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Back in the nest: Ex-Nighthawk pitcher will be team’s manager this summer

  • Valley News file photograph — Greg Fennell Upper Valley Nighthawks pitcher Keller Bradford throws to a Keene Swamp Bats batter during a New England Collegiate Baseball League game at the Maxfield Sports Complex in White River Junction, Vt., in 2017. Bradford, who graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi last year, was named the Nighthawks' new manager on Monday, April 29, 2019. Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, April 29, 2019

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — The Upper Valley Nighthawks are going with youth over experience in their coaching staff for the upcoming summer season. They also hope to recapture some of the magic from its squad from two years ago.

Upper Valley, which begins its fourth season in the New England Collegiate Baseball League in June, announced on Monday the hiring of 24-year-old Keller Bradford as its third head coach in team history. Bradford pitched for the Nighthawks in 2017, recovering from a shoulder injury that kept it off the mound for the previous year, and graduated after four seasons at the University of Southern Mississippi last spring. He now serves as the pitching coach at Mississippi Delta Community College in Moorehead, Miss.

The Nighthawks’ job will be his first stint as a head coach.

“I think the biggest thing is I know the area,” Bradford said over the phone on Monday. “I know some of the challenges that the guys are going to face. There are definitely positives with having lived and played up there already. I know the teams in the area, know the ballparks — some of the have weird dimensions. I feel like that gives me a bit of an edge.”

Noah Crane, the Upper Valley Nighthawks head coach, reached out to Bradford last Tuesday via text inquiring about his availability this summer. Bradford said he took a few days to think it over, eventually deciding the job was too good to pass up. It makes him one of the youngest coaches in the NECBL.

“For me, it’s helpful to have a relationship with the people we bring in,” Crane said on Monday. “We’ve certainly had coaches with more experience, and they’ve done well for us. But for me, the idea of having somebody that knows me, knows the organization, knows the league, enjoys the Upper Valley makes it a lot easier. I’ve never hired a coach I haven’t had a prior relationship with.”

The position opened in the fall after Jason Szafarski, who coached the Nighthawks for the previous two seasons, stepped down after taking a full-time coaching job at Trinity College. Nick Cenatiempo, the skipper at Saint Anselm College, was the team’s first coach in 2016.

“Everyone has to start somewhere,” Crane said. “This is an opportunity where, at a younger age, our players can connect with Keller because they are closer in age. He’s been through it more recently. He’s played at a high level. … He’s got a lot of experiences that kids are going to gravitate toward.

“I see what we do as an organization as one of education. We’re providing opportunities for the players to get better, the interns and the staff. The same goes for our coaching staff. We’re helping them build a resume, enhancing their ability to coach.”

Bradford, a submarine pitcher whose father, Chad Bradford, was drafted by the Chicago White Sox in 1994 and played for six Major League Baseball teams during his 11-year professional career, threw 11⅔ innings for the Nighthawks in 13 games during the 2017 season, finishing his summer with a 6.94 ERA. He went 3-1 with a 3.52 ERA in 23 appearances during his senior season at Southern Mississippi last spring to finish up his playing career.

He was hired at Mississippi Delta after the start of the school year, forcing the Raymond, Miss., native to throw his pitching philosophies together — and implement them with his new staff — on the fly. Bradford said he looks forward to having the next month to prepare.

“I always knew I wanted to coach,” Bradford said. “At one point I was deciding between coaching and being in a front office in the big leagues. I really enjoy the hands-on part of coaching. … This year has given me a chance to learn on the go, piece things together. I’ll be better prepared … I’ll have some stuff together. I’m really excited to get started.”

Bradford is taking the helm of a coaching staff that already consists of youthful faces in Mike Coss, the two-time Nighthawk, Marist graduate and SUNY Cobleskill pitching coach, and Brandon Eady, a 2016 Keystone College graduate and SUNY Cobleskill assistant.

Also returning for the Nighthawks are Troy University pair and from the 2017 Nighthawks pitchers Will Carnley and Cory Gill, part of a Upper Valley squad two years ago that finished the regular season with the NECBL’s best record.

“The best thing about that team was we were there from the beginning,” Bradford said. “We were there the whole summer, all the way.”

Keeping players to stay through the long, two-month season is summer baseball’s biggest challenge. Crane said he hopes a youthful coach can recreate the fun-but-focused atmosphere that Szafarski’s Upper Valley squads did so well.

“Guys could connect with him, guys enjoyed coming to the park every day,” Crane said. “As much as baseball is fun, when it’s July 17 and you’re hot and tired, there needs to be a reason to come to the park. … A manager that is fun and makes the experience worthwhile, and makes the guys we have more apt to stick around.”

For Bradford, the gig is a resume-builder — a way to jumpstart a coaching career in a organization he already knows. His age, he admitted, will create a different dynamic between Upper Valley’s coaches and players this season, though he said that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

“It’s going to be a challenge, but it can also be a positive,” Bradford said. “I can really relate to these guys. I know exactly what they’re feeling, what they want to get out of summer ball. I relate to them in that way. It probably will be a challenge for some, but there are definitely ways it’s a positive just because we’re of the same generation.”

Upper Valley begins its season on the road against the Keene Swamp Bats on June 5.

Notes: Bradford said one of the bigger reasons he took the job was a craving for food. “I’ve been craving Four Aces Diner for two years,” he said. “That was a big help deciding. I know Matt Guidry (a former Nighthawk in 2017 and Bradford’s teammate at Southern Mississippi) got a hat and a T-shirt from there before left. I might have to buy one, too.” … Construction of the press box and concession stand at the Maxfield Sports Complex is well underway, with the second story taking shape this week. Crane said the building should be complete by opening day. … Crane also said the team is adding a new 150-seat bleacher unit for the park, to be placed between the first base dugout and home plate, which will serve as the Nighthawks’ home bench this season. The beer garden will be moved to the other side of the first-base dugout. Away teams will use the third-base dugout this summer.

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