS’ TENNIS

Coach: Bonnie Moran (10th year)

2016 record: 9-5 (Lost, 5-0, to Gorham in Class A South quarterfinal)

Top returning players: Abbey Record (Senior), Ashley Chadbourne (Junior), Leshka Jankowski (Junior), Karina Boothe (Sophomore), Lauren Paradise (Sophomore) 

Coach’s comment: “We’re still young, so our focus is on developing basic skills and consistency, conditioning and putting together doubles teams who will work together, support each other and learn strategies that can make use of our individual strengths.”

The Forecaster’s forecast: Portland has posted a winning record every season that Moran has coached and last missed the playoffs in 2000. The Bulldogs figure to be one of the most competitive teams in the conference again even though they have a lot of youth.

Boothe, Paradise and Record project to be in the three singles spots. Paradise won 11 matches last season. Record moves up from doubles. Chadbourne and Jankowski will make up the first doubles team. Seniors Asila Gul-Mohammad and Erin Ritter, sophomores Kate Bourque and Hannah Smith and freshmen Erin Chadbourne and Rose Watson are vying for the other starting positions.

This group has a learning curve in front of it, but the potential is there. Portland will be able to compete with everyone it faces in the regular season. Look for the Bulldogs to again post a winning record and make the playoffs. If they can come of age in the weeks to come, they might stick around the postseason for awhile.

Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at mhoffer@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @foresports.

Senior Nick Archambault is battling his way back from his football knee injury, but hopes to contribute to the Bulldogs’ cause by the end of the season.

Senior Dom Tocci will team with shortstop Jake Knop to make up arguably the best middle infield combination around.

Senior Thomas Joyce is well known for his hitting prowess.

Senior Giovanni Ruotolo will play a bigger role for the Bulldogs this season.

Junior Will Snyder will be Portland’s third baseman this spring.

Junior Jess Brown emerged as the ace for Portland’s softball team last year. She’ll look to pitch the Bulldogs back to the playoffs.

Senior Morgan Boyle will be in the middle of the action at shortstop, at the plate and on the basepaths.

Senior Taylor Crosby has made an abundance of big plays for the Bulldogs.

Junior Sydney Gilbert will do whatever it takes to help her team win games, at the plate, in the field or on the mound.

Senior Annie Twombly will be the Bulldogs’ catcher this spring.

Senior Wes Bryan will pace the offense of Portland’s boys’ lacrosse team as it seeks to make a run to the playoffs.

Junior Reilly O’Brien is another scoring threat for the Bulldogs.

Junior Aaron Hoekstra will be one of the league’s top goalies.

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Sports Editor of The Forecaster since 2001. Find detailed game stories at theforecaster.net. I tweet prodigiously at @foresports.