Nighthawks job keeps former Hartford High state champ close to home

Upper Valley Nighthawks manager Mat Pause, right, talks about the field of play with Keene Swamp Bats manager Shaun McKenna, second from left, and officials before the first pitch of their NECBL game in White River Junction, Vt., on June 15, 2023. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Upper Valley Nighthawks manager Mat Pause, right, talks about the field of play with Keene Swamp Bats manager Shaun McKenna, second from left, and officials before the first pitch of their NECBL game in White River Junction, Vt., on June 15, 2023. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Geoff Hansen

Hartford catcher Mat Pause tags Mount Mansfield's Cody Sparrow out at the plate during their Vermont Division I semifinal game in White River Junction, Vt., on June 8, 2009. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Hartford catcher Mat Pause tags Mount Mansfield's Cody Sparrow out at the plate during their Vermont Division I semifinal game in White River Junction, Vt., on June 8, 2009. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News file — James M. Patterson

Ryan Ignoffo, left, talks with Nighthawks hitting coach Mat Pause, right, during their game with the Swamp Bats at Maxfield Sports Complex in Hartford, Vt., on Thursday, June 30, 2022. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Ryan Ignoffo, left, talks with Nighthawks hitting coach Mat Pause, right, during their game with the Swamp Bats at Maxfield Sports Complex in Hartford, Vt., on Thursday, June 30, 2022. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News file — James M. Patterson

By BENJAMIN ROSENBERG

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 07-17-2023 10:04 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — It’s been roughly two years since Mat Pause was passed over for what many would consider a dream job: head baseball coach at his alma mater, in this case Hartford High.

But Pause has moved past that disappointment and taken on a higher-level coaching opportunity with a team that plays on the same home field. After three seasons in two separate stints as the Upper Valley Nighthawks’ hitting coach, the 2009 Hartford graduate was elevated to manager of the Nighthawks for this summer. Previous manager Justin Devoid had accepted an assistant coaching position at Cornell University.

“When (the Nighthawks) first started (in 2016), I definitely wanted to try to find a way to be involved,” Pause said. “I stayed in touch with (team president) Noah (Crane) and told him I was interested, and late last year, he decided to promote me.”

A catcher, Pause was part of a historic senior class at Hartford that led the Hurricanes to the 2009 Vermont Division I state title, the school’s first since 1973. He then took his talents to Castleton University, where he played for four years alongside one of his Hartford teammates, pitcher Patrick Riley.

Pause excelled both behind and at the plate for the Spartans. He threw out 13 would-be base stealers as a junior, then hit .310 with a .465 on-base percentage during his 2013 senior season while playing error-free defense in 31 games. From there, Pause went straight into coaching, starting out at SUNY Adirondack, a community college in Queensbury, N.Y.

His later stops included assistant coaching roles at St. Joseph’s College of Maine and Colby-Sawyer College, followed by a brief tenure as the head coach at St. Michael’s College. He spent the summers of 2017 and 2018 coaching the Nighthawks’ hitters, helping Upper Valley win the New England Collegiate Baseball League North Division in 2017 with a 29-15 record, still the best mark in franchise history.

“Having the experience from playing, I know where guys should be in certain situations,” Pause said. “If we have a higher-velocity guy on the mound who throws a lot of fastballs, we might shift the defense in a certain way. Something I took pride in when was playing (was) being the leader back there and making sure everyone’s in the right spot. It was a seamless transition for me going into coaching.”

After leaving St. Michael’s, Pause returned to the Upper Valley and began teaching mathematics at Hartford High. The baseball job there opened abruptly when Jarrod Grassi, in his 18th season coaching the Hurricanes, resigned just two games into the 2021 campaign.

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Kris Keelty was named interim head coach for the rest of that season, but when it came time to choose Grassi’s permanent successor, Hartford went with Bill Vielleux, who had previously been an assistant and graduated from the school in 1993 before spending two years playing in the Chicago Cubs organization.

“I was definitely disappointed. It was a position that would be ideal, because I worked (at the school),” Pause said. “But I was lucky to be in a situation where there was a position opened up with the Nighthawks last summer, so I was able to jump on that. In a sense, I guess everything happens for a reason. I was still able to get an opportunity to coach here, which I’m grateful for.”

Pause latched back on as the Nighthawks’ hitting coach in 2022, when they had five position players named NECBL all-stars, and in the fall, the organization decided to replace one Hartford alum with another. Devoid had graduated in 2013 and played for the Nighthawks during the final six games of their inaugural 2016 season.

Upper Valley general manager Matt Wright, who was the team’s assistant GM in 2019 and took over in his current role midway through the 2021 season, said the fact that Pause was not actively coaching a college team meant he could devote more time to the Nighthawks, which was a factor in his and Crane’s decision to promote him.

“That was the first checkmark,” Wright said. “The fact that he was a local guy was a huge thing for us. Having someone who knows the community, knows the people, is well respected, it all made sense. We could have done a more extensive search for a coach in the offseason, but we had a guy who had been in this league for multiple seasons already, so it really was a no-brainer to make that decision.”

The biggest adjustments for Pause in his new role were adding the responsibilities of managing the pitching staff and making lineup decisions, but he has mostly relied on pitching coach Chad Sturgeon for the former. Sturgeon has been with the Nighthawks since 2020 and was recently named head coach at Kimball Union Academy, and he and Pause meet before each game to strategize how much work they want each of their pitchers to get that day.

“He trusts me to manage all that and make sure the pitchers are ready,” Sturgeon said. “We have a list of guys who are able to throw on a certain day, and we communicate how and when we want to use them. I’d say nine times out of 10, we’re on the same page. He gives me full control of the pitching staff. It takes the burden off of his plate.”

Coming off a disappointing season in which they finished two games out of the playoffs and dropped the decisive game of the Governor’s Cup series to the Vermont Mountaineers, the Nighthawks raced out to an 11-3 start this summer but have struggled since the calendar turned to July, with just five wins in their last 16 games.

Still, Pause said this year’s group is more committed to winning and more energetic in the dugout compared to the 2022 team.

“Last year, we were just inconsistent,” Pause said. “Summer ball is kind of crazy in the sense that you can recruit these guys, follow them all year and look at their stats, but you don’t necessarily know what drives them. You don’t know them as people. We did have guys last year who wanted to win, but as a collective group this year, we’re more motivated to win. That makes my job a lot easier.”

Upper Valley is currently holding onto a wildcard spot, sitting three games back of the division-leading Mountaineers with 13 games left. Roster turnover has been a late-season theme each of the last two years as players have gone home early to take some time before the new school year begins, so Pause may have to bring some new faces into the fold as he and the Nighthawks try to close in on a postseason berth.

For now, Pause said he is happy teaching at Hartford, and while he’s keeping himself open to a return to college coaching, his desire is to remain with the Nighthawks as long as he is in the area.

“We’re pretty sure that barring any huge life changes, he’ll want to be back next year,” Wright said. “It helps to have stability. We’re excited that he’s here and that he wanted this job. Our culture is stronger than it was in previous years, and a lot of that does have to do with the coaching staff.”

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