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Tigers return five players from 2019

The last time that Northwestern Lehigh played a high school baseball game – other than the late summer tournament that was set up last year – was May 27, 2019 when the Tigers lost to North Schuylkill 3-2 in the District 11 title game, ending their season with a 21-4 mark.

There are just five players left from that team on this year’s roster. Seniors Nick Henry, Ryan Kensinger, Rafe Perich and pitcher Carter Welch along with junior Justin Holmes are the only holdovers.

That’s enough experience to form the nucleus of a very good team, but keep a couple of things in mind.

First, Kensinger, who would have been the team’s everyday starting catcher last season, hasn’t been a starter on a varsity baseball team. Plus, Kensinger had to sit out of practice because of back pain, leaving the team especially thin behind the plate. And Perich, who swings a big bat and is the team’s starting shortstop along with serving as a quality pitcher, is going to miss time with a knee injury that he suffered playing basketball with friends. Just how much time isn’t known and Perich himself says that it’s “It’s just day-to-day right now.” That diminishes the experience factor quickly for coach Duran Porrino.

After seeing his team scrimmage against Brandywine Heights, who sport a Division 1 pitching recruit, Porrino is trying to fit in another scrimmage game this week before opening the season against Northern Lehigh on Friday.

“We have a lot of work to do and it’s not going to be easy to figure everything out until we see what some of these guys can do. It’s a very different situation from where we were last year,” said Porrino, reflecting on last year’s team that was an early favorite to be league and district champions before COVID swept in and ruined those plans.

One of the coping mechanisms for the Tigers will be to have guys move around to different spots until they find the right combination of players. Holmes made the mistake of bringing his brother’s catcher’s gear to a practice and before he knew it, he was putting it on and auditioning to be the team’s emergency catcher if Kensinger misses time.

Exhibit A for playing multiple positions is Henry, who normally mans a spot in the outfield. On the roster, he’s listed as an outfielder/pitcher and has also had his name come up to help behind the plate and possibly play at least one other spot during the season.

There’s also newcomer Dylan Witkowski, who transferred into the district before the school year. Witkowski proved his athleticism playing basketball for Northwestern this winter and is written in as the replacement at shortstop for Perich. When Perich, who has committed to playing college baseball at Lehigh, returns from the knee injury, Witkowski will likely slide into a different infield position to keep him in the lineup.

Without the pitching depth that last year’s team would have featured, the Tigers will rely a little more heavily on Welch. Porrino believes that the team will have enough pitching but believes that making the most of Welch’s starts is a priority.

“We have to win the games that he pitches,” said Porrino of Welch, who will play baseball at the University of Delaware following his senior season. “That’s going to be a key for us this season is to take advantage of having him on the mound and then put enough offense around him to win those games.”

It’s likely that things will work out OK for Northwestern Lehigh. There are two things that we have come to know about high school sports in the pandemic era. The first is that nobody can really be sure what to expect and most importantly, just being on the field is a good thing. That’s the part that Porrino and his players are focusing on for 2021.

PRESS PHOTO BY NANCY SCHOLZ Tiger baseball players are back on the field and ready to build on the success they had in 2019.