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Nighthawks Sent Into Summer Siesta



Valley News Staff Writer
Sunday, August 06, 2017

Holyoke, Mass. — Give ’em this: The Upper Valley Nighthawks didn’t go down without a fight.

Twice on Sunday — in the seventh and ninth innings — the top-seeded Nighthawks had the bases loaded in game two of their New England Collegiate Baseball League Northern Division championship series against the No. 2 seeded Valley Blue Sox at Mackenzie Stadium. Twice, the NECBL’s most potent offense couldn’t muster enough to get past the Blue Sox’ dominant corps of relievers.

Upper Valley just didn’t have enough left in the tank.

Valley swept the series with a 2-1 victory over the Nighthawks, securing a spot in the NECBL championship for the first time in its eight-year history. The Blue Sox will play the Southern Division’s top seed, the Ocean State Waves, in a three-game championship series starting today.

The Nighthawks (29-17) managed only nine hits and four runs in two postseason games and return home wondering where things went wrong.

“Maybe guys were tired; maybe it’s one of those things when you get new guys,” first-year Upper Valley head coach Jason Szafarski said. “We had chances. Maybe we swung ourselves out of that inning in a big moment. Would I have liked to have a couple more hits early? Sure. But they battled. They didn’t give up. It says a lot about who they are as people.

“We had chances; we just didn’t execute in both games. That’s ultimately going to be the product if you don’t. … They just have a very good bullpen. They have strikeout pitchers battling in the back end.”

Giving the Blue Sox (29-18) an opportunity to use their skilled bullpen was precisely the situation Szafarski had wanted to avoid. But the Upper Valley coach’s plan — building an early lead and holding it — never materialized on Sunday. Valley took a 2-0 lead on three consecutive hits in the third inning, all the offense it needed to advance.

The Nighthawks, on the other hand, managed five hits and struck out a season-high 15 times.

“From the start, it kind of felt like pressing, especially because of the way last game ended,” said Franklin Pierce product Adam Chase, who played right field for the Nighthawks on Sunday. “But I’ve got to hand it to them. That’s one of the best bullpens I’ve ever seen.”

Added the Hawks’ Luke Reynolds: “They can throw it mid-to-lower 90s, and they can spot up and have a good plus off-speed. They know how to pitch. That’s what makes them good.”

Matt Rothenberg (Harvard) and Chase had Upper Valley’s first true scoring opportunity: one out, Upper Valley down by two and the bases full of Nighthawks in the seventh inning. But the Blue Sox’ bullpen came through again: Valley’s Tanner Thomas (Utah) entered for starting pitcher Zach Kohn (Central Michigan) and struck out the pair on eight pitches to end the threat.

The Nighthawks threatened again in the ninth, loading the bases for Ethan Harris (Southern New Hampshire), Chase, Matt Sanders (Troy) and Connor Rowland (Palm Beach Atlantic). Valley closer Tyler Smith, the Canisius College product who hadn’t let up a run all summer, fanned Harris and Chase but walked Sanders to bring home a run and put Upper Valley on the board. Smith closed out the Hawks by striking out Rowland swinging to end the threat.

“I was proud of the way they battled, scoring that run on the best closer in, maybe, the best closer in the history of the NECBL,” Szafarski said.

The Nighthawks stranded 10 runners in the loss. They fell to 1-5 all-time at Mackenzie. In its brief history, Upper Valley is 0-2 in NECBL postseason series and 1-4 in the playoffs.

“I think that’s the main key, guys playing 50-plus games in the spring and then, you come here and you’ve got to play 40-plus more,” said Nighthawks first baseman Cade Sorrells (Lipscomb). “It takes a toll on your body. Guys were wearing down.

“This season has kind of humbled me a little bit,” he added. “Starting off the way I started off (0-for-18 in his first five games). I just have to stay my course and continue to work.”

Nighthawks regular starting center fielder Anthony Godino did not play after being hit in the left forearm with a pitch on Friday. Rowland batted in his lineup spot.

“This group was just special from the start,” Godino said. “We meshed well. We all had the same goals. It’s not like we were forced to be here. We wanted to be here. We wanted to win. … I feel like I grew (as a player), and I was happy that I could play consistently throughout the whole season.”

Added Chase: “Godino sets the tone for us early on. That’s one of the standards in that top of the order. Losing him was a big blow for us.”

Several Nighthawks players reiterated just how close this summer’s group had become, something they said they’d take away from what was, overall, a productive summer.

“The guys on the team. they’re all really good guys; they all wanted to be here and played hard,” said Reynolds, who returns to Southern Mississippi this week. “We all meshed well; we all hung out with each other. It was good to meet these guys. I wish them well.”

For Reynolds, who hadn’t played in two years before this summer, two months with the Nighthawks was crucial.

“Just the reps and the playing time and getting to see live pitching, all that stuff,” he said. “I believe this was really helpful for me.”

Szafarski said he would let Nighthawks general manager Noah Crane know by early fall whether he would be back next summer, depending on how many athletes Szafarski still needs to recruit for Saint Michael’s College by next summer.

His first choice, however, is to return.

“I’d love to be back,” Szafarski said. “It’s a great place. It’s convenient for me, being close to home where I can kind of do both.

“It was a great opportunity for me, and I’m thankful for the opportunity Noah gave me. … I couldn’t have asked for a better group. I couldn’t have asked for a better organization, fan base and everybody I’ve met along the way.”

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