×

Second Time Through the Order: Nighthawks Will Stress Defense, Pitching

  • Arkansas State junior Drew Tipton, of the Upper Valley Nighthawks, Monday, June 4, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Plymouth State junior Dave Sampson, of the Upper Valley Nighthawks, Monday, June 4, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Castleton University junior Davis Mikell, of the Upper Valley Nighthawks, Monday, June 4, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • The 2018 Upper Valley Nighthawks open their season Tuesday, June 5, 2018 against Ocean State. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 05, 2018

White River Junction — One thing’s for sure: It’ll be hard for the Upper Valley Nighthawks to match last year’s offensive firepower.

This summer’s roster might not feature the same kind of hitting potential as last year’s squad, which finished the regular season leading the New England Collegiate Baseball League in three different offensive categories. But Upper Valley head coach Jason Szafarski and general manager Noah Crane are pleased with the team they’ve pieced together ahead of the organization’s third season, one that has the kind of outfield defense and preseason pitching depth that it didn’t have a year ago.

It helps, Szafarski said, having a year under his belt; The Saint Michael’s College baseball coach was hired days before the 2017 season, replacing original Nighthawk coach Nick Cenatiempo. Szafarski and Crane hope the change in roster makeup is enough to give the team another shot at the NECBL’s Fay Vincent Cup after two straight seasons of postseason play.

“Last year, I got the job so late. Talking to Noah throughout the year, he got a better understanding of what I like to coach,” Szafarski said after the team’s first practice of the season on Sunday at the Maxfield Sports Complex. “Yes, I love having guys who hit 10 home runs … I do think we’re better on the mound this year. I think the back end of the bullpen is better. I think we’re deeper on the mound. I like our outfield play better.

“It’s tough to replace that type of lineup,” he added. “But I think, in other ways, we’re stronger.”

The Nighthawks finished the 2017 campaign as the league’s offensive juggernaut, racking up an NECBL-best .277 batting average with three hitters — Wagner’s Anthony Godino, Southern Mississippi’s Luke Reynolds and Marist’s Frankie Gregoire — making the top 25 individual with above-.300 averages. Upper Valley led the league in runs (245), hits (396), doubles (71) and was second in RBIs (218). The Nighthawks also struck out a league-low 262 times.

Upper Valley pitchers were just as dominant, with Pace’s Danny Wirchansky (4-1, 2.51 ERA) and Bloomsburg’s Ashton Raines (4-0, 1.38) leading the way. The Nighthawks sent a dozen players to the NECBL All-Star Game and won the Northern Division with a 29-15 record — second only to the Southern Division’s top team, the Ocean State Waves (31-13).

Szafarski said he feels a little bit more comfortable with his role one year later, with a successful NECBL season under his belt.

“Being able to get comfortable with the guys as far as what they can do, following them throughout the year, that definitely helps in terms of how we want to use them,” Szafarski said.

Plymouth State pitcher David Sampson is the only returnee from last year’s campaign, leaving the Nighthawks with few familiar faces. Sampson struggled during 12 appearances for the Panthers this spring, racking up a 7.50 ERA in 24⅔ innings after leading the Nighthawks in wins last summer. The Bellingham, Mass., native said he’s excited to embrace a leadership role out of the bullpen this summer.

“It kind of feels like I’m the dad of the team, because I’m the only returner,” Sampson said. “I’m just going to try and take everyone under my wing and show them the ropes.”

Upper Valley’s pitching staff is something of a change in strategy for a team that relied on several pitchers for heavy innings a year ago. The Nighthawks begin the season with 17 pitchers on the roster, up from 14 at this time last year.

Part of that is a new NECBL policy that allows teams to sign 33 players to its roster, up from 30 last year. The Nighthawks have 31 signed thus far; Crane said the last few spots are for late-season additions, and he had no intention of filling all 33 spots before the opener. Szafarski said he plans on employing his pitching depth early on by using two starters per game, each throwing four or five innings apiece. More pitchers, he said, will keep the pitching staff fresh and healthy.

“Even in the big leagues, you see guys going two times through the order and then getting him out,” Szafarski said. “You see teams like the (Tampa Bay) Rays, small-market teams, do that. That’s kind of how we built this rotation.”

In the infield, Wichita State sophomore Hunter Gibson is scheduled to start the season at first base for the Nighthawks after batting .293 for the Shockers this spring. Crane and Szafarski are also excited about the defensive game of Fordham’s Matt Tarabek at shortstop and expect Lamar University junior Anthony Quirion — who batted .394 in his final season at Texas’ Clarendon College — to lead the team offensively.

Upper Valley will also rely on the experience of Castleton’s Davis Mikell. The Williston, Vt., native and Champlain Valley Union High graduate batted .302 in 16 games playing first base for the Vermont Mountaineers last season and also pitched 21 innings with four starts. He will begin the season as Upper Valley’s designated hitter as he continues to rehab an injury to his throwing arm.

“I’ve been through this. It’s definitely a grind,” said Mikell, who’s played first base since high school. “I feel more prepared (for this season), but I don’t really know what to expect with this team. Every team (in the NECBL) does it differently. … I hope to get back on the mound, figure stuff out there, but right now just do whatever I can to help out.”

Drew Tipton, the Arkansas State junior outfielder, was Szafarski’s choice for his ability to cover ground in Maxfield’s cavernous outfield. Tipton will start the season at center field, with Binghamton’s Anthony Meduri in right and Fordham’s Alvin Melendez in left.

“(Tipton) is a true outfielder,” Szafarski said. “He was a guy I wanted. You can YouTube his stuff; he’s really good defensively. His speed, he’s just a natural center fielder.”

Upper Valley is still waiting on plenty of talent to arrive. Troy’s Levi Thomas and Sadler Goodwin, North Florida senior infielder Chris Berry and catchers Bryant Bowen, from Southern Mississippi, and Eddie Modica, from Long Island University-Brooklyn, should arrive at some time this week. Minnesota’s Riley Smith and Vanderbilt’s A.J. Franklin are still competing in NCAA regionals. Virginia Tech outfielder Kerry Carpenter, who batted a whopping .433 for St. Johns River State this spring, is awaiting this week’s MLB Draft before making a decision as to where he’ll spend his summer. Crane said Carpenter could be the team’s best offensive option.

But the Nighthawks’ coach and GM aren’t worried about a lack of offense. Crane found diamonds in the rough in the past — Reynolds, Wirchansky and Troy’s Joey Denison all found their games in the Upper Valley. Szafarski hopes this year’s team can do the same.

“I think, like every year, it’s about staying healthy,” Crane said. “We saw it last year with guys like Frankie Gregoire getting hurt, Anthony Godino getting injured, Matt Guidry getting hurt and going home. You lose some guys in key roles, it can change your whole season.”

Added Szafarski: “We were middle-of-the-pack defensively (last year). That’s something we wanted to address earlier on, rather than trying to scramble and find guys who can play defense late.”

Today’s season-opener at Ocean State is scheduled for today 6:30 p.m. The Nighthawks will travel to the North Adams SteepleCats on Thursday and the Keene Swamp Bats on Friday before hosting their home opener on Saturday night against the Winnipesaukee Muskrats.

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