George Iskenderian sensed the silent intrusion manifested from all the pre-season hype that swirled around the collection of talent assembled at Don Bosco spreading like a rash through a cast that harbored such high aspirations.
The senior shortstop, one of six Division 1 recruits that made the Ironmen such an attractive choice to not only be perhaps the best team New Jersey had to offer, but one of the elite squads in the country according to various national polls, could see it in all three aspects of the game.
Proven hitters itching to make impacts in such a way they were swinging out of their shoes. Pitchers with quality fastballs rearing back to find that extra yard only to miss locations. And, sure-handed fielders misplaying chances that always seemed to be made to look routine.
“I felt like we were very tense,” Iskenderian noted as a cause for the team that began the campaign at No. 1 in the MSG Varsity New Jersey Top 15 stumbling to a surprising 2-3 start. “When you’re tense, that leads to mistakes.”
“When you’re hovering around .500 and you think you’re better, you’re always looking to see if that’s actually the truth,” first-year coach Mike Rooney said. “There’s a big difference between what you think and what you believe. So, we think that we’re good. Belief comes from demonstrating it.”
Don Bosco, unknowingly or not, seemed to be trying to justify its standing at the expense of trusting the natural abilities that earned it such acclaim. The pressing had a divisive effect on the one intangible that Iskenderian thought could turn things around. It was the essence of what drew each player to baseball in the first place yet was overlooked at the expense of conteding with the pressure of meeting lofty expectations.
“If you go out and have fun, winning has a way of taking care of itself,’’ said Iskenderian, who is committed to South Carolina. “At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about. We do have to be reminded of that once in a while. As young as we are, sometimes you want to perform. You want people to know we can live up to their expectations. But, the more fun you have, the looser you are and the better things are going to turn out for you.”
One way Don Bosco can turn up the entertainment value for itself is through an intimidating batting order that taxes pitching with its depth, power and execution. Yet, as the losses mounted in the first two weeks of the campaign, the fluid swings of hitters who can drill line drives in their sleep were replaced by the kind of cuts that hint at trying to do a bit too much.
“I feel against Clifton, we were all dipping and jacking,’’ Iskenderian said in regards to Don Bosco’s 6-2 loss on Monday in which its lineup was limited to just five hits by sophomore right-hander Luis Ramos. “Each one of us was trying to do it ourselves. We’ve been working in the cage, piecing together good at bats. What it’s really about is working for the guy behind you, working for your teammate. That’s the main goal…hitting the ball hard somewhere as opposed to hitting home runs. If there’s a guy on third and the infield is back, hit a ground ball, just do a job. It will all piece together into a win.”
Since the setback to Clifton, that line of thinking has become infectious for Don Bosco, No. 4 in the MSG Varsity New Jersey Top 15, which has run off a string of three straight victories, the most recent an emphatic 15-1 five-inning triumph over previously-unbeaten Delbarton, ranked 12th, on Saturday in Ramsey.
The Ironmen seemed to have taken to the concept of piecing together their offense as their first-inning outburst against Delbarton (5-1) would attest. The first six batters all reached bases and scored during an uprising that saw 11 batters parade to the plate to craft a 6-1 lead.
Senior designated hitter Joe Purritano, who is heading to Dartmouth, delivered the first blow with a two-run triple to straightaway center and Michigan-bound senior first baseman Matt Dacey followed with a two-run homer to ignite a 13-hit onslaught.
“We kind of had big expectations,” Dacey said. “Sometimes, things don’t go the way that you want. We started off a little rough, but I think in the last few games, we kind of found our identity again. We’re looking forward to the rest of the season and keep things rolling the way we have been.”
In its last three outings, Don Bosco outscored Passaic Tech, Paramus Catholic and Delbarton by a whopping aggregate of 37-3, showing signs its bats are starting to come to life.
“We focus more on the preparation,” Rooney said. “We’re making sure every practice, every pregame, that there’s a purpose and real true intent on improving as opposed to going through some motions.”
“We had a couple of tough struggles early but getting a win like this, where everyone put it together, was just great for the team,” said catcher Andrew Herrera, who went 3-for-4 with three RBI singles.
Against Delbarton, eight of the nine starters scored at least a run and contributed no less than one hit. Iskenderian finished 3-for-3 with a single, double, triple, four RBI and three runs scored. Senior right-hander Tommy Burns picked up the win on a two-hitter that included four strikeouts against three walks and an unearned run.
“Now we’re locked in,” Iskenderian said. “We just have to keep this mentality going…keep moving forward and not look back at the past."
Gregg Lerner covers baseball for MSG Varsity. Follow him on Twitter: @gregglerner