2022 Patriot League Preview
Despite most teams playing a limited slate last season—only Army and Lehigh played more than 40 games—the Patriot League produced a compelling 2021. Army won the Patriot League Tournament for the third consecutive season and showed well in the Lubbock Regional. Lehigh righthander Mason Black gave the league a prominent prospect and was drafted in the third round.
Now, the Patriot League is hoping for a more typical spring. After last season instituting a divisional structure designed to limit travel, it will return to its standard format for 2022. Army again enters the season as the favorite, but the race for the four spots in the Patriot League Tournament promises to be tough.
To the tune of the drum and fife, the Patriot League marches on.
Can Army make its fourth straight trip to regionals?
The Black Knights have won the last three Patriot League Tournament titles to advance to the NCAA Tournament. It’s already an unprecedented run in the history of both the Patriot League Tournament and Army program history.
So, can Army now make it four straight?
There’s no real reason to doubt its ability to extend the streak. Army has some key pieces to replace, but it returns first baseman Ross Frederick (.322/.427/.500), its leading hitter, and third baseman Sam Ruta (.276/.376/.431, 5 HR), the Patriot League freshman of the year, to anchor the lineup. Also returning are junior shortstop Kevin Dubrule (.283/.385/.365) and senior catcher Cam Cerruto (.218/.307/.366), who will keep the Black Knights strong up the middle defensively.
On the mound, Army will be led by righthanders Anthony LoRicco (4-2, 5.14) and Patrick Melampy (2-3, 3.29). Melampy started last season but will likely move to the back of the bullpen where his power stuff plays well. Lefthander Connelly Early (4-2, 2.23) impressed last season as a freshman and is poised to move into the rotation this spring.
Can Navy bounce back and challenge at the top of the standings?
During Army’s run at the top of the Patriot League standings, Navy, its archrival, has served as its foil. The Midshipmen fell to the Black Knights in the Patriot League championship series in both 2018 and 2019—after winning the regular-season crown in both seasons.
Last season, however, Navy took a step back as it finished second in the South Division to Lehigh and then lost to the Mountain Hawks in the Patriot League Tournament semifinals. Navy has a strong returning lineup but will need some pitchers to take a step forward if it is to do the same as a team.
Catcher Christian Policelli (.340/.445/.468), first baseman Zach Stevens (.300/.387/.500) and third baseman Logan Keller (.320/.365/.472) all return, giving the Midshipmen a strong core offensively. With Policelli and shortstop Eduardo Diaz (.227/.337/.284), who was voted Patriot League preseason defensive player of the year by league coaches, up the middle, Navy should again have a premium defense, always a feature under coach Paul Kostacopoulos.
Pitching is more of a question for the Midshipmen. They last season had a 6.45 team ERA, the worst in the Patriot League, and are replacing top starters Charlie Connolly and Tommy Goodridge and closer Trey Braithwaite. Righthander Reece Early (1-2, 7.88) does return with starting experience and Navy will turn to righthanders Nate Mitchell (0-2, 7.88) and Matthew Shirah (0-1, 7.07) to join him. Finding the right combination on the mound will be critical to the Midshipmen’s success in 2022.
Who’s next up on the mound for Lehigh?
In two of the last three years, Lehigh has produced a pitcher who was drafted in the third round and five pitchers selected overall in the last five years—more than it did in the first 50 years of the draft.
Now, after righthanders Mason Black (third round) and Matt Svanson (13th round) were drafted a year ago, how will Lehigh replace them this spring?
Lefthander Luke Rettig (3-4, 3.59) last spring pitched behind Black and Svanson in the rotation and this year will move to the No. 1 spot. His fastball gets into the low 90s and he has solid offspeed stuff. He is a preseason all-Patriot League honoree and among the favorites for conference pitcher of the year.
While Rettig is a known commodity having pitched for Lehigh for the last three seasons, righthander Carlos Torres is a potential surprise on the Mountain Hawks’ staff. Because of the pandemic and injury, he has been limited to five innings over five appearances in the last two seasons, but he has the stuff for a breakout campaign. His fastball gets up to 96 mph and he pairs it with a big curveball and a changeup. He’s still understandably raw, but if he can harness his stuff, there’s plenty of upside in his arm.
It's unlikely that either Rettig or Torres will join Black and Levi Stoudt as third-rounders coming out of Lehigh, but the Mountain Hawks pitching pipeline is poised to continue in 2022.
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Is Lafayette ready to take a step forward?
Lafayette last season finished three games behind Army in the Northern Division and then fell to the Black Knights in three games in the Patriot League Tournament semifinals. It was a solid first season for coach Tim Reilly, who was promoted following the retirement of Joe Kinney.
Now, Lafayette will look to take the next step. It received two first-place votes in the Patriot League preseason coaches’ poll and if it is to live up to that promise, it will look to its athletic lineup to lead the way. Outfielder Justin Grech (.306/.425/.398, 12 SB) returns after leading the team in batting as a freshman. Outfielder Pete Ciuffreda (.304/.443/.451, 12 SB) also returns, giving the Leopards plenty of speed and on-base skills at the top of the lineup. Lafayette has a strong group of freshmen who can step right into the lineup, including outfielder Easton Brenner, who has well above-average speed, and infielders Ben Petrone and Michael Zarrillo.
On the mound, Lafayette last season ranked fifth in the Patriot League with a 6.43 team ERA and improving its pitching will be a key to progression in 2022. The Leopards return starters Jake Bloss (3-1, 6.69), Kyle Subers (3-0, 5.40) and Jordan Yoder (3-4, 6.49) and will also give powerful righthander Luke Benneche (2-2, 3.62) a long look in the rotation. Lefthander Nolan Morr (2-1, 6.31, 4 SV) also returns and will pitch significant innings. No matter how the Leopards line up their pitching staff, they’ll need to find a bit more consistency to compete at the top of the conference.
Will Casey Rother repeat as conference player of the year?
Lehigh outfielder Casey Rother last season was named Patriot League player of the year after hitting .329/.422/.494 with six home runs. As the reigning player of the year, he’s clearly in the mix for the award again this spring.
But who else can contend for the honor?
Bucknell outfielder Chris Cannizzaro (.355/.433/.565) returns after winning the Patriot League batting title and leading the league in slugging percentage. Army third baseman Sam Ruta (.276/.376/.431, 5 HR) last season was named Patriot League rookie of the year and could be in for a big sophomore season. Lafayette outfielder Pete Ciuffreda (.304/.443/.451, 12 SB) also could work his way into contention thanks to his combination of speed and power.
Rother seems like he would be the odds-on favorite, but in the coaches’ poll Cannizzaro was voted as preseason player of the year. That is indicative of the award race being more open than expected.
Top 2022 Draft Prospects
1. Luke Rettig, LHP, Lehigh
2. Chris DiFiore, LHP, Bucknell
3. Casey Rother, OF, Lehigh
4. Jake Bloss, RHP, Lafayette
5. Carlos Torres, RHP, Lehigh