Redbirds set to open season

    JERRY WOLKOWITZ Allentown High School senior Dana Thompson warms up prior to the March 22 Shore Basketball Coaches 2000 All-Star Classic at Freehold Township High School. Thompson scored 10 points for the South, but the North all-stars prevailed, 77-75. JERRY WOLKOWITZ Allentown High School senior Dana Thompson warms up prior to the March 22 Shore Basketball Coaches 2000 All-Star Classic at Freehold Township High School. Thompson scored 10 points for the South, but the North all-stars prevailed, 77-75.

By dan miller

ALLENTOWN — In Richard Dawson’s first year as head coach of the Allen-town High School baseball team in 1998, the Redbirds finished at 9-12. Last year Allentown finished at 10-10 and qualified for the state tournament for the first time in nine years.

So as Dawson prepares his team for the 2000 season which is set to begin Saturday vs. Monsignor Donovan High School of Toms River, continued progress is all he’s hoping for out of his youthful squad.

"We have a very young team this year," Dawson said, noting that he has only five seniors (compared to 10 in 1999) and may have three sophomores in the starting lineup on opening day. "We would like to set up a good foundation and establish ourselves over the next few years. We (the coaching staff) are just hoping the kids will continue to improve and progress as the season goes on. There is a lot of heart and desire on this team and I have seen it in the scrimmages we have played so far."

While making the state tournament and improving on last year’s record would be nice, Dawson said he’s not putting any lofty expectations upon his youthful squad’s shoulders.

"We are just trying to stress the fundamentals of the game in practice," the coach said. "Of course, it would be good to be .500 and be competitive, but we just want them to enjoy themselves and grow as a team. That’s the most important thing."

Allentown has gone 2-3 in scrimmages, beating Trenton and Neptune while losing to Peddie, Hamilton West and Jackson. Dawson said the teams Allentown lost to were competitive schools, so he’s been satisfied with his team’s progress to date.

Many players are still locked in battles for starting spots as the opener nears, but Dawson said he is pleased with the fact that he seems to have more flexibility at certain positions this year.

Leading the way as the aces of his pitching staff, Dawson said he is hoping that junior Don Provost and senior Mike Macallister will form a solid 1-2 punch for the Redbirds.

"They have both worked hard and come a long way in the off-season," Dawson said of his two righthanded pitchers. "I am really pleased with what I am seeing out of them."

If Louis Cote can shake off elbow problems that have plagued him in the off-season, Dawson is hoping the sophomore will receive some considerable time in the rotation. Junior southpaws Kyle Patton and Sean Watkins and sophomore lefty James Petersen are also expected to see time on the mound for Allentown, Dawson said.

Senior third basemen Sean Stone will also serve as the team’s closer.

"Sean was one of our better players last year," Dawson said. "He had shoulder surgery in the off-season and had a long rehabilitation but he is coming along fine. We are bringing him along slowly. He’s playing regularly at third base, but we’re trying to get him an inning here or there on the mound when we can."

Dawson said he’s hoping for big things from Stone offensively, indicating that if he’s fully recovered from his injury "he could be a big help to us." In 1999, Stone broke Allentown’s single season record for runs batted in with 37. He also had four home runs and batted .366.

Rounding out the rest of the starters for Allentown, the name of the game is competition. At catcher, Dawson said the starting spot is up for grabs between senior Brian Gentz and junior Billy Weidman. Sophomore Dave Petersen is expected to back up those two players.

Patton, a junior, and senior Frank Bucco will see time at first base. The coach said Bucco filled in admirably for Stone at third base last year after Stone got hurt, finishing the year with a .300 average and three homers.

Watkins will also see time at first base, although he will be used primarily as the Redbirds’ designated hitter.

There will be a new starter at second base for Allentown this year. Sophomore Mario Zapicchi has earned the opening day honors.

"Mario has worked real hard and is a good kid," the coach said. "He has progressed really well and loves the game."

While Stone is a lock for third base, Dawson said he’s still unsure of the starter at shortstop between Cote and junior Dan Alvarez.

In the outfield, Scot Walsh-Riddle will anchor centerfield and will likely be flanked by sophomore Dave Griffiths in left and sophomore James Petersen in right.

"One good thing about our team is that a lot of our guys play multiple positions," Dawson noted. "They are pretty interchangeable."

Dawson said he’s hoping for good production out of Stone, Bucco and Watkins and he’s counting on Walsh-Riddle to take charge in the dugout and be a good team leader. But, he pointed out, the success of Allentown this season may fall on the young arms of the pitching staff.

"The mainstay of our team will be how our pitching staff carries us," Dawson said. "If our top two (Provost and Macal-lister) do well, that could take some pressure off some of our younger players."

Dawson said he’s hoping his team will be able to manufacture a lot of runs this year on the base paths.

"We’re going to be very aggressive on the basepaths since we have a very fast team," Dawson said. "We’ll be doing a lot of stealing. We have a lot of station-to-station players here."

Finally, Dawson said, he’s hoping the community will show their support for the Redbirds throughout the season.

"These kids are very well-schooled and enthusiastic about the game," the coach explained. "There will be some growing pains, I’ll tell you that right now, but I think it will pay dividends in the end."