Red Hawks after WMass baseball title
Frontier senior Niko Ames is one of the Hampshire League's premier players and will play multiple infield positions for the Red Hawks in what could be a rebuilding year after last spring's WMass Diviison III championship.
As Frontier Regional School junior shortstop Ryan Hoar walked off of the Szot Park baseball field last spring following a 3-1 loss to Mt. Everett Regional High School in the WMass Division III title game, he hung his head, but also saw a bright spot.
“I knew we only had two seniors on the field that day, and knowing we had 90 percent of the guys back, I didn’t hang my head too much,” he recalled.
On Sunday, the remaining Red Hawks from last year’s squad will get a chance at redemption when third-seeded Frontier (17-6) takes on fifth-seeded Smith Academy (20-3) in the Division III title game at Lorden Field on the campus of UMass at 10:45 a.m.
Last year’s championship game featured a strong pitching performance from junior pitcher Peter Watroba, who will get the ball in his second consecutive title game on Sunday. Watroba struck out two and walked just one in seven innings last season, but a couple of costly errors behind him and little in the way of offensive support cost him a chance to earn the win in that game. Hoar said that getting this chance to make things right is an opportunity he does not want to let slip away.
“It means everything,” he began. “I’d rather be able to say that I played in two western Mass. championship games and I won once, rather than saying I was there twice and lost both. Coming into this game, everyone is hitting, our pitching has been great all season long, and our defense is 10 times better than it was last year.”
While Frontier was certainly in a position to get back to the championship following last spring, the Hawks have had to overcome a number of issues that could easily have derailed the run. The Hawks not only had to replace Mike Ames and Keith Spencer (the two senior starters from last year’s team) heading into this season, but they also had to replace the man at the top after former coach Aaron Campbell retired due to conflicts with his full time job. Taking his place was Chuck Holt, who stepped into a situation that many first-year coaches would envy with all the experience coming back. Holt said he did not let the expectations intimidate him.
“I realize that this team had high expectations because of the success from last year,” Holt began. “I was excited about that. It helped that I’m friends with Aaron and he gave me the lowdown on the team, and the school and athletic director Marty Sanderson have been so supportive.”
Holt, who made his varsity coaching debut with the Red Hawks this season, said that he decided to take a hands-off approach coming into the season rather than coming in and ruling with an iron fist.
“I’m very confident in my experience with baseball and my game plan was to be a little hands off at first,” he said. “I wanted to prove to the team that I knew what I was talking about. It was evident right away that I had a group of really great kids and great athletes and they all had a common focus of winning.”
Hoar said that it didn’t take long for the team to adjust to Holt as head coach, despite the fact that he does bring a different style to the team than Campbell did.
“It was a little tricky at first because Campbell was so intense and Holt is much more laid back,” Hoar said. “But midway through the season we knew we had a coach that knew what he was doing, and he’s not afraid to get on you when you need it.”
As for Hoar, him and fellow senior Sam Tillona nearly both missed out on the opportunity to play this season after both suffered injuries earlier in the year.
Hoar has been dealing with left knee issues his entire high school career, beginning his freshman year when he tore his ACL playing football. He then injured the same knee again playing basketball last summer, and finally blew it out a third time this past winter as he was preparing for basketball season. The senior currently has no ACL or meniscus in his left knee. He could have opted for surgery to repair it all this past winter, but that would have put him on the shelf for both the basketball and baseball seasons and ended his high school playing career. With all the hard work he has put in over the years, Hoar said that just wasn’t an option.
“I’ve put a lot of time in to both sports,” he said. “I knew when I first came to Frontier as a sophomore that we had a good core of players in both sports and that we could be really good in both. I wanted to be a part of that.”
Hoar said that he does have a constant ache in his knee, but that it’s not a major pain all of the time. While he said it doesn’t affect his fielding all that much, it does rear its ugly head when he’s hitting.
“Batting is harder,” he said. “I just have to think about it because hitting does not come as naturally as it used to. I’ve had to make some adjustments.”
As for Tillona, he also thought he was going to miss the entire baseball season after he suffered a broken foot this past October.
Tillona was walking down Route 116 in Sunderland after football practice, heading to get a drink at a nearby convenience store, when he fell off a bridge near Hubbard Hill Road. Tillona said the drop is about 20 feet, and because he was alone at the time, he had to crawl back up to the road where he was able to flag down a UMass student, who stopped and gave him a ride. Tillona wound up getting nine screws in his left foot and was on crutches for 31∕2 months. He was originally told that he would likely miss the baseball season, but his foot healed quicker than expected and he just missed the first three games.
“I was thrilled,” Tillona said of his quick recovery. “I didn’t want to miss my senior season. My foot is sore from time to time, but I just ignore it.”
As if that wasn’t enough, Tillona injured his right foot during the season when he fouled off a pitch from Greenfield High School pitcher Mike Duclos that cost him four more games. Now, still aching at times but having recovered from both injuries enough to play, Tillona said he and the team are focused on accomplishing the goal they set out for prior to the season.
“We have a returning cast of guys who really want to win this,” he said. “There is nothing more that I want.”
On Sunday morning, Tillona and the rest of the Red Hawks will get their shot.