MAPLEWOOD, NJ – Optimism abounds for the Columbia High School varsity baseball program.
The Cougars have a new coach in Ryan Muirhead, who has won over his players with his fresh approach.
“Coach Muirhead is a great guy,” said second baseman/pitcher Matt Kritzberg, one of three returning senior captains, before a practice at Underhill Field on Monday, March 18. “The players have bought into everything he’s been preaching to us, and overall, he’s a really good leader and he’s really getting everyone to buy in. He’s preaching a lot of things to a group of kids that have been working really hard and got us encouraged and working really hard and getting ready for the season.”
The Cougars defeated Verona, 8-4, April 1 in the season opener at Verona. Muirhead faced his former school in his debut as CHS head coach. The 28-year-old was the JV coach at Verona – his alma mater – for the past three seasons. A CHS business teacher, Muirhead also coaches club baseball with the Cedar Knolls-based Locked In Expos and is the CHS boys soccer assistant coach in the fall.
The other senior captains are right fielder Phil Whitney and shortstop Eliot Dix, who signed with Division I Longwood University in Farmville, Va. With a dangerous bat and outstanding defensive skills, Dix is considered one of the top players in the area. Last season, he earned All-Super Essex Conference-American Division First Team honors.
Whitney made All-SEC-American Division Second Team a year ago. In the season opener, Whitney went 3-for-4 with a triple and an RBI.
Muirhead replaces Jim Whalen, who stepped down after being at the helm for the past two seasons. CHS was 12-14 in 2017 and 13-11 last season.
Muirhead wants to foster a positive vibe within the program.
“We are focusing on re-branding and rebuilding the culture of the baseball program,” said Muirhead, noting initiatives have been started with the community and recreation programs.
“We’re looking to develop from the ground up.”
With 21 freshmen, the program looks to be in good shape for the next few years.
“We’re integrating a lot of young talent, and that’s one of the reasons we’re cultivating these guys and grow,” Muirhead said.
Helping to move the program in the right direction is the leadership from the senior captains.
“Not only are they very talented, but they are responsible leaders in their own way, skill-wise and the way they are bringing the younger guys into the fold,” said Muirhead of his captains. “They are passionate about the game. Not only do they want to see the program succeed while they’re playing, but they want to see it succeed when they leave, and that’s what makes them good captains.”
Kritzberg also sees a lot of promise in the younger players.
“I really like the work ethic and dedication from this group,” Kritzberg said. “We have a lot of kids coming up in new roles that have worked really, really hard this season in the weight room to get better. That’s really encouraging. The team has looked really good so far. We’ve won our first two scrimmages. It’s been really fun so far.”
The Cougars have a senior-laden infield. Zach Altamore returns at first base, while Spencer Melee will occupy third base. Eli Glantz also will serve in a utility role. Altamore had two hits, a walk and two RBI in the win over Verona.
Jeffrey Nelson will lead the outfield in center.
The juniors include pitching ace Ethan Messeri, a righty; and Joe Lintern and Noah Haniph, both outfielders/pitchers.
The Cougars hope to challenge for the county championship in the Greater Newark Tournament, as well as in the state tournament. Muirhead recognizes that competing in the difficult Super Essex Conference-American Division will prove beneficial.
“This is a talented and eager group,” said Muirhead. “We expect to be competitive.”
April 1, at Verona, 4 p.m.
April 3, at Nutley, 4 p.m.
April 5, Seton Hall Prep, 4 p.m.
April 8, at Montclair, 4 p.m.
April 10, West Essex, 4 p.m.
April 12, at Millburn, 4 p.m.
April 13, at Cedar Grove, 11 a.m.
April 15, at Livingston, 4 p.m.
April 18, at Madison, 4 p.m.
April 20, at Morristown, 11 a.m.
April 22, Nutley, 4 p.m.
April 24, at Seton Hall Prep, 4 p.m.
April 26, Montclair Kimberley Academy, 4 p.m.
April 29, Montclair, 4 p.m.
April 30, at Caldwell, 4 p.m.
May 3, Glen Ridge, 4 p.m.
May 6, at West Essex, 4 p.m.
May 13, Millburn, 7 p.m.
May 15, Livingston, 4 p.m.