For the NECBL’s 25th anniversary season, the Keene Swamp Bats will be bringing something old, something new, something borrowed and, well, a whole lot of purple.
The 2019 season officially begins for the Bats Thursday night at 6:30 with a home game against the Upper Valley Nighthawks at Alumni Field. The game was originally set for tonight, but was postponed due to a forecast of rain and thunderstorms.
First-year Manager Gary Calhoun is part of the old and the new for Keene. It may be his first season at the helm, but it’s not his first in Keene. He returns in a promoted role after serving as Lyndon Coleman’s assistant coach last summer.
Calhoun isn’t new to the manager role itself — he spent 31 years at the helm at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa, Fla.
“When you’re an assistant, you second-guess your head guy all the time anyway,” Calhoun said. “You play the game whether you’re the manager or not in your mind, and it’s no different, other than the fact that now, my decisions are the ones that work or don’t work, and believe me, the two guys that are working with me (assistant coaches Shaun McKenna and Frank Miller) are going to get their input, and have already gotten it.”
This could be a summer of unprecedented familiarity for the Bats, as they are slated to return four all-stars and a local favorite from last year’s roster. Grayson County catcher Cordell Dunn Jr. and Palm Beach Atlantic outfielder/first baseman Brandon Smith — the 2018 NECBL MVP — are both at home awaiting their fate in the MLB Draft, which wraps up today. If they aren’t selected or don’t like their draft offers, they could still return to Keene.
In the meantime, the Bats return Vanderbilt closer Justin Willis, Georgia Southern infielder Mitchell Golden — the winner of last year’s NECBL 10th Player and Sportsman of the Year awards — and Keene High alum and Rensselaer Polytechnic pitcher Erick Zecha.
Swamp Bats President Kevin Watterson said he’s normally happy to see one player returning for a second season, so to have this many returners is something special.
“I guess it says a lot about what Kevin does,” Calhoun said. “I think he takes care of the players here quite well.”
But the returning players aren’t the only big names lining the roster.
Following a 2018 season in which the Bats put up historic offensive numbers, Watterson said this year’s team boasts one of the best pitching rotations it has had in years.
Among the biggest names are Willis, Georgia Southern’s David Johnson, Monroe College’s July Sosa — who is also draft-eligible and is waiting at home to see if he’s selected — and Kent State’s Luke Albright, who is slated to start Thursday. In 14 appearances (two starts) as a freshman, Albright posted a 4-1 record, 2.81 ERA and 54 strikeouts in 51.1 innings.
“They’ve sent us three guys who have played in the big leagues, Kent State has, and they feel they’re sending us one of the best pitchers they’ve ever sent us,” Watterson said.
Other standout prospects, according to Watterson, include Maryland outfielder Randy Bednar — who ranked in the top 10 in the Big Ten in slugging percentage (.531), runs scored (48), hits (70), doubles (19), triples (2), home runs (12) and RBI (55); Stetson infielder Kyle Ball, an Exeter High alum; and Liberty infielder Will Wagner, the son of former MLB relief pitcher and seven-time All-Star Billy Wagner.
The start of the season is a chaotic time for all NECBL teams. Rosters are in flux as players from top college programs in the country make the transition into summer baseball. The MLB Draft isn’t the only thing keeping players out of Keene — several are on teams playing in the NCAA Division I Tournament.
Pitchers Joseph Simeone (UConn) and Peyton Stephens (Central Connecticut State), infielders Will Wagner and Logan Mathieu (Liberty), and outfielder David Matthews (Central Connecticut) were on teams recently eliminated in the NCAA regionals. Catchers Seth Caddell (East Carolina) and Dominic Keegan (Vanderbilt) advanced to this weekend’s super regionals.
Watterson said it usually takes about five to seven days for players to arrive after their seasons finish, so none of these players is expected for opening week.
Willis is an exception, having red-shirted his sophomore season at Vanderbilt, and he arrived in Keene Tuesday night.
In the midst of these absences, Watterson made a couple of last-minute signings in William & Mary catcher Matt Trehub and Southern N.H. infielder Phoenix Hernandez.
As chaotic as this time is, Calhoun said the best way to handle it is to just go with the flow.
“You don’t worry about it, because you can’t do anything about it,” Calhoun said. “I think the whole league probably falls in that boat to some extreme. You just play.”
Last year, the ’Bats made a lot of noise, particularly at the plate, but ultimately fell to the Sanford Mainers in a one-game wild-card playoff, 2-0.
This year, even with all the unpredictability and constant roster shuffling that summer baseball brings, Watterson said there’s plenty of reason to be hopeful about this team’s chances.
“You never know with summer ball,” Watterson said. “You need a veteran team that’s going to buy in. First of all, they’re here to get better, and then secondly, if they get on a roll, there are those teams that say, ‘You know what? We want to win a championship.’ So, it could happen, because I do think we have the talent to compete at that level.”