Nighthawks GM: ‘Everything Was Better’ In Year 3

  • Noah Crane owner of the Upper Valley Nighthawks looks over the work being done at Maxfield Sports Complex in Hartford, Vt., on May 25, 2016. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/5/2018 1:00:15 AM

Lebanon — Upper Valley Nighthawks general manager Noah Crane wants a do-over.

His New England Collegiate Baseball League team was, for the second-straight season, derailed by injuries. In all, 12 athletes were forced to leave the Upper Valley early — some potential NECBL All-Stars, almost all of them key pieces to the team’s 2018 campaign. The result was a patchwork lineup by season’s end: an outfield with no outfielders, a pitching rotation reliant on long, dominant starts. The Nighthawks finished their third NECBL regular season in fourth place in the Northern Division, above .500 by a single game and a full two games out of the playoffs.

Crane sat down with the Valley News on Thursday to discuss his thoughts on year three and the direction of the team both on and off the field. The following is an abbreviated transcript of that conversation:

Valley News: Let’s start with your general thoughts on the season on the field. A ton of injuries seemed to hurt in the end.

Noah Crane: Most of the teams in our league deal with kids leaving, and they’re leaving because they’re — air quotes — injured, when everybody knows they want to go home. I’m not playing enough, I’m tired, I miss my girlfriend and I go home. We didn’t have that. The guys who left us were legitimately hurt. It was just freakish to have your left fielder (Eric Feliz) dive and break his hand, your center fielder (Drew Tipton) dive and separate his shoulder and your right fielder (Hunter Gibson) break his elbow throwing the ball. Your other right fielder (Alvin Melendez) gets on the wrist and breaks his wrist. Your back-up center fielder (Anthony Meduri) gets stitches in his wrist after getting stepped on. ... You lose three of your better hitters and instead of having guys with a lot of pinch hitting in sixth, seventh or eighth, it changes your whole lineup.

I think we had the best first four hitters in the league with (Chris) Berry, (Greg) Hardison, (Anthony) Quirion and (Austin) Wilhite. You add Feliz, Tipton and Melendez behind those guys, that’s pretty scary. ... But those guys go home and we had to battle with who’s left.

It was a cursed outfield. They were legitimate broken bones, guys in casts and guys with stitches. I can’t imagine that’s going to happen again. In nine years, I don’t think I’ve had a single guy break a bone. We had four, all in one week. This was just fluky.

VN: Did it feel like things never really came together?

NC: Certainly, that’s the way it is with summer ball, June looks very different than July. That was no different for us. Wilhite stabilized us, gave us energy. I think at the end, we were out of gas. You ask too much of the top of the order and we didn’t have the ability to give guys days off like we would have liked and didn’t add the ability the stretch our lineup.

Overall, we played hard. I don’t think our guys quit. ... That’s really all we can ask. It’s not their fault that our entire outfield got hurt.

VN: Considering the injuries, it’s pretty remarkable the team was able to put itself back into playoff contention by the final week even if a playoff spot never materialized.

NC: It speaks volumes about our guys, about the programs they are coming from, about Jason (Szafarski) and our coaches and they way they keep them engaged. I think our kids, year one through year three, I think they really do grasp the concept of this is bigger than me. I’m going to play hard for the organization. ... I don’t think we have kids that are selfish or are in it for themselves. I think it shows in the way that they interact with our fans, the way they deal with adversity and the way they stick it out. ... It would have been easy for them to pack it in with all the injuries they had. But they didn’t. They kept fighting.

VN: How about returners? This year’s team only had one returner from the previous year in Plymouth State’s David Sampson, and later Pace’s Danny Wirchansky. Are there guys from this year’s group that you’d like to see back?

NC: From my standpoint, Jordy (Allard) is a lifer. If he says he wants to come back, we’ll take him for three years. I think this club has a lot of kids we’d love to see back. Last year was a junior-heavy team. Our All-Stars last year were either juniors or draft picks. ... We’ve offered Anthony Quirion to come back, it sounds like he wants to. We’ve talked to a bunch of them returning. Jordy is one of them. We’d like to have (Jordan) DiValerio and (Cole) Stetzar back. We’d love to have (Greg) Hardison back, (Stephen) Hanson back, (A.J.) Franklin back, (Eric) Feliz back, (Alvin) Melendez, (Drew) Tipton. It just comes down to what other opportunities do they have. We would bring a lot of those guys back.

VN: How about Szafarski and your coaches? Have you liked what you’ve seen from the coaching staff in their second season?

NC: I think they’ve done a great job. ... Personality wise, you see it in the way our kids play. They have fun, but at the same time they’re not goofing off during the game. There’s a difference. They’re not 100 percent serious all the time which, is fine. This is summer ball, that’s how it should be.

Our guys respect our coaching staff and know we can be silly and goofy, but yet when it’s game time and when you’re on the field you compete and play hard. That’s exactly what I want to see from a summer ball team. I think we do that really well.

Jason’s a laid back guy. I think that works. I think the players understand there’s a seriousness, but at the same time we’re here to have fun. As an organization, we’re here to entertain. It’s not the military.

VN: Do they have an open invitation to return?

NC: Yes, all three of them. If their life and work situations allow them to be here, they can be here as long as they want. I don’t have any hesitation in bringing them back. It’s benefit to me to have that continuity. They know what I expect, they know the league, how to navigate 44 games. It make things easier.

If I have to replace Jason, I’m going to look for someone who has a similar mindset and similar qualities — this is not life or death, let’s win and be competitive but let’s have fun.

VN: You’ve seen another year of increased attendance this summer, averaging 490 people per home game. What do you equate that to?

NC: I had a meeting with our board and I told them, ‘I want us to be a community-minded entertainment organization and a baseball team second.’ I think in year one and halfway in year two, we were baseball first, entertainment second. I really wanted to shift that this year. ... Our goal was to really how do we engage our fans, how do we do things that people are going to be interested in to get them there?

I think it being year three also helped. More people know about you. ... I think our schedule was better this year.

VN: What have you learned about the Upper Valley as a fan base in three years?

NC: I think the challenge is the busyness, not that there are a million things to do in the Upper Valley particularly at night — there aren’t — but people are busy. ... I think with the transience of summer time here and the busyness of summer time, how do you get more people to the park? That’s something we’re trying to figure out.

Everything was better. Most campers we’ve ever had, most banners we’ve ever had, most game-night sponsors we’ve ever had, most fans we’ve ever had. We’ve had, other than injuries, we had no negatives from this season. We haven’t officially closed the books on this season yet, but I think we’re going to make money this year (for the first time). We were very close last year. We’re going to make money without a concession stand, only means next year we’re going to do pretty well. That means we can invest more back into the community, back into the organization and make this bigger and better. One day, hopefully I can get my video board.

VN: What can people expect to see different from an in-game experience perspective in 2019?

NC: I think certainly adding the press box concession stand will be a big piece of that. We’re going to a meeting as an organization in the next couple of weeks to look at other ways that we can improve. Do we add a party deck place that we can rent out to groups so that you can bring your company and serve food and entertain them? Do we add something down the foul lines to accommodate that? Do we add more seating? Do we add a video board? Can we build a Green Monster in left field? All those sorts of things are things we’re going to look at.

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




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