Late Addition, Big Impression: Rowland Jumps Into Nighthawks’ Plans

Valley News Staff Writer
Sunday, July 30, 2017

White River Junction — The Upper Valley Nighthawks’ newest outfielder, Connor Rowland, plans on traveling to Foxborough, Mass. on Sunday to catch a glimpse of New England Patriots training camp while many of his new teammates are in North Adams, Mass., for the NECBL All-Star Game. You see, the Boca Raton, Fla., native is a rabid Patriots fan, he’s never played baseball this far north in what he calls “the land of Tom Brady.”

Either that or he knows how to make friends in a short amount of time.

It’s been a wild few weeks for Rowland, the Palm Beach Atlantic University product who started his summer in the South Florida Collegiate League for the third straight year. In 37 games for the Palm Beach Xtreme, he batted .333 and finished the season ranked third in the SFCL with 25 stolen bases and was the North’s MVP in the SFCL All-Star Game. South Florida’s season ended on July 24.

Upper Valley coach Jason Szafarski, who has spent some of his career working as a baseball coach in the Sunshine State, knew the crew at Palm Beach Atlanic and liked what he saw on paper. Rowland got the call and made his way north, joining the Nighthawks just in time to clinch the Northern Division’s No. 1 seed.

Rowland, one of seven late-season additions to Nighthawks general manager Noah Crane’s crew, has made himself invaluable, entering Saturday’s tilt with the Valley Blue Sox with a .412 average with seven hits, three runs scored and three stolen bases in his first four games. If anything, Rowland’s fast start has helped the Nighthawks replace some of what was lost offensively with Marist outfielder Frankie Gregoire out of the lineup with a hamstring injury while giving Szafarski some speed his lineup had been missing. Not bad for his first time in a league he’s never played in, in a state he’s never been to.

“I’ve actually never played in front of a lot of fans before,” Rowland said after Friday’s 10-6 win over the Winnipesaukee Muskrats at Laconia’s Robbie Mills Field. “It’s been a really cool experience. Thanks to Jason (Szafarski) for kind of trusting me and throwing me into the lineup right away. It’s been really fun to face some better and kind of showcase my talents.

“I’m having fun,” he added. “Seeing little kids running around asking for your autograph, it’s a cool thing. I’m probably more excited to give people my autograph than they are to see me.”

It’s been a transition on the field, too.

“The biggest difference with the South Florida Collegiate League — it’s a great league — is that the starters are good, but your bullpen will kind of fall off, whereas here the starters are good and your bullpen guys get even better,” Rowland said. “So staying locked in, you don’t really get a break with these guys.”

If the NECBL has taken some adjustment for Rowland, it hasn’t showed yet. He’s had a hit in each of his first four games and, against the Muskrats on Friday, he was 2-for-6 with a run scored and two strikeouts.

Szafarski said he’s impressed with what the marketing major can do.

“He gives us a different element, something we didn’t have, and that’s the speed factor,” Szafarski said on Friday. “A guy who plays the game hard, plays the game right and is excited to be here. He’s exactly what I thought we needed, a guy that steals a bag during a game when we need it, and a guy that controls the bat well and can drive some runs in.

“I’ve known the Palm Beach Atlantic guys for five years now,” he added. “I called them, and he’s exactly what they said he was going to be. It’s nice to get a guy like that up here. It brings a little bit of energy.”

Szafarski said there’s an art to finding available athletes late in the summer.

“I’ve been doing this a while,” he said. “I follow those leagues. You just have to know what leagues get done when. It worked out for us.”

Rowland’s speed, he said, is still a work in progress; he broke his left leg last year and spent a full 12 months in recovery before joining Palm Beach Atlantic. A stint with the Nighthawks, he hopes, will get him closer to 100 percent.

“I feel like running, my speed, is the best aspect of my game,” he said. “It’s something I’ve worked on pretty hard lately. Especially coming off of a leg injury, I didn’t think I’d get that back. (This past week), I’ve had three bunt hits. I hadn’t had three bunt hits all summer.”

Much like the mindset of his favorite football team, Rowland said he’s open to doing anything to help his team win. Being given a heavy workload with first-place Upper Valley presents a unique opportunity: to help the Nighthawks finish the job.

“I’ll do whatever I need to do to help this team win,” he said. “I like to win, so if we could win a championship, that’d be awesome. If I have to bunt five times a game, I’ll do it.”

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