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Off the bench, into the fire: How St. John's Prep continues to find unlikely pitching successes

Could senior captain Nolan Webb be the next St. John's Prep pitcher to rise into superstardom? Courtesy of Peg Arend

DANVERS, Mass. -- Of the 120 athletes warming up on a chilly March afternoon at St. John's Preparatory School, a handful will almost certainly make a name for themselves this season.

For the past decade, the Eagles' ability to develop underclassmen with low recruiting profiles into starters at the collegiate level has become so commonplace that it can be expected every spring.

Two years ago, current Davidson sophomore Evan Roberts came out of nowhere to earn the Most Valuable Player Award in the Catholic Conference during his first full varsity campaign, his senior year. The lefthander posted an 8-2 record, 1.17 ERA and 0.67 WHIP while leading St. John’s Prep to a win in the first MIAA Division 1A Super 8 game in state history.

Last season, it was current Bates freshman Justin Foley who came out of nowhere to carry the Eagles staff with an 11-0 record and 0.94 ERA, as he earned ESPNBoston's Mr. Baseball Award.

So, who will break out in 2016?

According to Eagles head coach Dan Letarte, there are four candidates with an equal chance to emerge as an ace, closer, or another elite starter that could help St. John’s Prep return to the Super 8 Finals for a second consecutive season.

Senior captain Nolan Webb, Stonehill commit Chris Murphy, Lynn native Brendan Powicki and righthander Colin Nye will comprise a group of young arms who will be given the opportunity to step up with Foley and others graduated.

While the players deserve plenty of credit for making the most of their chances once they’re given the ball for Prep, the Eagles system continues to churn out elite prospects in a fashion that indicates a greater trend.

From the head coach, to his assistants, to the field general who calls the game behind the plate, St. John’s Prep has refined the process of preparing young men for the rigors of pitching in the toughest baseball conference in the Bay State.

Inheriting The Legacy: When Letarte took over the head-coaching job at St. John’s Prep three seasons ago, he understood the importance of leaning on an extremely experienced staff.

His past and present assistant coaches include former San Diego Padres infielder Matt Antonelli, former San Francisco Giants scout Adam Geaslen, and a player and scout for the Los Angeles Angels in Ryan Leahy.

“I’m blessed to be a manager with such great coaches. That really helps the younger guys get better and better,” Letarte confirmed. “My philosophy since taking over a few years ago has been to prepare these kids to become starters in college. This is a college preparatory school, and we try to do the same thing in baseball by preparing them for the next level throughout the season, yet it really goes beyond baseball in terms of what we try to teach them.”

While the coaches want these young men to learn more than just the fundamentals on the baseball diamond, there is a certain philosophy that has allowed Eagles pitchers to succeed over the years.

Current pitching coach Chris Conway is a former baseball and football star, who graduated from St. John’s Prep in 1985. He’s now in his ninth consecutive year as the guru behind the process that produces elite pitchers.

Sitting in the dugout while the mass of humanity in Eagles uniforms stretched before tryouts, Conway did not hesitate to share the comprehensive chart of advanced pitching metrics that he uses to evaluate pitching performance.

Conway tracks each pitcher’s percentages in terms of first pitch strikes, retiring leadoff hitters, preventing steals, as well as the usual strikeout to walk ratios and other standard metrics.

These numbers tell the coach whether his starting pitchers are effectively implementing the program’s preferred strategy.

“As a pitcher, you always want to be on the offensive, and that means getting ahead, controlling the running game and keeping the leadoff man off base,” Conway explained.

He continued, “We preach getting ahead and controlling what you can control. You can’t control an error, or bad calls, but you can control those things. It’s not a full ‘pitch to contact’ mentality, but it is about staying ahead of the hitters, and that’s how we’ve been able to have so many complete games over the years.”

Through the application of this philosophy, the Eagles have posted an ERA of 1.42, 1.40, and 1.36 as a collective pitching staff in each of the last three seasons.

Of course, Conway recognized that pitching at a high level involves more than just an aggressive mindset.

St. John’s Prep pitchers are able to handle a heavy workload at the varsity level because they are introduced to elite competition early in their careers during intra-squad scrimmages.

Letarte laughed about how freshmen pitchers often face a senior-laden lineup during those scrimmages and immediately realize that they had to make a lot of adjustments.

Conway confirmed the importance of early learning experiences when he added, “It takes failure to get used to that level of competition, and that’s how you get better.”

Once the young players get a taste for failure, they seem to become even more motivated.

“We run an intensive program from a training and development perspective and the kids buy into the process,” Conway continued. “A lot of kids want to come here because we play in the best conference in the state. That gives us a lot of depth, but because of that depth, a lot of players have to bide their time and pay their dues. Then they see what the seniors are able to achieve, and it really paves the way for the underclassmen to put in the work and eventually follow suit.”

Staying Tough: You can train four countless hours to face some of the best lineups in the state, but without a capable on-field leader providing guidance, that preparation will do very little for an inexperienced pitcher.

Over the past few years, a savvy catcher has become the unsung hero as an instrumental component in the continued success of the Eagles’ pitching staff.

Usually it’s a senior behind the plate for Prep, but Jack Arend became the first junior in approximately 20 years to serve as the Eagles primary catcher last year.

Arend guided Foley, St. Michael’s freshman Andrew Farris, and St. Anselm freshman Justin Kerhulas to excellent campaigns last year, as that trio of hurlers led the Eagles to the top seed in the annual Super 8 tournament and a runner-up finish in the State Championship.

Additionally, the 5-foot-7 New Hampshire native served as a relentless hitter towards the bottom of the Eagles lineup. He led the team in On-Base Percentage (.538) and scored the third most runs (18) for Prep by setting the table for the star-studded top of the lineup.

“Jack [Arend] has been instrumental in our pitchers’ development,” praised Letarte. “He calls a great game, he threw out over 60 percent of runners last year, he’s a tireless worker, and a great leader.”

The coach continued, “During the offseason, [Arend] is constantly pushing the pitchers to put the work in. He checks in with the coaches every day and we’re always aware of how our players are progressing thanks to captains like that.”

Because he worked closely with Roberts and Foley during their respective breakout campaigns, Arend has first-hand knowledge of the mindset required to suddenly become an ace in the incredibly competitive Catholic Conference.

“My sophomore year I saw Evan Roberts have a great season in his first opportunity to start and then it was the same thing with [Justin] Foley last year,” Arend recalled. “I think the mentality is that once they finally get their shot as seniors they don’t want to give up their spot to a younger guy. We’ve prepared for years for that chance to contribute and win a state title and that’s why every year someone is able to step up.”

This year should be no exception for the Eagles, who check in at No. 5 in ESPNBoston.com’s preseason polls.

Once again, Arend has intimate knowledge of how his pitching staff will perform, because he’s played summer ball with Nye, Webb, and Conway, while training with Powicki over the past several offseasons.

The Eagles offense might take a step back after graduating Division 1 recruits in Nick Latham, Keith Leavitt and Teddy McNamara, yet Arend maintained, “I feel even more confident this year. Working with [Brendan] Powicki, [Nolan] Webb and [Colin] Nye over the summer, I can just see in their eyes how determined they are to avoid losing.”

He continued, “Every year our preseason analysis is ‘unproven pitching,’ and it’s true, but once those sophomores and juniors get their chance they’re great, and it’s cool to see from behind the plate. We might not always have the best talent, but we have the hardest workers, and I think you’ll see the results on the field this year.”

Motivated and Capable: The Eagles began the 2015 season as the top team in most statewide polls.

They only suffered two losses during a brutal regular season schedule, as they earned the top seed in the Super 8 tournament.

Then St. John’s Prep blew a 6-2 lead late in a Super 8 tilt against Braintree and lost 8-6 in extra innings. The Eagles would earn another crack at the Wamps under the tournament’s double elimination format, and they made the most of it with a 20-4 thumping of Braintree to force a winner-take-all State Final.

Yet one night later, a couple of breaks fell the wrong way for the Eagles, and their season ended in disappointment as the first runner-up in a talented Super 8 field.

“We’re all a little upset still, and I think it’s going to rub off on our work ethic and hopefully forces us to try and play perfect baseball,” Letarte said about losing the final game of the 2015 season. “We’re on a mission this year, and it always comes back to that 7-2 loss. There isn’t a day that goes by where we don’t think about it, which will serve as great motivation this spring.”

Returning for Prep is an experienced corps of seniors including Arend, infielder Jacob Spada, and Boston College-bound outfielder Jacob Yish. The Eagles will also insert football star Jack Lambert into the starting lineup, introduce Beverly transfer Frank DiOrio as a potential slugger and bullpen arm, while hoping for big things from highly-recruited sophomore third basemen Mike Yarin.

Yet as per usual, the teams’ success or failure will come down to how quickly the unproven pitchers can adjust to their increased roles.

“We’ve had a long stretch of success, and every year that we don’t win [a state title], there’s a palpable sense of ‘what could’ve been,’” Mused Conway, before he optimistically added, “This year’s group seems to be as cohesive and hard-working a group as I’ve seen over the last nine years.”

For Letarte, a balanced group of pitchers might be even more valuable than another unknown ace emerging in the mold of Roberts or Foley.

“We need one of those guys [Webb, Powicki, Nye, or Conway] to emerge, but more than that, we really need a staff to win the whole [Super 8],” Letarte concluded.

Rest assured, the Eagles have enough talent, guidance, and certainly enough motivation to make another run at a state title.

The scary thing for other programs in the state is that amongst the 120 kids warming up for the 2016 tryouts, at least 60 underclassmen will be relegated to the nonvarsity ranks, but Letarte intimated that the classes of 2018 and 2019 are stacked with talent to an unbelievable degree.

With experienced coaches, a consistent philosophy, and the support system necessary to thrive at the varsity level, the Eagles should continue to develop collegiate prospects from the point of enrollment until graduation for years to come.