St. Paul's finds moving up carries built-in difficulties Baseball: Talented Crusaders say they are not daunted by 0-2 start in MIAA A Conference.

April 01, 1997|By Lem Satterfield | Lem Satterfield,SUN STAFF

St. Paul's finished as the area's 16th-ranked baseball team last season, going 22-3 and winning its second straight MIAA B Conference title -- the first under coach Paul Bernsdorff.

But this year's move to the A Conference has so far produced an 0-2 record for the No. 14-rated Crusaders.

"The decision to move up was not automatic, but it came down to how the kids felt about winning the B Conference again, or challenging themselves a little more and playing better competition," said Bernsdorff, in his second season since replacing Bruce Latta. "The competition is far better across the board, but we're not as concerned about that as much as competing at the level we feel we're capable of."

St. Paul's players such as senior catcher Josh Decklebaum, who hit .500 with 38 RBIs and 20 runs scored last season, realize that last year's astronomical statistical numbers may be out of reach. Still, the Crusaders proved worthy in defeats against No. 5 Calvert Hall, by 11-6, and No. 11 Gilman -- last year's TC Conference champ -- by 3-2.

"The baseball program has kind of taken off at St. Paul's. We worked our butts off down in Florida [during a preseason trip]," said Decklebaum, who had 12 doubles and three home runs last season. "Our best players are really playing good ball. We know we're not going to score 15 runs a game, but we've come together as a team and we're prepared to play well against anybody."

The season-opener against Calvert Hall -- which two years ago won its second straight A Conference title -- was a game in which the Crusaders led, 4-0 and 6-4, before losing.

With the bases loaded and his team up by two runs, Adair Newhall struck out looking at a pitch from Jason Bungori, who had replaced Calvert Hall's ace left-hander, Shane Rhodes, in the fourth inning.

"The biggest challenge is the pitching," said Bernsdorff. "I expect to find harder throwers, more breaking balls and for our reaction time to be tested a lot more. We'll have to really be patient against better pitching. We'll have to run the bases well and play good defense."

Newhall, the Crusaders' pitching ace this season, comes off a 3-1 campaign of a year ago. But he was perhaps even more impressive at the plate, where he batted .346 with a team-high 41 RBIs.

Newhall, a Division I prospect, also ranked second in home runs (seven), scored 32 runs, and hit six doubles and three triples.

A year ago, shortstop Justin Singleton, who is headed for Clemson on a baseball scholarship, hit .328 with 33 RBIs, seven doubles, a triple and four home runs. He stole 23 bases and scored 37 runs.

"When we first left the B Conference, I was sort of timid in a way," said Newhall. "I've seen some of the teams in the A Conference, and they're very competitive. But now we're playing well, and I'm really excited. I really feel that we can play competitively against anybody. Our goal is no less than a championship."

Unlike a year ago, however, there will be no walk-overs.

"There's going to be a major difference, which they're going to find out," said Mount St. Joseph coach Dave Norton, whose top-ranked Gaels remained unbeaten with last weekend's 2-0 shutout of Calvert Hall.

"I'm not saying that the top B Conference team can't compete in the A Conference. But in the A Conference, there are few weak teams. "All I'm saying is that they'd better be up for every game or it's going to be a long season."

Coach Marty Meloy's Gilman squad, which moved up from the B Conference five years ago, went a school-record 18-4 to win last year's A Conference crown.

"It can be done, and they've got some excellent talent on their team," Meloy said. "But with the pitching in this league, they're going to have to accept that even the best hitters go 0-for in some games."

Pub Date: 4/01/97

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