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Glad to Be Back: Nighthawks’ Coaching Staff Returns Intact

  • Coach Jason Szafarski directs drills during the Upper Valley Nighthawks' first practice at Maxfield Sports Complex on Wednesday, June 7, 2017, in White River Junction, Vt. (Valley News - Jovelle Tamayo) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, June 09, 2018

White River Junction — Upper Valley Nighthawks general manager Noah Crane, 40 days after his team’s 2017 season ended NECBL playoffs by the eventual-champion Valley Blue Sox tweeted a picture of the Nighthawks coaching staff and wrote, “Great news for the Nighthawks, bad news for all other NECBL teams: these three are back for 2018!”

The vote of confidence was a far cry from the unknown commodity that was Upper Valley’s coaching staff just two months prior to begin the team’s second inaugural season in 2017. Jason Szafarski, the first-year head coach at Saint Michael’s College, was a last-second call, replacing the team’s first head coach, Nick Cenatiempo, who stepped away after taking the head coaching position at his alma mater, Saint Anselm College.

Szafarski arrived in the Upper Valley days before the opening game in 2017. Assistant coaches Tom Hudon, of Merrimack College, and Hartford High graduate Mat Pause, of Colby-Sawyer, stayed on board.

The result has been a happy accident. The trio thrived in their opening season, finding the right balance of steady confidence, a laid-back attitude and a focus on improving that has sat well with Upper Valley’s athletes.

“I think our personalities are all very similar,” Pause said before Thursday’s season opener against the North Adams SteepleCats. “We’re all very laid-back. But, at the same time, we want to win. We’re competitive people. Having all our coaching styles similar, I think that has a lot to do with it.”

Szafarski, Hudon and Pause are one of few returning coaching staffs in the NECBL this summer, a league that routinely rotates through coaches and, in particular, assistants on a yearly basis. For Szafarski, having the offseason to prepare has helped him feel more comfortable in the role.

“I definitely (feel more prepared this season),” Szafarski said. “Getting comfortable with the guys, following them throughout the year, it definitely helps with how we want to do things. … I definitely feel more comfortable.”

For Notre Dame’s Eric Feliz, an outfielder on this year’s Upper Valley squad, the chance to be guided by Szafarski was too good to pass up. Feliz was an All-Star in 2016 playing for Szafarski’s Brockton Rox of the Futures League. The Englewood Cliffs, N.J., native finished the regular season batting .314 with 61 hits and 30 RBIs in 52 games.

“I specifically reached out to him because I wanted to play for him again,” Feliz said after the team’s first practice last week. “It didn’t really happen by luck. I took the initiative because I wanted to play for a coach that I felt understood me, one that I didn’t really feel like a stranger to.

“I think the reason Jason is such a good coach for summer ball is that he just lets you play,” he added. “He just lets you throw into whatever everyday role you have, knowing that everything is eventually going to click together. He has a lot of faith in his guys. He’s always there whenever you have questions about whatever it might be. He’s as open of a resource as they come.”

Davis Mikell, the Castleton University first baseman and pitcher who played for the Vermont Mountaineers last summer, was similarly excited about playing for Szafarski. Mikell was with the Mountaineers when Vermont head coach and former Indiana University manager Bob Morgan resigned a mere 18 days into the 2017 campaign. Some stability, he said, is a confidence booster.

“Every team here does it differently,” Mikell said on Monday. “I’ve talked to some of the guys on other teams. Some of them say, ‘Yeah, we try to get here early.’ Other say, ‘Yeah, there’s no rush.’ It all depends, not only what the team does, but also the coaching staff. This year, Jason is a lot more laid back than what I had last year.”

A laid-back attitude, Mikell said, is key during the summer. It helps, he said, give student-athletes in a unfamiliar environment a chance to settle in quickly and work on their game while building a trusting relationship with a team’s coaches.

“Some of the guys I’ve talked to have said he’s open to anything, if you have questions he’s there,” Mikell said of Szafarski. “He’s not going to be anything super strict. He’s just going to check in on you guys, see how everything is going. If you need help, he’s there to help.

“Jason is very open. He seems like a good guy,” he added. “I’m excited to play for him.”

It’s unclear how long the trio can stay together, given the volatile nature of NECBL coaching gigs. But Crane seems to have found a winner in the Szafarski-Hudon-Pause trio, a coaching staff with the right attitude and mindset for summer ball and a chemistry that has athletes excited about coming to the Upper Valley. The team was one of the best in the league last summer, winning the top seed in the Northern Division and leading the league in three offensive categories.

“I think last year, it worked out perfectly,” Pause said. “Jason coming in late, it could have been a dicey situation. Luckily for all three of us, it worked out perfectly. I’m happy we’re all back.

“It’s summer ball. You’re with each other every day, eight hours,10 hours a day. Obviously, having the chemistry with the guys is important, but same with the coaching staff. We’ve been lucky to mesh together well. It’s all worked out so far.”

Josh Weinreb can be reached at jweinreb@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.