Long Island team, Long Island players. That’s the direction of Hofstra’s baseball program.
“One of my goals once I got to take over was try to sign the best players on Long Island,” said John Russo, who became head coach in 2012 after Patrick Anderson resigned to manage in the Washington Nationals farm system.
Redshirt junior infielder David Leiderman of Bellmore JFK was the first of the current crop to head to Hofstra.
What followed was a domino effect.
Lindenhurst infielder Brad Witkowski came a year later, and Longwood pitcher Chris Weiss, Sachem North outfielder Steven Foster and Eastport-South Manor outfielder Mat Annunziata followed last year.
As Shoreham-Wading River catcher Nick Bottari, Valley Stream Central slugger Vito Friscia and St. John the Baptist infielder Tom Archer enter the fold this season, Russo said his opening-day lineup likely will feature seven Long Islanders.
“You hope to get one or two of those guys, much less have four or five of them batting all together,” Russo said.
Having said that, Russo has aspired to foster a strong Long Island presence. When he joined the program as an assistant in 2009, the roster featured seven players with Long Island roots. That number has risen steadily, peaking this year, at 19.
“One of my goals once I got to take over was try to sign the best players on Long Island,” Russo said.
He has done just that. Leiderman won the 2012 Diamond Award as the top high school baseball player in Nassau, and the other six aforementioned players were named to Newsday’s All-Long Island teams at least once.
With that talent, Russo hopes the Pride will reach its first Colonial Athletic Association tournament since 2012 and, beyond that, the first NCAA tournament in program history.
“I think that that’s a fair goal,” Russo said.
Russo has not finalized his lineup for opening day, Feb. 19 at Texas A&M, but the middle of the order should receive a notable boost, thanks in part to the additions of Bottari and Friscia. The two power hitters join a lineup anchored by Foster (. 351 batting average in 2015), Witkowski (. 312), Leiderman (.277 and 29 RBIs) and Annunziata (five home runs and 28 RBIs).
Bottari, a redshirt freshman who transferred after one semester at Miami (Fla.), said his familiarity with Hofstra’s players influenced his commitment.
“I wanted to play with guys I grew up playing with that I knew could play at a high D-I level,” he said. “The decision was pretty easy.”
On the mound, Weiss will transition from reliever to starter. Russo said the sophomore, who posted a 1.08 ERA in 41 ⅓ innings for the Futures League’s Martha’s Vineyard Sharks, likely will start the first game of every series and play a utility role in the remaining games.
Weiss said he has benefited from the addition of another Long Islander, pitching coach John Habyan, who had an 11-year major league career.
“He knows what he’s doing all the time,” said Weiss, who hit .284 last year. “He’s completely prepared for every workout and we get to tap his unbelievable amount of knowledge.”
But the strength of this team clearly lies in its batting order.
“The combination of guys we have, we’ll be able to win games solely off hitting,” Annunziata said.
Added Weiss, “Pitching against them, I’m not sure there’s much you can do. Everyone one through nine is a great hitter.”
And nearly everyone is from Long Island.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Chris Weiss, P/UTIL, Soph.
Weiss is so versatile he started last year’s opener at catcher — a position he never had played — and will start every series opener on the mound this year.
Steven Foster, OF, Soph.
Foster, who was named to the All-CAA preseason team, led Hofstra with a .351 batting average and 19 stolen bases last season.
Nick Bottari, C/IF, R-Fr.
The Wading River native transferred closer to home after spending one semester at Miami (Fla.). His power will give a major boost to the lineup.
David Leiderman, 3B, R-Jr.
The former Diamond Award winner hit .277 with a .356 on-base percentage last year. He led Hofstra with 29 RBIs.
Mat Annunziata, OF, Soph.
The expectation is that Annunziata, coming off major knee surgery, will produce the numbers that would have gotten him drafted as a senior out of high school. He had 18 extra-base hits, including five home runs, as a freshman in 39 games.