Ryan Flannery has his hands full at the moment as one of the assistant coaches on Tim Watson’s Cedar Creek High School football staff, but he can’t help but be excited to talk some baseball these days. That’s because Flannery’s Pirates made a run to the South Jersey Group 2 championship game last spring — the first time the baseball program had that much postseason success — and there are three Division I pitchers returning in 2020.

It may be football season, but for some guys baseball season never really ends.

“They’re excited. With everybody back in school now and seeing all the guys, you can tell there’s a little extra buzz,” Flannery recently said after current junior right-hander David Hagaman made his verbal commitment to West Virginia University. “I’m excited as a coach and they are excited, too, to get back out onto the diamond. But they know they still have to put in the offseason work, starting now.”

The Pirates finished fourth last spring in the very competitive Cape-Atlantic League National Conference, going 7-5, but went 16-10 overall and won three state playoff games before falling to West Deptford by a run in the sectional championship game. And 12 of those wins came inside the CAL, as Cedar Creek posted a 12-7 record against league opponents. The team only lost a couple of seniors and this year will be stacked with nearly a dozen seniors.

“I actually coached this senior class as their head JV coach (when they were younger) and the following year I took the varsity job, so I’ve been with these guys all four years. When I got the head job three years ago, we were talking to the assistants and we were saying this year, meaning 2020, is going to be our year to show up and kind of put the program on the map,” Flannery said. “Last year, we were had a breakout year but we were a little inconsistent. But we only had a few seniors on the team. This year we’ll have nine seniors and obviously we have the guys you hear about in the papers, but there is a good group of other guys who may not get the publicity. We have Sean Brady, who is an excellent pitcher for us, Joe Hamill and Nate Goodrich have done well for us, Connor Shulby, Justin Thomas, Barry Walker — so we’re excited to see what they can do as well.”

Cedar Creek should have a big-time advantage on the mound with Hagaman and seniors such as Luke Vaks, Sean Brady and Steven Kaenzig, who all will be throwing to junior catcher Dan DiGiovannantonio, one of the best backstops in the CAL and already a two-year starter. Vaks, who reached as high as 94 miles-per-hour last year and twirled a gem against Delran on the state playoffs, has given a verbal commitment to Old Dominion University and Kaenzig is committed to Hofstra.

“We have three guys throwing 90-plus now and two other guys who are in the mid-80s, so we definitely have the pitching, we just have to hit. We’re not looking for anything less than a state championship,” Hagaman said. “I’ve been incorporating a slider and that’s something I used in the Futures Game to get a lot of outs. It’s more of a chase pitch when I’m up in the count. That’s something I’ve been working on a lot this summer.”

Both Hagaman and Vaks made the rounds at high level prospect camps and events this summer and have a ton of potential to be dominant pitchers in South Jersey next spring, and Kaenzig and Brady aren’t far behind, either. Vaks allowed just nine earned runs in 38 innings last spring while striking out 70 batters, and Hagaman said he gained a lot of confidence during a solid performance at the Futures Games in Georgia this past summer.

“Coming in freshman year, I knew I wanted to help this team out, but me being the little kid on the team I wasn’t really confident enough,” he said. “Coach came up to me at the meetings after freshman year and said I needed to get more confident on the mound and trust myself. I did that this year. Before every pitch I told myself to execute and that helped a lot.”

“They all have personal pitching guys they can go to on the side, and in our offseason program the guys have lifts they need to get in during the fall and winter. We do testing throughout the year to make sure they are all on pace,” Flannery said. “We have a new app where we can keep track of them, so if they’re not lifting at the school they can get on the app and that goes to my phone, so we can figure out where their strengths are and where their weaknesses are so we can identify what we need to improve on. It’s pretty awesome software. They type in the weights and the reps and the computer takes over, so the next time they do those exercises the weights and reps go up, stuff like that. It’s a pretty sophisticated program for a high school offseason.”

While the Pirates want to be considered one of the elite teams in the CAL, Flannery said they are going to have to go out and prove it the way teams like St. Augustine Prep, Holy Spirit, Mainland and Ocean City have done for years.

“We talk about owning your role in the program. Some people are going to get their names in the paper and some aren’t, but it’s about what you can do collectively to help the team succeed. (Winning big games) is definitely going to be one of the challenges, and the other challenge is no one is sleeping on us anymore,” Flannery said. “Last year we came on the map late but this year we can expect to probably see a lot of No. 1 or No. 2 arms. People will be scheduling their pitchers for us, where as in the past they might have been like, ‘oh, it’s Cedar Creek, we’re not going to throw our No. 1.’ There are a lot of expectations, so we’re excited, but at the same time we have to level out those expectations and just play baseball.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sully@acglorydays.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays