The Oakton baseball team, with a lineup led by a sophomore and one of its top pitchers changing roles, will attempt to return to the state tournament in 2014.
Don’t worry, Cougar fans. It’s not as bad as it sounds.
Last season, Oakton won the Concorde District championship, finished Northern Region runner-up and won a state playoff game before losing to Hanover, 9-8, in the semifinals. The Cougars graduated standouts Joey Bartosic (second base), Mitchell Carroll (shortstop), Brian Burns (outfield) and Matt Gregor (starting pitcher), but the team has a strong core coming back.
JOE RIZZO returns for his sophomore season after producing a team-high .450 batting average as a freshman. Rizzo will move from third base to shortstop, where he has played most of his life.
“I think he’s an exception to the rule,” Oakton head coach Justin Janis said. “You don’t really see [a freshman leading the team in hitting] very often. The one thing about Joe is --- he has some ability, it’s obvious that it’s there --- his work ethic is second to none. He is a baseball junky. He loves it.”
This season, Janis said he’s looking for the soon-to-be-16-year-old Rizzo to be a team leader.
“You see these physical gifts and these physical things that he’s able to do,” Janis said, “and you forget sometimes that he’s only a 15-, 16-year-old kid.”
While leading as a sophomore could be viewed as a daunting task, the left-handed-hitting Rizzo said he’s ready for the challenge.
“It’s kind of different because it’s normally been the senior leading the underclassman,” Rizzo said. “But if you’re a good ball player and you work hard and you can influence people, I feel that you can be a leader and you should be a leader.”
“It’s kind of different because it’s normally been the senior leading the underclassman. But if you’re a good ball player and you work hard and you can influence people, I feel that you can be a leader and you should be a leader.”
--- Oakton sophomore Joe Rizzo
Janis mentioned senior utility player Keith Knicely, a returning starter, as someone who could also play a prominent role for the Cougars.
THE OAKTON PITCHING STAFF features senior all-district performers R.J. Gaines and Tommy Lopez at the front of the rotation.
“I think they keep a good pace to the game, for the most part,” Janis said. “They’re strike-throwers, they’re able to mix their pitches … and the other thing, too, is they’re both pretty tough kids and they’ll battle.”
Gaines, a right-hander, earned second-team all-district honors as a junior. He tossed a complete game against South County in the region semifinals, helping the Cougars earn an 8-1 win and a berth in the state playoffs.
Lopez started in the outfield as a junior, but earned first-team all-district honors as a relief pitcher. This season, the left-hander will be a starter on the mound and provide Oakton with a 1-2 punch.
“It’s really good to know,” Gaines said, “that I have somebody right behind me that’s going to do just as good if not better the next game.”
Janis said junior Connor Jones and sophomore Kyle Christy could also make an impact on the mound.
“We’re not going to score as many runs as we did last year,” Lopez said, “but we’ll have the pitching this year.”
Oakton will open the season on the road against Flint Hill at 4:15 p.m. on Friday, March 21. The following day, the Cougars will take on defending region champion Lake Braddock at 1 p.m. in Burke.
Will Oakton return to the state playoffs?
“I fully expect us,” Rizzo said, “to be back there.”