Sun out, shades on, the Billerica High baseball players had a certain hop in their step as they took their positions during Wednesday’s practice session.
“Here we go! Batter up!,” barked coach Joe Higgins, a command he had waited all spring to shout.
His Indians finally pulled off their first preseason game practice after being confined in the school’s indoor gym for two weeks.
They were limited to an open patch of grass while their diamond finished drying out. But there were no complaints: The season had officially started. And this spring, Billerica is the defending Division 1 North champion.
The Indians capped a magical postseason run with a 4-3 upset win over favorite St. John’s Prep in the Division 1 North final before bowing out to eventual state champion Bridgewater-Raynham in the state semis.
It was the program’s most successful tourney run in 30 years, when Tommy Glavine pitched Billerica to the state title in 1983.
“One of the first things we did this spring was take the team down and sit in front of that banner,” Higgins recalled.
“Showed them the North sectional championship and back-to-back MVC conference championships. I told them, ‘You have to do the best you can to defend the title.’ ”
Billerica graduated nine seniors, including five starters from last season, but returns a strong core led by senior pitcher Chris Murphy.
The University of Maine-bound captain returns as staff ace.
Murphy is joined by senior captains Rob Gambale, an Assumption College-bound shortstop/pitcher who hit .340 a year ago, and Eric Eknaian, a .340-hitting third baseman.
“Pitching and defense is definitely one of our strong suits right now,” Eknaian said.
That side of the ball, according to Higgins, is the “foundation of championship teams.”
Murphy’s younger brother, Kyle, a junior, returns for his second season as the starting centerfielder after hitting a team-leading .393 last spring.
The younger Murphy has already committed to Northeastern for the fall of 2015, when Glavine’s younger brother, Michael, will take over as head coach.
In the offseason, the Murphy brothers practiced side by side at multiple training facilities and winter workouts. The age difference may separate their summer league play, but nothing gets between their passion for the game at home.
In the spring of 2016, the two could finally square off against each other when NU and UMaine take the field for their annual preseason matches in Florida.
“It’s a really cool bond to share with your brother,” Kyle Murphy said. “Seeing both of us grow up and having that hard work and extra time pay off is something special.”
Despite the exciting plans that lie ahead, focusing on the next two months of baseball is the priority.
“Last year was a huge steppingstone for our program, and we know what it’s going to take to get there again,” Chris Murphy added. “Just have to bring the young guys along and try to advance even farther.”
While reaching the state tournament’s final four is a highly coveted achievement, there’s a new, exciting twist this postseason: the addition of the Super 8 format.
For the first time in MIAA history, the Super 8 makes its way to the diamond.
The tournament will include two four-team, double-elimination brackets, with the bracket winners playing a best-of-three final series. All games will be nine innings (Divisions 1, 2, and 3 will play seven innings in the tournament).
Higgins said the stakes will be high in the new system, but he doesn’t plan to prepare any differently this season. The goal, he said, remains “to get there and compete against the highest competition in the state.”
Marc Pelletier, head coach at Central Catholic, said he is neutral on the new Super 8 format for baseball.
“It worked in hockey, and the powers that be see it as a way to have the most talented teams play each other at the end,” Pelletier said.
“Time will tell,” he added. “I do not think about it at all; my concern is getting better as a team each day.”
At St. John’s Prep, first-year coach Dan Letarte is a strong supporter of Super 8.
“It gives the opportunity for a good team that didn’t play a good game that second chance,” Letarte said.
“Anyone can play a rough game at any given time; it takes a little pressure off those teams.”
Given the double-elimination format, Letarte believes the system benefits those with strong, deep pitching staffs.
He also thinks the Super 8 selection committee will strongly consider teams, like his, that play tougher schedules in highly competitive conferences.
“In the end, it comes down to big-time performance,” Letarte said. “We’ll approach the season the same and whatever happens, happens.”
“I like the idea of more postseason baseball,” he added. “To say you were one of the top eight teams in the state, there’s something that goes along with that.”
Last season, Letarte’s Eagles could have been considered one of those top eight teams.
St. John’s Prep rode a program-record 22-game winning streak into the North final against Billerica before the upset defeat.
That game was the last for Pat Yanchus, who stepped down at St. John’s after 30 seasons and 491 career wins.
Letarte, a 1986 graduate who played under Yanchus and had been an assistant coach the last 20 seasons, playfully admitted that he wasn’t as excited as he should have been about taking over.
“For some people it may seem a lot different, but for me it doesn’t,” Letarte said. “Just a continuation of the program for me — just time to get to work.”
St. John’s Prep has lost eight college-level seniors, including five Division 1 starters, headlined by 2013 Globe Player of the Year Brandon Bingel (9-0, .97 earned run average, 78 strikeouts last season).
Key returnees include senior Mike Geaslen, a Northeastern-bound catcher, and senior Evan Roberts, a lefty starting pitcher who will play at Davidson College next year.
Senior lefty pitcher Justin Snyder (5-0, .41 ERA, 40 Ks) returns in the rotation alongside Roberts.
“The boys still have that bitter taste from that North final last year; it hasn’t left,” Letarte said.
“To save our worst game for our last was disappointing, but there’s no time to cry over spilled milk — we have to get better.”
Letarte also returns two lefthanded power hitting juniors in Nick Latham (three home runs, 14 runs, .310 batting average) and Keith Leavitt (four HRs, 16 RBIs, .323 BA).
Letarte’s goal this year is plain and not so simple: Take each day at a time.
The Eagles only hang two banners in their gym: league and state titles.
Bringing home the state’s first-ever Super 8 baseball trophy would be quite the addition.Joseph Saade can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.