Talented juniors and new coach boost varsity baseball team

Shauna Perigo

The new banners hanging in the outfield, referencing the 1977 National Championship team, are a fresh reminder of the legacy that this year’s varsity baseball team has the power to fulfill.

After a lackluster season last year, the team has a renewed passion that matches the revamped appearance of their outfield and a new coach who believes in their ability to go all the way.

Despite four or five other coaching job offers, Redwood alum Mike Firenzi chose to accept the position of varsity baseball head coach this year after serving as assistant coach last year.

“Redwood’s my home,” Firenzi said. “I played here. So it was an easy choice once this job opened up, for me to apply here and come back home. I’ve always had my eye on this program, even coaching at Marin Catholic, and I’m happy to be back.”

Juniors Parker Laret, Erik Doctor, Zach Cohen, and Zack Kopstein all played on varsity as sophomores last year, and have noticed the transition in coaching firsthand.

According to Laret and Doctor, the climate and expectations of the team have changed dramatically since last season.

Doctor described the new coaching style as intense and said Firenzi has a no-nonsense attitude.

“[Firenzi’s] not going to pat you on the back and say, ‘Oh, you can get it next time.’ It’s like, ‘You messed up, fix it now, or you’re not going to be playing,’” Laret said.

This year, Firenzi cut the team down to only 18 players, as opposed to the 24 players that made the varsity team last year.

“You know that the guy playing behind you actually has a real chance of taking your spot if you start messing up. It makes kids work harder, try harder,” Laret said.

But the changes that Firenzi is implementing are more than just structural.

“They just really want to change the program as a whole,” Doctor said. “Throughout these past years, Redwood hasn’t really built a strong baseball team, and hasn’t really had that passion. He wants to change all of it. He wants to have it be hard to make, have the practices be hard, have a specific schedule. We go at it, and just grind.”

Firenzi agreed that he has attempted to make the program much more precise and organized, by setting practice plans the night before and working on sharpening fundamental skills at practice.

Firenzi was on the Redwood baseball team in 1983, just six years after the team won the National Championship. He said he strives to bring that level of intensity back to the program.

“Redwood was a baseball powerhouse,” Firenzi said. “I’m trying to bring back some of that old school tradition in the way we dress, the way we run on and off the field, just a different perception than it’s been. That’s the main thing. We’re looking to win. We’re coming out to be a baseball power again at all three levels, and it starts with our perception of ourselves.”

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Doctor said Firenzi has what it takes to take the team all the way.

“He knows our talent and our ability and what we’re capable of,” Doctor said. “He had a personal relationship with us, he saw us play last year. He saw us juniors, our junior class, our senior class now, how we worked well together, and he knew he could take that team and really put it together.”

When Firenzi took over the team this season, he also brought in a new assistant coaching staff, many of whom have known the players for years and wholeheartedly believe in their ability to succeed.

“We all want to win, and they know that,” Laret said. “They’re not going to be like other coaches where it’s just about trying. We want to win. [Firenzi] told us that this will be the hardest team at Redwood to make, just because of how hard you have to work to get on the team and how hard you have to work while you are on it.”

Not only does Firenzi bring the needed talent and experience to the coaching staff, but the entire assistant coaching staff is very qualified as well, according to Kopstein.

“I think our whole coaching staff are some of the most experienced guys I’ve ever been coached by, and they’ve basically done what they’re trying to get us to do,” Kopstein said. “They’ve been there, they’ve been champions, and they know what it takes. They’re able to give us that advice to help us.”

With at least a year of varsity experience under their belts, Laret, Cohen, Kopstein, and Doctor have stepped up as leaders on the team. According to Firenzi, all four of them will contribute heavily to the team: Laret as catcher, Cohen and Kopstein as pitchers, and Doctor as a third baseman.

“[The four of them] are going to be a big part of our team, a huge part of our team,” Firenzi said. “Most all of them are either pitchers or catchers, so they’re going to be heavily used on both sides of the baseball.”

Cohen said that the team doesn’t have any named captains this year, but a number of veteran players have stepped up as leaders.

“As far as captains, I don’t think that you necessarily need captains,” Cohen said. “I think leaders are enough. And I think that’s what a couple guys are doing, is stepping up to be a leader, as opposed to stepping up only to fill the role of captain.”

Laret, who has been on varsity since the second half of his freshman year, said that he is excited to finally be able to take on more of a leadership role this year.

“I really like being a leader and talking a lot, and that’s the same with [Doctor],” Laret said. “That’s just how we’ve always been. When we were on freshman together, because I split half the season, he and I would lead the team, and when I went up [to varsity] for freshman and sophomore year, I couldn’t do that…That was hard for me.”

Laret added that, while he and the other three veteran juniors have stepped up as leaders, one of the things that makes this team so special is the fact that everybody is capable of success.

“Sometimes, at least for me, it can be hard when you’re looked to to do everything,” Laret said. “I think that was a big thing last year because even us juniors hit like fourth or fifth on the team. We were in a big position and it was hard because everybody was like, ‘It’s up to you.’ This year it’s better because it’s more of a team thing, where if you’re up in a big situation and you strike out, the guy behind you will be like, ‘Hey, I got you. I’ll pick you up. You don’t have to worry about everything.’ And that’s nice to have pressure and have expectations but know that it’s not all on you and it’s spread out between everybody.”

The returning juniors’ longstanding friendships off the field enable them to intuitively play together as a union and allow them to trust each other on the field.

“We’re so close off the field that when we get on the field it’s not a big difference. We have each other’s backs,” Laret said. “I know if a ball’s hit to [Doctor], he’ll dive and do whatever he needs to do because he doesn’t want to let me down, or let [Kopstein] down, or let the rest of the team down.”

Kopstein partially credits Coach Firenzi for their close relationships, saying that he has focused on strengthening the players’ friendships outside of the team.

“It definitely helps to have bonds outside of baseball, to have friendships with the people on the team,” Kopstein said.

“In the past couple of years, a lot of the guys weren’t really friendly to each other outside of baseball and so that really hurt our team chemistry. But this year we are much closer, and I’ve played with the majority of the kids on my team, before high school even.”

The biggest difference between this season and last, that all four boys noted, was a change in mentality, which could propel them to go further in playoffs.

“I think that’s what is actually driving this team to be so good. So many guys, more than I’ve ever seen on a team, are so committed to wanting to better the team. Everyone is working really hard, even in the off season when no one is looking, and making themselves better for the betterment of the team,” Cohen said.

Their bond, as well as the new coaching approach, is helping to channel their raw talent and ability into a force that has the potential to win games and possibly the MCAL title.

“For the last three years we’ve always had the ability to win, we just never knew how to,” Laret said. “We used to beat very good teams and lose to the worst teams. This year all of us feel like we can go undefeated.”

Last season’s varsity team was a team filled with much of the same talent, but it lacked the direction and the power that this season’s team has, according to Doctor.

“Last year we had a completely different mentality,” Doctor said. “That fire you need in a team just wasn’t there. Two kids on our own team would be fighting about something in the dugout, during the game, or it would be a big situation, and we wouldn’t have that fire. A big part of the game is being in the game, even when you’re not in it. This year our coaching staff is getting that fire there.”

Aside from new head coach Firenzi, this season the varsity team has also welcomed assistant coach Rich Epidendio, who has known Laret, Kopstein, Cohen, and Doctor since their days playing on various little league teams.

Epidendio also coached them on the freshman baseball team, and Laret and Doctor credit him with creating the strong bond that they all have now.

“He made that team like a family; starting as freshmen, he was the one that made us very close,” Laret said. “We were all friends and it was amazing. This is finally the year where it’s that group of kids. That’s really nice to have, and I credit him for all of that.”

Aside from the intense, structured approach, the new coaching staff is striving to bring a more unified approach to the entire Redwood baseball program.

“It used to be that freshman does their own thing, JV does their own thing, varsity does their own thing,” Laret said.“Now, workouts are all of us. We practice together sometimes, so that freshmen and sophomores can look at us and think, ‘If we want to be on varsity next year, that’s where we need to be.’”

Reshaping Redwood baseball from the ground up has given the players a renewed energy, and more importantly, a renewed sense of confidence in what they can accomplish this season.

“I think that we should win,” Doctor said. “We wouldn’t sit here and lie and say we should win. Knowing our ability, if we use our talents, we can definitely win [MCALS].”