Sure, many of us here in Franklin County may have spent the weekend digging out from under two feet of snow, backs still aching from shoveling, and faces still frozen from the numbing winds, but it’s never too early to talk baseball is it?
The reason I need to steer away from basketball for a minute, despite the fact that the season is just heating up, is because there has been a stir amongst local baseball coaches over the past week or so. Five area baseball programs, all of them 2012 tourney teams, will be under new leadership when camps open in late March. Frontier’s Aaron Campbell, Pioneer’s Tom Conway, Turners Falls’ Jim Zellmann, Franklin Tech’s Joe Gamache and Hopkins Academy’s Pat Lemieux are hanging up their uniforms.
Campbell, the longest tenured of the five, handed in his resignation over the weekend when he resigned from a Frontier program he has coached for the past 10 years. Campbell recently got a job working for Pan Am Railways, a job he starts on March 4, working out of the Deerfield yard. The schedule makes it impossible for him to continue coaching. His loss certainly leaves a gaping hole after all the success he and the program have enjoyed over the past 10 years. Campbell put together a 113-85 regular-season record during his tenure and finished with a .500 record or better in nine of 10 years. Those playoff appearances produced six WMass finals appearances, including three titles. The Red Hawks also made an appearance in the state-title game in 2008, falling to Westwood High School, 12-6.
“It’s been a fantastic run,” Campbell said over the phone on Sunday night. “You’ve got to have talent, and we’ve had that, and the kids have responded to what I wanted.”
Campbell is also done officiating both high school and college football, something he said was equally difficult to give up. He leaves a program that is coming off a WMass championship-game appearance and, with nearly the entire team returning this season, widely considered a HL favorite.
As for possible coaching replacements, the jury is still out. Assistant coaches Wally Dacyczyn and Rich Walton are likely to be done, too, according to Campbell, so the program will undergo a major overhaul. Some of the names being thrown around as possible replacements are former Campbell players Tim Capuano, who played on that state-finalist team, as well as Chris “Skinny” Williams, who graduated in 2009. Frontier athletic director Marty Sanderson said on Monday that the job will be posted internally for about a week and will also be posted publicly. Look for posting information in the Bulletin Board section of this newspaper soon.
While Campbell took Frontier to the WMass final this past season, the previous year saw Conway and his Pioneer team win the WMass title and make it to the state championship game. Now, after six years as coach, Conway called it quits, also due to his full-time job working for Channing Bete. The 27-year employee of Channing Bete has tried to work around the job the past couple of seasons, using about 12 vacation days each spring to get out early. He received help from assistants, who would start practice when running late, but the schedule grew increasingly difficult on Conway. He praised both players and parents from recent teams for helping him make it work, and also praised Channing Bete for being understanding and allowing him to work coaching into his schedule. Unfortunately for him, it finally became too difficult for Conway to work around, and he said he didn’t want to hurt the players or the program, so he reluctantly decided to call it quits.
“I just didn’t think it was fair for the kids,” he said on Monday. “The kids and parents have been awesome for six years. I’ll definitely miss it and I hope that someday I’ll be able to get back into coaching.”
His success at Pioneer should help him get a job again in the future should he decide. When Conway took over the program six years ago, he inherited a team that had few high school-age players. He said the junior varsity team was made up almost entirely of eighth-graders, but with the help of a strong assistant coaching staff, the program grew and became a force in the HL. Conway put together a 66-54 regular-season record in six years, and has guided the Panthers to four consecutive postseason berths. That included the 2011 run that produced a western Mass. title and a state-championship appearance, where the Panthers wound up dropping a 9-4 decision to Newburyport High School. The job has recently been posted, and while junior varsity coach Scott Minkler reportedly has shown interest, the hiring process will take place later this or early next month.
Zellmann leaves Turners Falls after helping the Indians reach the postseason last spring. Zellmann went 20-40 in three regular seasons and helped guide the Indians to the postseason last year following a 12-8 regular-season record. His position was officially filled last week when the school hired former varsity coach Jay Liimatainen, who previously led the Indians for four years from 2003 until 2007 but had to leave following the 2007 season due to family reasons. He served as the junior varsity coach two years ago and now steps in to the varsity job for his second stint.
“It’s nice to be back,” Liimatainen said on Sunday night. “I feel like the kids are excited. I think there’s a lot talent on this team and I expect big things from our guys this season.”
Gamache is done at Franklin Tech after just three seasons in which he put together a 28-32 record and led the Eagles to the postseason last spring. Gamache, the athletic director at Tech as well as football and wrestling coach, wanted to spend more time watching his young daughter Kylee play sports. Taking over for him is Brian Winslow, who has served as a volunteer assistant coach with the team for the past two years after spending three seasons as junior varsity coach under Tom Suchanek at Greenfield High School, the school he also played baseball for in high school. Winslow said he’s excited for his first opportunity to coach at the varsity level and that he will take things learned from his previous experiences into the new job.
“Any time you get a chance to work under and play for a guy that is in the high school baseball coaches Hall of Fame, naturally things are going to rub off,” Winslow said of working with Suchanek. “And working with (American Legion Post 81 coach Ryan) Tatreau also gave me a lot of experience. Joe (Gamache) has been great to work with and he has really moved this program in the right direction. I learned a lot from Joe and hopefully I can bring a little bit from all the guys I have worked with and add some stuff I’ve picked up along the way.”
Lemieux, who was the head coach at Hopkins for the past seven years, is now an assistant principal at South Hadley High School. He helped guide the Golden Hawks to a 71-54 record during his tenure in the regular season and helped the team qualify for five straight postseason appearances. No word on who is taking over for him.
Finally, I took a phone call from a perturbed Ted Bartak last Tuesday night.
Bartak called in response to what I had written last week about an angry Turners Falls football fan who felt that Greenfield quarterback Zach Bartak was not the most deserving player of the Intercounty League Most Valuable Player award. Some in the Powertown felt Indian running back Ryan Wilder or fullback John Ollari were more deserving. It’s been an ongoing dispute this season, and Ted is getting sick not of the debate, but of what he feels has been an attack on his son.
“This is ridiculous,” he began. “All my kid did was go out and play football. Time and time again we’re reading about this. My son and John are best friends. They’re not the ones arguing about this, it’s other people. I feel bad for Zach, John and Ryan, and I’m sick of my kid’s name getting dragged through the mud.”
All three players had great seasons, it’s something I’ve discussed here plenty of times. As I told Ted Bartak, it’s a good thing to have passionate fans of the game in the area, something he agreed with. But he also felt that there’s a line that’s being crossed.
“My kid doesn’t do drugs, he’s a hard worker — he busted his ass this season,” Bartak said. “Our family is tired of this. We go out and root for our kids. Zach went to the Super Bowl and rooted for Turners Falls. We don’t root for anyone to fail, but it feels like some people do that.”
Bartak said that he doesn’t want his son to bump into folks from Turners Falls and feel uneasy around them, something he thinks could happen.
“I feel like Zach’s being attacked,” he concluded. “I would never do that. Zach goes out and has to feel uncomfortable around people from Turners Falls. I’d be ashamed of myself for making an 18-year-old kid feel that way. The only one that is going to pay for it is Zach.”
Jason Butynski is a Greenfield native and Recorder sportswriter. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.