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By Megan Phelps
I had the pleasure to interview Montezuma’s second year manager, Chris Rush. Last year the Braves finished tied for 5th with a 12-16 record and lost in the first round of the play-offs. We go over the new changes for the season. Changes include expanding the roster by 3 players and added additional opportunities for free agents. Additionally, the 21-game schedule will be played in a one-month period.
In this interview, Chris Rush explains his plans for the Montezuma Braves. He discusses the players who will be returning, and the new players he has picked to join his team. Rush points out that he concentrates on the future of his team, not just the short-term season. This season will be one of the most exciting, with many talented players joining the RCBL from other leagues.
In your second-year coaching at Montezuma will you change your approach? How do you hope to improve your team?
“Our approach is going to stay the same, we did fill a couple of holes this year where we lost a couple of guys. We particularly added to our pitching staff and brought in some young guys. Our goal is to win it all this year, that’s every coach’s goal. We’re not looking for a quick fix, we did bring in a couple of guys that will only be here a year, but it was a limited number of guys. If we change our approach it would be going after quality players who will be with this team for 3-5 years. We’re trying to improve on last year while also keeping a core group for the next years.”
Who are your key returning players for the season?
“From the veteran standpoint, we have Kyle Armstrong who has been with the team for a number of years playing centerfield. He’s a utility guy who can also play the infield and pitches when needed. Brandon Lambert will be back with us this year. Brandon has been with the team for about four or five years now. Owen Stewart has been with Montezuma for a couple of years. Owen is primarily an outfielder but provided some pitching for us last year. We’ve got Gavin Rush coming back, middle infield guy, he brings some speed to the table for us. Going back to the first question, we did try to build our team around speed this season as well with the new guys coming in. Luke Paczewski was with us last year at third base and that’s probably where he will return this year with some first base. And then PJ Hanisak. All those guys were all-stars and I know PJ and Luke had a big year with some of their awards at the end of the season. We bring some tenure back with some of the players in a leadership role. We’re hoping it will bleed over to the younger guys we brought in this year.”
Who are the new players? Where did they come from and how do you think they will affect your team?
“Some of the younger guys we picked up include Grant Thomas who goes to T.A. [Tuner Ashby High School], really good baseball player. He has some good upside for his age. Noah Canterbury from Buffalo Gap [High School], who is another plus guy, outfielder, and left-handed pitcher. Both of those guys will see some good innings this year, on the mound and on the field. Michael Robertson, first year with our team and he graduated from Riverhead [High School]. He’s a middle infielder guy, outfielder, and he’ll be good at bat. Wyatt Campbell, he’s a catcher, and goes to T.A. For his age he is a good leader and a good command behind the plate. Those are not all, but some of the core guys that we see plus sides to. Especially with the expansion of the roster, and the expansion of free agents, we added some guys who typically play higher level type ball, whether that be Cape [Cod] or Coastal Plain. Those guys are definitely going to help us. But like I said, our goal wasn’t to go out and get guys like that and win it this year and not have anything next year. We wanted to have a good mix of quality players that could almost be leaders or mentors to these younger guys and could prepare them for the coming years.”
21 games is a lot of games to play in a month, do you have the pitching debt for this kind of schedule?
“Yeah, I think we do. It’s going to be tough for any team. You’re looking at needing a minimum of four or five starters with the way the schedule is going to play out. You can get away with less than that but you’re going to take a chance of injuring some of your pitchers. All these guys have baseball outside of this league and we, as coaches, understand that. The last thing we want to do is put them in situations where they’re going to hurt themselves or damage an arm. I think we will be okay; our bullpen was one of the big things we went after this year. Additional guys coming out of the pen, that’s probably where we were lacking most last year. We lost a lot of games after the 5th and 6th innings last year. We had some good-looking guys; we just didn’t have enough. We’ll see how the schedule plays out.”
What is your line up strategy for this season?
“This year the team we have is as deep as any team I’ve ever had. We pretty much have two teams we could put on the field at any time. That’s a big plus as a coach. You know no matter the circumstance, whoever you put out on the field will be able to compete. We will have a core which will probably be more than most team’s core. Our core will be between 14-16 players, not necessarily including pitching. Most people on our team should be pleased with their play time this year. I think they’ll do well for us.”
How do you think this fast-paced schedule will affect your players?
“For some of the younger guys it will certainly be different from high school ball. For the college guys, they’re used to two games during the week and a three-game series on the weekend. It will affect 60-70% of our team, but I don’t think it will be too big a change. Those guys who came from the Cape and Coastal leagues are used to this type of schedule. That’s where some of their experience will come into play and will motivate some of our guys as far as that schedule. It’s going to be tight but we’re looking forward to it.”
What is the biggest challenge facing this season?
“The competition that is going to be in the league this year. Things are different because we, as coaches, can see players get signed in real time. We see players who are released and who picks them up. Looking at that, the league is going to be up as far as talent and competition. I think it’s going to be pretty equal across the board. As a coach, not that you took any team for granted before, but every team is going to have really good talent. It will be up to the coach to take that talent and utilize it the right way. So, I think that will be one of the biggest challenges, utilizing the talent and how to use it, but also how we are going to face the talent we are facing every night.”
How have practices been with the coronavirus infringing on the RCBL schedule?
“We’ve actually been practicing for several weeks now. Our first 3-4 weeks of practice was mainly our local guys. We were trying to adhere to the 10-person rule, so we started out with 7 or 8 guys and worked our way up to 10. Once we hit stage 2, we had our first scrimmage against New Market here [Montezuma]. It’s been challenging trying to follow the rules and regulations of proper distance, but we’ve been able to make it work. We’re lucky, I know there are some teams that don’t have a field to practice on. So, even if it is limited, we are still fortunate enough to do that.”
How do you think the fanbase will be affected by the coronavirus?
“Honestly, I think this year Covid has had a big impact on our community, but I think that the community is looking for something. With RCBL being the only baseball in town right now I think there is potential for this to be a very big year for us. And that’s not just in the quality of baseball but in the fanbase as well. Hopefully, it’s not just this year but we continue to grow.”
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