Everything changed for Eli Oliphant at the start of his sophomore baseball season at Amity.
He had moved from infield to outfield a year earlier and got his first taste of pitching at the high school level. But it was 2014 when he really started working with head coach Sal Coppola and began to transform into a top-of-the-rotation arm and, ultimately, the New Haven Register Area’s Most Valuable Player in 2016.
“He had the makings of a strong pitcher,” Coppola said. “He had a strong arm and he showed us things and we thought he could be pretty good.”
Things started off slow.
His two wins sophomore year weren’t indicative of his early skill, but he didn’t have to be great. The pitching staff on that team was as good as it gets, according to Coppola.
It wasn’t until his junior year where he really started to get going on the mound, but it came at an opportune time. Mike Appel got hurt and Oliphant stepped right in.
“Eli ended up stepping up and having a tremendous season for us,” Coppola said.
He led Amity back to the state finals for the third year in a row, got the start — and win — against Staples to complete the three-peat.
But that wasn’t his peak.
Oliphant continued to work with Coppola — the de-facto pitching coach — and continued to develop what has become a devastating 3-pitch mix of a two-seam fastball, curveball and changeup.
“By his junior year his fastball was moving a ton,” Coppola said. “And we also got him to throw his curveball harder. It went from being a slower pitch to being a hard, late-breaking curveball. Late in his junior year we could throw each one of those pitches whenever we wanted.”
He began the 2016 season with a broken hand, but only missed the preseason and was ready to go as soon as he was cleared to play.
And the numbers Oliphant posted were impeccable.
He went 9-0 with three saves while throwing 69 innings. He allowed just four earned runs for a 0.40 ERA and struck out 83 batters and walked 20 for a 4.15 K/BB ratio.
The most visible improvement between Oliphant’s junior and senior season was his velocity.
“Last year I was throwing 83-84 and topping out at 85,” Oliphant said. “[Coppola] told me to stay back a little, focus on my stride and I was throwing 3-4 MPH faster.”
Once again his season ended with a win at Palmer Field in Middletown as he got the win over Fairfield Warde 4-3 to finish his postseason career with an 8-0 record and one save making him one of the most accomplished postseason pitchers in Connecticut history.
“It’s very rare for anyone in the state to say, not only did they win four in a row,” Coppola said. “But Eli pitched in the finals in his last two. It’s pretty amazing to say you’re 2-0 in state finals games.”
But it was the save in the 2016 Class LL semifinals vs. New Milford that showed Coppola what kind of baseball player and what kind of leader Oliphant had become.
“He came in and closed and struck out the side,” Coppola said. “To have him come up to me at the beginning of the game and say, ‘I’m good if you need me,’ he definitely showed a ton of confidence — he wanted to be in that position.”
It was that increased poise his senior year that played such a huge role in his development as a pitcher.
“I wasn’t that nervous this year,” Oliphant said. “Last year I was pretty nervous, because I was only a junior and I was pitching the state championship game and I didn’t want to be the person to lose it. This year I was a lot more calm and knew what I had to do, because I had been there before.”
The combination of good stuff and being able to manage the pressure has helped Oliphant earn a spot on a Division I baseball team at Fairfield University.
With the opening of a renovated Alumni Diamond set to be ready for the 2017 season, Oliphant will be moving about a half hour southwest of where he has honed his craft at Amity and gets ready to continue the success of Fairfield baseball.
“We’re real excited he’s coming to Fairfield,” Fairfield coach Bill Currier said. “We think he’s a good all-around athlete. He knows how to pitch. He seems to have ice in his veins on the mound and he’s coming from such a successful program that we’re excited to get a quality kid to join a program that won as much as it could this year.”
The Stags are coming off their most successful season in program history having qualified for their first ever NCAA regional and tied a program record with 32 wins.
As most incoming freshman, Oliphant is modest in his aspirations, but with the resume he boasts it’s hard to imagine he does not contribute in some way for Currier’s team immediately.
“If I get opportunities on the mound I’ll try to do my best,” Oliphant said. “Help the team win and see where it goes from there.”