When a varsity baseball coach fills out his lineup, he would probably like to pencil in students from double-digit grades.
In this day and age, we see plenty of varsity teams that wind up playing players in eighth and ninth grade, and they typically reside at the bottom of the standings, earning maybe a handful of wins, rarely within a sniff of a postseason berth. Not to bash such teams. It’s just part of the necessary rebuilding process teams must endure to build successful programs.
One team bucking that trend in Orange, where Mahar baseball is enjoying success with a team full of players closer to junior high school than graduation. The Senators punctuated their regular season Wednesday night with a 7-4 victory over a Turners Falls team battling for the Hampshire League title.
Mahar entered this spring as an unknown after losing eight seniors from a 2012 team that finished with just two wins. To think that losing what amounted to nearly an entire starting lineup of seniors would help a team improve by at least eight wins is crazy, but that’s exactly what occurred.
“It was a weird year last spring,” nine-year Mahar coach Art Billings said. “With older players, you expect a lot out of them, but we went the other way.”
Just as the thaw that occurs in the spring time signals the start of something new for many, this spring offered the Mahar baseball team a chance to clean theslate from a year ago. The reason was that many of last year’s players were gone, opening the door for young, hungry ballplayers the coach was hoping would move the program forward.
“Personally, I was hoping to forget about last year and come in fresh,” Billings said.
Of course having a bunch of new players on the team that didn’t experience all the losing from a year ago was a nice thing to help with the change, but with five ninth- or 10th-graders in the opening-day starting lineup, you wouldn’t expect the team to do much more than compete and learn from their first full season of varsity experience.
“I really didn’t know what to expect in terms of wins and losses,” Billings recalled. “I didn’t know how long it would take for this group to come together. I knew there was a good freshman class coming in, but I didn’t know how much of an impact they would have at the varsity level.”
Billings started three freshman infielders, in Hunter Richardson (shortstop), Buddy Boatwright (third base) and Ryan Arsenault (second base), and also started a pair of sophomores in Ethan Nye (outfield) and Drew Patria (catcher/pitcher). What he received early was a mix of mistakes as well as strong plays, all of it helping the team to improve.
“After every game I would emphasize the mistakes we made or the good things that we did,” Billings explained. “We would try to minimize those mistakes and I believe that we have gotten better every time out.”
Billings credits juniors Zach Adams, Jake Paul and Logan Barrett with helping the young players acclimate to the varsity level. The coach said that does nothing to take away from seniors Matt Richard, Cody Iozzo and Zach Taylor, but that the juniors, being a bit younger in age, have bridged the gap.
“As far as leading, a lot of what they have been doing has helped out the young guys,” Billings said. “They’ve played above my expectations and are putting in hard work and the young guys feed off that.”
The Senators’ record reflected the early-season, ups-and-downs experienced by the squad, as Mahar opened at 3-4. But then things began to click and, suddenly, the Senators began winning on a regular basis. One win turned into two, and two into three and all of a sudden Mahar was 6-4 overall at the halfway point of the season. The only bump in the road came against Hampshire-League leading Greenfield, which Mahar took to eight innings before losing 4-3. That did little to deter the Senators, who rattled off three straight wins to move to 9-5 on the year, leaving them one win away from qualifying for the WMass Tournament. Mahar failed in its first shot to qualify, dropping an 11-2 decision to another young team on the surge in Hopkins Academy, but on Wednesday the team traveled to the Powertown for a date with the 12-2 Indians. But with Patria pitching seven strong innings, and Boatwright collecting three hits and two RBIs Mahar earned a 7-4 win and punched their ticket.
“Beating Turners the other night really made us believe, ‘Hey guys, we can do this,’” Billings said. “If we play well, we can play with anyone.”
Still, the learning continues. When Mahar dropped the 11-2 decision to Hopkins, Billings said many of his players hung their heads, but in the win over Turners, his players watched as the Indians clawed back from an early deficit to put the tying runs on base late. That transferred over into Thursday’s game against Frontier, in which Mahar fell behind 13-1 but climbed back into the game before losing 15-9.
“We saw Turners come back against us. They never quit,” Billings said. “I was happy the way the guys kept fighting against Frontier.”
Mahar is 10-8 with two games remaining before the postseason and the numbers from the youngsters are staggering. Patria is second on the team in appearances on the mound this season and is 2-2 in his five games. Richardson also pitched five scoreless innings in a win over Franklin Tech when the Senators were looking for extra arms. At the plate, Nye is leading the team in batting with a .357 average, while Richardson is tops among the freshman, batting a hair under .300.
And now the team has its sights set on making some noise in the tournament. It’s not likely to happen but neither was making the tournament when the season began. Don’t bet against the Senators. So far, they’ve shown that this season anything is possible.
There is nothing better than playing a little Wiffleball on a Saturday in May, especially for a good cause.
This Saturday marks the inaugural Chief John F. Skroski Wiffleball Tournament, which will take place at 128 Christian Lane in Whately.
Skroski is the former Southampton and Deerfield police chief who passed away suddenly in June 2011. The tournament serves as a fundraiser for the John F. Skroski Scholarship Fund, which awards a scholarship to one graduating male or female basketball player at Hampshire Regional High School and Frontier Regional School. Skroski was very supportive of youth sports.
The Wiffleball tourney takes place at the home of Skroski’s son Chris, who lives on what used to be his family’s farm, where both his grandfather and father worked. There are currently 16 to 20 teams registered and anyone teams interested in signing up can still do so. Teams consist of three to five players and costs $15 a head. There are five fields, a home run derby, trophies and T-shirts. For more information contact Chris at (413) 265-1668 or search the tournament’s Facebook page.
Jason Butynski is a Greenfield native and Recorder sportswriter. His email address is email@example.com.