By Greg Gulas
The Eastern Gateway Community College Gators will open their charter baseball campaign on March 3 at Keyser, W.Va., against Potomac State.
Head coach Phil Panno is set to guide the team during their initial National Junior College Athletic Association Division II season where they will compete as members of the Ohio Community College Athletic Conference.
Panno takes over the reins from former Cleveland Indians pitcher Jason Stanford, who was originally named to the post but parted ways with the program before assuming his duties.
“Phil was our assistant coach at the time,” Eastern Gateway athletic director John Izzo said. “Due to the timing and it being so late in August, [Panno] became the natural choice to lead our program.
“He’s a leader, a proven winner on our local sandlots and is an excellent recruiter. He will do an outstanding job.”
Panno is a Woodrow Wilson High School graduate and played baseball for Youngstown State. He also performed at the junior college level at Miami-Dade North J.C.
“This is a very exciting time for Eastern Gateway,” Panno said. “Having played a year at a community college, I can vouch for the opportunity that a program like ours presents to players.
“There are many student-athletes, especially baseball players who do not receive full scholarships, so the opportunity to transition from high school to college, play your first two seasons both with and against players your own age, and save money in the process is quite appealing,” Panno said.
He added that academic credits earned will transfer when a player is ready pursue a four-year degree.
Nine Eastern Gateway players hail from the Mahoning Valley.
“We’re excited to see how we stack up against our opposition,” Panno said.
It will definitely be a baptism under fire for the Gators. Potomac State has made seven trips to the JUCO World Series since 1993 and won the 1995 national championship.
Under the tutelage of head coach Doug Little (673-295-1, 21 years), the Catamounts have won at least 30 games on 17 occasions.
Panno has won nine Class AA sandlot titles over a 12-year stretch as a player-manager and is expected to give the starting mound assignment to either Kyle Campbell, Nick Kubala or Dakota Bingham.
Campbell played at Shenango High School, Kubala is a Boardman High School graduate and Bingham is one of four Trumbull County players (Lordstown).
Rounding out the pitching staff will be Ryan Luciano (Campbelll), Zach Johnson (Lincoln, Neb.), Mark Herron (Warren Harding), Josiel Ayala Sierra (Canovanas, Puerto Rico), Dylan Kurcon (Poland) and Colton Esposito (New Castle, Pa.).
Catchers are Johnson, Trey Moses (Ellwood City, Pa.) and Nick Benson (New Castle, Pa.).
At first base will be Jake Rudzik (Struthers), Campbell and D.J. Rodriguez-Clark (Campbell).
Kevin Sierra Tirado (San Juan, Puerto Rico) will play second base while Doug Painter (Warren Harding) and Luciano are the shortstops.
Damion Coleman (Niles) and Bingham will see time at third base.
In center field will be Herron and Gino Demonaco (New Castle, Pa.). Hayden Kristophel (Wampum, Pa.) will ne the left fielder and Kurcon will play right field. Esposito is flexible and can play all three outfield positions.
Assistant coaches include Dave Smercansky, longtime Boardman head coach who will handle the pitchers and Dan Flora, the Gators’ batting coach who will work with outfielders.