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Nighthawks counting on returnees for fast start

  • The Upper Valley Nighthawks change into cleats at the start of their first practice of the season at the Maxfield Sports Complex in White River Junction, Vt., on Monday, June 3, 2019. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Upper Valley Nighthawks owner Noah Crane talks to the new team at the start of their first practice of the season at the Maxfield Sports Complex in White River Junction, Vt., on Monday, June 3, 2019. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Anthony Quirion, a returning player for the Nighthawks, practices throwing during the team's first practice of the season at the Maxfield Sports Complex in White River Junction, Vt., on Monday, June 3, 2019. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Phillip Sanderson and other members of the Upper Valley Nighthawks prepare the field for their first practice of the season at the Maxfield Sports Complex in White River Junction, Vt., on Monday, June 3, 2019. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Davis Mikell, of Williston, Vt., left, and pitching coach Mike Coss grab bases to set up for the first Nighthawks practice of the season at the Maxfield Sports Complex in White River Junction, Vt., on Monday, June 3, 2019. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • University of North Carolina-Greensboro’s Greg Hardison practices batting during the first Nighthawks practice of the season at the Maxfield Sports Complex in White River Junction, Vt., on Monday, June 3, 2019. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, June 03, 2019

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — Keller Bradford leaned into the first-base dugout at the Maxfield Sports Complex, his Upper Valley Nighthawks packing up their equipment after their first practice of the season on Monday afternoon.

“If you haven’t been to Four Aces Diner yet, you need to go,” Bradford, the Nighthawks head coach, said with a smile. Some of Upper Valley’s players stirred in agreement.

Upper Valley, which begins its fourth season competing in the New England Collegiate Baseball League this week, has a collective nine years of NECBL experience returning to the club this summer. It’s an edge that wasn’t present last season when only one returnee, Plymouth State’s David Sampson, was on the roster. The speed of the game, the grind of a summer baseball league season, the vagaries of a new environment are all known commodities, and they all challenge college players traveling to the region from various parts of the country. Knowing the best Upper Valley places to grab a bite to eat may turn out to be important, after all.

It’s a familiarity advantage that the Nighthawks plan on exploiting early in their fourth season in the NECBL. Upper Valley opens up on the road against the Keene Swamp Bats on Wednesday night.

“There’s always an adjustment period for any new player, new school or new team,” said Bradford, a former Nighthawk and the pitching coach at Mississippi Delta Community College this past spring. “It makes it so much easier. … That’ll make us better in the beginning, I think. Once we get to July, everybody knows what to expect. But hopefully that’ll give us a bit of a leg up during the first two weeks of the season.”

For some of last summer’s Nighthawks, this summer represents a do-over. Upper Valley finished 22-21 overall, outside of the playoff picture for the first time in its history after having led the Northern Division through the first two weeks of the season. Injuries and early departures ultimately did the team in.

“Not making playoffs last year kind of hurt,” said UNC-Greensboro junior Greg Hardison, who was an NECBL all-star with the Nighthawks last year. “That last week, we were playing around with second place, third, fourth. We didn’t finish the way we wanted to. … We hope to come back this year, make playoffs and maybe go deeper.”

Crane, in his 10th season at the helm of an NECBL organization — six with the Winnipesaukee Muskrats, four with the Nighthawks — said he likes his team’s early depth.

It hasn’t been easy: The Upper Valley GM has had to replace 12 players from the original roster, most of them shut down due to injuries or overwork during the spring. Several players were not in attendance on Monday, still traveling to the region or competing for their colleges in the NCAA tournament. Crane said he expects about 18 players to be available for the opener against Keene.

“The guys we found to replace them are all quality players. That’s a plus,” Crane said of the team’s preseason attrition rate. “They really seem excited to be here. That’s really what I look for.”

Two of Upper Valley’s most prolific players from last summer, Hardison and Lamar University’s Anthony Quirion, were at practice on Monday, as was Castleton University first baseman and pitcher Davis Mikell, a late addition to the team. Returning pitchers Will Carnley (Troy University) and Jordy Allard (Hartford High/Babson College) are also scheduled to join the team this week.

Hardison, who batted .349 in 37 games with a team-leading 51 hits for Upper Valley last year, said his time with the Nighthawks helped solidify his game. When Crane asked if he would be interested in coming back, Hardison said it was a no-brainer.

“They take care of us,” Hardison said. “I couldn’t imagine a better place to play summer ball. … The relationships I made with the guys, the coaches were really nice and the people here, it was really easy to have a great summer.”

Quirion, also an NECBL all-star, batted .280 with a team-leading 27 RBIs, playing in all but two of the team’s 43 games. Mikell, a Williston, Vt., native and CVU graduate, batted .244 in 30 games.

“The coaching staff is new, and that’ll definitely be weird,” Mikell said. “But there are a lot of familiar faces — (Quirion), Greg (Hardison), when Jordy (Allard) gets back. I’m excited about hanging around, talking to those guys and catching up.”

But Upper Valley’s strength may be in its young coaching staff. The group includes two ex-Nighthawks in Bradford and Mike Coss, a Marist College graduate who played for Upper Valley in 2016 and ‘17. Brandon Eady, Coss’ assistant coaching peer at SUNY Cobleskill and a 2016 Keystone College graduate, also joins the coaching staff as a hitting coach.

“I think (the age difference) is almost beneficial,” Coss said. “We know what to expect. We know what it takes to get through a long season.”

Added Crane: “It helps. We have guys that have been through the grind. They know how we want the organization to function, they know how to get around the community, they know what the league is like. It makes for an easier transition for the new guys.”

Bradford, for one, is excited to get the season started. The team will practice again on Tuesday afternoon, where Crane and the coaches will hammer out a starting lineup and a pitching rotation for the week.

“I’m excited about it; I’m excited to get it started,” Bradford said. “Summer ball, you’re playing games every day. That’s what I’m ready for. … I’m ready to get out here every day, day in and day out, and just keep going.”

Upper Valley travels to Vermont on Friday before opening up Maxfield against the Danbury Westerners on Saturday night at 6 p.m.

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