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Nighthawks prepare for league, coaching changes

  • Upper Valley Nighthawks General Manager Noah Crane leaves the field at the Maxfield Sports Complex in Hartford, Vt., after talking with manager Nick Cenatiempo Wednesday, August 3, 2016. The Nighthawks won their mid-day game with the Muskrats and will advance to play the Keene Swamp Bats Wednesday night. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Upper Valley catcher Bryan Bowen prepares to throw down to first base on a pickoff attempt during a New England Collegiate Baseball League game with the Winnipesaukee Muskrats on June 26, 2018, at Robbie Mills Park in Laconia, N.H. A former college backstop at Southern Miss and South Carolina and now a volunteer assistant baseball coach at Eastern Kentucky, Bowen has been offered the Nighthawks' vacant managing job for the 2021 season, according to team general manager Noah Crane.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 12/23/2020 8:36:26 PM
Modified: 12/23/2020 8:36:21 PM

Major League Baseball announced last month that a Major League Baseball Draft League will debut this summer, aimed at filling teams with draft-eligible collegiate players.

The news also comes as the Appalachian League — formerly a rookie-level affiliated league — becomes a wood-bat college summer league for rising freshmen and sophomores. This is all in response to the annual amateur draft dropping from 40 rounds to 20 rounds, depressing the need for minor-league affiliates.

The decision sent ripples across summer ball, but Upper Valley Nighthawks owner Noah Crane hasn’t flinched.

“There’s more competition now,” he said in a Monday morning phone interview. “And now it is competition backed by Major League Baseball, which has significant resources. So I do think this will have an impact on us.”

Crane thinks the geographical footprint of the draft league is a big ask for players, even if they are guaranteed to be watched by MLB scouts. The current plan calls for the six-team league to play a 68-game schedule, with franchises spread across Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New Jersey and Maryland.

The new league is run by former minor league organizations, so will a lower level of play draw fans, and will it bring in the revenue needed to operate? Crane isn’t convinced.

The Nighthawks, who are members of the 13-team New England Collegiate Baseball League, are a nonprofit organization. The only bill Crane paid last summer was the light bill; he doesn’t have any salaries to pay.

Plus, college coaches might want to stick to what they know.

“We’ve been doing this a long time, and we have great relationships,” said Crane, who has been in the summer baseball business for more than a decade. “We take care of our kids. There is the safety in the programs we use, and the kids who come to us know and trust our organization and community. I’ve got colleges, coaches and friends who have been sending me players for over a decade. I don’t envision them just pulling the plug on sending guys to us.

“I know there are a lot of college coaches who don’t send draft-eligible players out to summer ball because they are fearful if they get seen, somebody might try to come in and sign them. I do wonder if they won’t be as keen to send players out to these draft leagues and get these players out in front of minor league scouts because of the fear they might lose one of their better players.”

The NECBL was one of many leagues that opted to sit out last summer because of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, others played. The Futures Collegiate Baseball League squeezed in 39 games, allowing a reduced number of fans into ballparks.

It’s a blueprint other leagues can use, and Crane is confident that the Nighthawks will play this summer.

“The key is flexibility and creativity to find a way to play,” he said. “I don’t think there is anyone within our league that would feel like it’s wise to not play again. Sitting out for two summers would be pretty catastrophic for a lot of folks. If other leagues could play in the height of this coronavirus, then I would hope, come summer 2021, we’d be able to find a way to play with as little distraction and change as possible.”

The league typically releases its schedule in late January, and that is still on track, Crane said. With the fluidity of the pandemic, protocols for play won’t be announced until the spring, but those conversations are ongoing.

“Our focus in 2021 is how do we overcome the loss of some of our sponsorship or ticket revenue to be sure we’re fiscally sound,” he said. “I think we have some creative ways to figure that out, and we’re OK. But as far as not generating revenue and our financial position right now, we’re in good shape.”

Former Nighthawk Bryant Bowen was recently brought on by Eastern Kentucky University baseball as a volunteer assistant, creating the possibility for him to take Crane’s open manager position. The role was never filled last summer because the season was called off, and Crane has offered the job to him.

Bowen spent the 2018 season in White River Junction as a catcher, hitting two home runs and driving in eight runs. He played three seasons at Southern Miss in Hattiesburg, Miss., batting .341 with 11 doubles, 11 home runs and 51 RBI his senior season.

He grad transferred to the University of South Carolina for the 2020 season but only played in 15 games before COVID-19 brought the season to a standstill.

“He’s a fantastic young man,” Crane said. “Bright baseball guy, really personable. From my point of view, I’d be able to hire someone that I know. I don’t have to train him. He understands the way I want the organization to be run and what we represent in the community. He understands the league and the schedule and what it takes to be successful in this league.”

Pete Nakos can be reached at pnakos@vnews.com.




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