Moravia varsity baseball coach Eric Gremli teaches sixth grade within the school district, so he was familiar with Aiden Kelly and Luke Landis from the classroom.
He'd also heard whispers, as their teacher, that the pair were devoted ballplayers.
So it was no surprise when, as sixth-graders, Kelly and Landis showed up for Moravia's fall and winter practice sessions, which are typically occupied by members of the varsity and JV teams.
Three years later that same pair, now freshmen in high school, are promising pitchers for the Moravia varsity team.
Kelly and Landis aren't alone. A year away from interscholastic baseball due to COVID-19 hasn't prevented rookie pitchers all over Cayuga County from stepping in at the varsity level and making an immediate impact.
In Auburn there's sophomores Cooper Polcovich and Lucas West, and freshman Owen Birchard. Polcovich and Birchard have been valuable assets to the Maroons' bullpen, while West has filled in as a spot starter.
In Weedsport, there's sophomore Andrew Seward, a varsity rookie who threw a no-hitter earlier this season and came two outs away from another.
The youngest of an exciting crop is Port Byron eighth-grader Connor Usowski who is averaging over a strikeout per inning in seven appearances.
Conventional wisdom suggests, especially after a year away, that rookies shouldn't have immediate success. In Cayuga County, however, several are bucking that trend.
"There's no question with the year off, I was definitely nervous coming in," Auburn coach John Turcsik said of his new pitchers. "How would they respond, how would they react? It's a big jump, but they've done a good job. It's a credit to their commitment, their drive and doing what they do best."
The Kelly and Landis pair, while teammates and friends, act as polar opposites. One's a righty, the other a lefty. Landis carries himself with exuberance and light-heartedness, while Kelly exudes coolness and collectiveness.
Offering a scouting report on the other, Kelly said Landis excels at picking corners with his fastball while mixing in a solid curveball and knuckler. Of Kelly, Landis highlighted the sweeping curveball and a fastball with effective tailing action.
Both were set up to join Moravia's varsity squad in 2020 — as eighth-graders — before COVID interrupted the spring season. Each would've been used at lower spots in the lineup, while pitching an inning here or there in low-pressure situations.
No such patience was offered this season. The morning of Moravia's first game, Gremli learned that his planned starting pitcher was unavailable due to a required quarantine. So he tabbed a catcher, Landis, to take the bump.
"Without much thought, I threw it out to him, 'Do you want to be on the hill tonight?' He said, 'I'd love to,' and he did a great job," Gremli said. "He held (Marathon) to two or three cheap runs and had some nice offense to support him."
Landis may have portrayed confidence in his immediate answer to Gremli, but nerves quickly took over.
"I was kinda freaking out when I first got out there," Landis said, "but after the first few innings, I was able to settle in.
"It is kinda strange seeing kids with full beards, but other than that..."
Kelly also made his debut in that season opener, pitching one inning of relief after Landis went the first six and struck out 10. While Gremli called Kelly's first outing "a little shaky," the left-hander managed a save.
Three days later against Groton, Kelly showed off his potential. In five innings, he allowed six hits while striking out nine. He followed that up with a 16-strikeout performance on May 11 at Newfield.
"My mindset was to throw strikes and hope for the best," Kelly said. "It was amazing. The first two innings I had like five strikeouts, and it felt so good."
Not to be outdone is Usowski, the hulking left-handed eighth-grader that's been a godsend for Port Byron and first-year head coach Angelo Biondo.
Biondo, following a two-strikeout performance in relief against Weedsport on Thursday, said Usowski is "never phased." Because of his poise and his size — at a glance, Usowski stands over 6-feet tall — it's easy to forget he's still a middle-schooler.
"He plays with such maturity," Biondo said. "I had a conversation with him before (his outing against Weedsport), and he said, 'Yeah coach, I just love the game.' He's wise beyond his years and a fantastic pitcher. I can't wait to see what he does in the coming years."
Even the most talented of pitchers will take their lumps, and coaches must be at their best when that happens. Diminished confidence is a death knell for a young arm.
After starting the season perfect through six games, Moravia hit their first bout of adversity in the last couple weeks. Kelly was pulled after two innings in a May 19 loss at Union Springs, while Landis couldn't escape the second inning in a May 21 defeat against Newfield.
When met with obstacles, Gremli tries to handle each of his pitchers on an individual basis. Younger pitchers will likely have a shorter leash than veteran arms. Gremli also pays attention to pitch counts, especially early in the season, to avoid wearing down the rookie members of his staff.
Within the first two innings, he said, he'll know whether or not a pitcher has his best stuff on a given day. And when those rookie pitchers get into an inevitable jam, it can become a valuable case study for a coach to find out how a player reacts in pressure situations.
Said Turcsik, his younger Auburn pitchers "will definitely have a quicker exit out of the game if I see them in trouble."
"I don't want them to get down on themselves if there's potential for a big inning," he said. "Somebody that's been there done that, you might give a little more time.
"I will say with our guys, it's been a surprise with their awareness on the mound and knowing how to pitch. They mix up pitches and have been very smart. I can't say they're normal because a lot of them have been around the game for a long time. It's given me the opportunity to have confidence in them."
Mound visits are also unique depending on the player. Some visits are more casual, while others offer advice.
"You want to convey or relay something fundamental and something to focus on, but on the other hand you don't want to overload them with information," Gremli said. "I like to mix it up a little bit. Sometimes it's a brief conversation, 'Hey, let's get out of this inning, we've got pizza and wings back at the school,' something like that. Other times it might be, 'Try this with your plant foot,' or just a minor adjustment they can focus on."
It's a balancing act. For a coach, the goal is to protect the player, but also respect them as an equal member of the team.
That's the case for Biondo with Usowski.
"Sometimes I do (pump the brakes), but at the same time I want to give him the same respect that I give my seniors and juniors," Biondo said. "He deserves it. He wears the jersey like everyone else and in my eyes is a don't-pull guy. I treat him the same always, because he needs to grow with us. I don't want to treat him any different."
Depth in pitching is often what makes or breaks a team. That's the case at any level, from high school to college to professional.
Especially at the high school level with specific pitch limits in place, sectionals are the ultimate litmus test for a staff. One great arm is only so valuable with the condensed nature of the postseason, and it's often the team with two or three reliable starters that's the last one standing.
That's why Gremli is thanking his lucky stars. While he's focused on his Blue Devils winning as many games as possible this season, the early contributions of Kelly and Landis are "a pretty fortunate thing to happen to Moravia baseball."
"At the beginning of the season when we lost a senior to quarantine, they became de-facto guys that we can rely on," Gremli said. "We put the pressure on and they've responded well. We've had a bit of a letdown these last couple weeks, but I'm chalking that up to great experiences and building to another three years.
"We're losing some seniors that have really contributed to the program, but the future certainly looks bright for Moravia."
Sports reporter Justin Ritzel can be reached at 282-2257 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @CitizenRitz.