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Mad for the Hatters: KUA’s Walker commits to Stetson baseball

  • Brendan Walker starts as the Upper Valley Anglers' pitcher against Nashua in the New Hampshire COVID Baseball League semifinal in Lebanon, N.H., on Aug. 13, 2020. Walker has committed to play Division I baseball at Stetson University in Florida later in 2022. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. valley news file photograph — Geoff Hansen

  • Brendan Walker

  • Name here

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 2/15/2022 8:13:10 PM
Modified: 2/15/2022 11:54:09 PM

Entering the summer of 2020, Brendan Walker was just a good pitcher at a tiny rural high school — albeit one that has historically punched above its weight in terms of producing baseball talent.

But after a summer playing a modified version of American Legion ball, a transfer to Kimball Union Academy and some showcase tournaments in the South with a travel team, Walker is all set to play NCAA Division I baseball next year for Stetson University — a school that counts two Cy Young Award winners from the last decade among its alumni.

“It’s just crazy to me,” Walker said recently. “I used to be really skinny, not too worried about my mechanics. I knew I had to get in the weight room, but I didn’t really have the intention of doing it until I had the opportunity to go every day and spend time there.”

Walker grew up in Woodsville and spent three years at Woodsville High, an NHIAA Division IV school, where he played basketball and soccer in addition to baseball.

Woodsville has a rich baseball history for a school its size. John Bagonzi, an alum and former minor league player, was the Engineers’ coach for more than 30 years before his death in 2014, and he coached a number of athletes who ended up playing professionally. Chad Paronto, who pitched in parts of seven seasons in the 2000s with four big league teams, is the most notable.

After Walker’s junior season in 2020 was wiped out due to COVID-19, he was left searching for any opportunity to play. He found one with a team called the Upper Valley Anglers, who formed out of Lebanon’s American Legion Post 22 after the official American Legion season was canceled that summer. The Anglers played their home games at Lebanon High and were coached by Rob Woodward, who pitched for the Boston Red Sox in the late 1980s.

“He had a good fastball, could mix a curveball in,” Woodward said. “He just had a good knowledge of the game. There was no doubt that he was going to make the team. He had great mechanics, and as he went on, he had a good knowledge of setting up hitters, what pitches to throw — a good idea of what he was doing.”

The Anglers played in what became known as the New Hampshire COVID Baseball League, featuring Legion teams from across the state, and Walker’s pitching helped lead them to the championship series. In the opening game of the season, Walker pitched four hitless innings of relief with eight strikeouts and just one walk in a win over Exeter.

In the playoffs, Walker’s complete-game win against New Hampshire Prospects White put the Anglers in the semifinals, where they defeated the Nashua Defenders two games to one. The Anglers were going to play the deciding game of the finals against the Dover Greentoppers, but it was canceled after a Dover player was exposed to someone who had tested positive for the coronavirus.

Walker’s performance that summer drew the attention of KUA head coach Mike Van Dolah and pitching coach Chad Sturgeon, who was a Division I pitcher at Delaware State. The coaches convinced him to transfer, and because he had lost a high school baseball season after the pandemic began, Walker reclassified as a junior, meaning he would have two years at KUA to continue developing as an athlete.

“Chad and I went and saw him play several times with the Anglers, and we certainly could tell he had a really special arm,” Van Dolah said. “He could pitch against the best players in our state. I’ve never seen anybody work harder than Brendan. He has bought in completely to everything we’ve given him in the weight room, in terms of his diet, the arm care, and he made a huge leap in a year.”

The pitcher who committed to Stetson last fall hardly resembled the lanky kid who arrived at KUA the year before. Walker put on about 50 pounds and grew two inches, and he added around eight ticks to his fastball, touching 90 miles per hour last summer.

For Walker, this opened up a world of possibilities and he quickly decided he wanted to play college ball in the South, where the climate is much more ripe for year-round baseball. Sturgeon tapped into his network from the showcase circuit and helped Walker land a spot on a travel team last summer.

“He never seems fazed,” said Sturgeon, also an assistant coach with the NECBL’s Upper Valley Nighthawks. “He could walk a batter, give up an error and have the same composure. That’s something you don’t see from a young athlete too often.”

That travel experience led to a slew of Division I offers. The first came from Coastal Carolina University, where Walker played in a tournament in the summer. The Chanticleers had won the NCAA championship in 2016 and boast several alumni in the professional ranks. Walker also had offers from the University of Maine, George Mason University and Manhattan College, among others.

But Stetson soon emerged as the favorite. The Hatters’ track record for developing pitchers speaks for itself — Stetson is the alma mater of Jacob deGrom and Corey Kluber. Stetson head coach Steve Trimper is familiar with northern New England, having spent four seasons as an assistant at the University of Vermont and 11 years as the head coach at Maine.

“I knew a lot about Coach Trimper and I’d heard a lot of good things, because a lot of people up here know him,” Walker said. “I’ve always wanted to play in the South. I loved it during the summer, so I wanted to stay down there for college.”

Before he heads down to Florida, though, Walker will be the ace for the Wildcats this spring. In Van Dolah’s 11 years coaching varsity baseball at KUA, Walker is the first player to sign with a Division I school.

“He’s a quiet kid, but he’s a fierce competitor,” Van Dolah said. “He’s very calm on the mound no matter what the situation is. Brendan throws hard, but he also locates well. He always wants to improve, and he’ll never be satisfied, which is a good thing.”

Benjamin Rosenberg can be reached at brosenberg@vnews.com or 603-727-3302.


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