A North Shore Navigators Guide to the Spring Season

I’m very pleased to welcome guest poster Joshua Kummins. He’s a brilliant writer, a great follow on Twitter, and does as much as anyone for NCAA and collegiate summer baseball in New England. The first two paragraphs are mine, but after that, he’ll tell you about the team he covers during the summer, the Futures League’s North Shore Navigators– their alums, future players, and the spring teams that also call the North Shore home. Enjoy!

If you’re reading this, you might be one of the 800,000 people who took in a collegiate summer baseball game in New England last year. It’s no secret that New England has a good thing going in this department, but it’s also no secret that the support doesn’t translate as well to the spring, when our 97 NCAA programs are in action. With this series, I’m trying to convince folks that it should, and Joshua Kummins has graciously offered to fill you in about what current and former Navigators are up to this spring.

First Off, Why College Baseball?

If you’ve enjoyed watching games during the summer, you’ll love what’s on display in the spring. Short seasons where every pitch matters and playoff races are always tight. Win-or-go-home conference tournaments, where every day is game seven. Players who aren’t afraid to show emotion, don’t take themselves too seriously, and aren’t just playing for their next free agent deal. Underdogs dogpiling, unforgettable nights at the office, and, well, things like this. Quirky ballparks, unorthodox playing styles, comebacks, walkoffs, and championships. A dirt cheap (and often free) price of admission. The ultimate prize of a College World Series trip to Omaha, Cary, or Appleton. No, it’s not pro baseball, but in many ways, what makes it different makes it great.

(And without further ado, here’s Josh!)

Navigators Across the Nation

The Futures Collegiate Baseball League has always focused ― and likely always will ― on giving the oft-overlooked New England region another high-level summer circuit for its homegrown talent, but many “imported” players have produced for the North Shore Navigators in recent seasons.

A Navigator in both 2014 and 2015, Ryan McAuliffe has immediately taken on the starting role on Sundays for longtime head coach Ed Blankmeyer and eight-time BIG EAST champion St. John’s. McAuliffe starred locally at Northern Essex Community College for two years, but transferred to New York City and the Division I ranks after being named a National Junior College All-American last spring. The North Reading, Mass., native picked quite a spot for his first collegiate win, pitching five innings of one-run ball at nationally-ranked Florida State on March 6.

St. Thomas Aquinas’ Brandon Fischer jumped into the heart of the Navs’ lineup from the start of last summer and ended it as one of the most productive players in franchise history, leading the team with a .338 average, 69 hits, and 36 RBI. Powerful teammate Giovanni Dingcong hit four home runs for the Navigators. Fischer and Dingcong are two major reasons the Spartans have become a constant East Region force in the Division II ranks.

Columbia University has been very kind to the Navs in the past, although there were no Lions on the North Shore in 2015. Current Seattle Mariners prospect Dario Pizzano roamed the outfield for the Navigators for two summers before he earned Ivy League Player of the Year honors in 2012, while graduated senior lefty Mike Weisman pitched at Fraser Field from 2012-14. His 2013 summer teammate Thomas Crispi is a senior this spring, looking to help pitch the Lions to a fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance.

The Navs’ early 2016 roster features a lot of new blood, and some schools sending players to Fraser Field for the first time in several years. Manchester, Mass., native and local St. John’s Prep product Keith Leavitt is in the midst of his freshman year at Penn State, while Omaha, Wofford, and Appalachian State are the collegiate homes of some incoming Navigators. (Notably, the App State player is Beau Myers, whose brother Wil plays for the San Diego Padres.)

The Navs have welcomed several talented youngsters to the team before the start of their collegiate careers in summers past, while Vanderbilt bound Jackson Gillis and Tyler Duvall are set to join the 2016 team. Gillis is one of the top high school prospects in New England, hailing from Wilmington.

Navigators in New England

Last summer’s roster included a quartet of young local pitchers rising to the collegiate level. Buckingham Browne & Nichols teammates Dan Metzdorf and Cole O’Connor are currently freshmen at Boston College and Dartmouth, respectively, while Austin Batchelor (Malden Catholic) and Thomas Lane (Phillips Andover) are also rookies at BC.

The Eagles will meet UMass, including former Navs pitchers Scott Hovey and Tim Cassidy, in one of the Baseball Beanpot semifinals. The second round of the tournament will not be played at Fenway Park this year, but is headed to the beautiful New England Baseball Complex out in Northborough, Mass., two weeks after the April 6 openers. (Cassidy served a rather unique role on the 2015 squad, serving as the team’s pitching coach after going down with an injury after his first start.)

After its third-place finish in the Atlantic-10 Conference last year, Rhode Island sent Taso Stathopoulos and hometown native Kyle Devin to the Navs. Stathopoulos and UMass Lowell’s Steve Xirinachs each struck out 49 batters as team leaders on the mound, while Devin joined the team after a temporary stint in the Northwoods League and hit .275 in 26 games. Devin and O’Connor will both return to the Navs this summer, as will St. Anselm pitcher John Lavoie.

You cannot mention the Division II level in this region without talking Franklin Pierce. Senior captain Maxx Sheehan made his presence known on the basepaths at Fraser last summer, stealing 23 bases to set a new Navs franchise record. Sheehan is once again leading off and swiping bags (nine in as many games) for the undefeated Ravens.

Devin will not be the lone 2016 Navigator who played his high school baseball on Fraser Field as St. Mary’s of Lynn product Clay Yianacopolus will join the team after his freshman year at Assumption. He struck out three Rollins batters in his first collegiate win on March 9.

Richie Fecteau established himself as one of the top Division III players in the region as a junior at Salem State last spring, posting a .363 average en route to earning MASCAC Player of the Year honors. Fecteau was a .301 summer hitter and set a new club record with his seven home runs. The Vikings, who also boast reigning ace pitcher Mike Richardson, were predicted to win the MASCAC this year after playing four games deep in the NCAA New England Regional a year ago.

Power-hitting Chad Martin is back for one final season at Bowdoin after earning Second Team All-NESCAC honors last spring and hitting .310 for the summer, while fellow Navs veteran Rob DiFranco (who I featured in the March issue of New England Baseball Journal) is looking to finish his Bates career on a high note. DiFranco fulfilled temporary contracts with the Cape League’s Chatham Anglers and Falmouth Commodores before joining the Navs for a third consecutive summer.

Two recent Navs are expected to maintain key roles on the mound at Tufts, who looks to finish atop the NESCAC East Division for a third straight season. Tim Superko was the Navs’ go-to lefty last summer after asserting himself near the top of John Casey’s Jumbos staff. Speros Varinos provided shutdown relief for the Navs in a franchise and FCBL-record 26 appearances. Varinos moved into the closer’s role while DiFranco ― the team’s final bullpen arm in each of his first two summers ― started the summer on the Cape, but never relinquished those duties en route to converting 13 saves.

A local-heavy pitching staff is expected this summer, with Lowell’s Cam Lanzilli and Salem’s Will Twiss already among those signed. Curry’s Brian Burke will join his local team after he pitched complete games in four of his nine appearances as a sophomore for the CCC champions. St. Joseph’s has provided the Navs with several productive players in prior seasons and returned to the Monks to pick up Nick Malatesta, but Sean O’Neill will be the first-ever Navigator from Brandeis.

McAuliffe’s former Northern Essex team deserves its own shout here in the New England section as well. The Knights made their fourth straight trip to the National Junior College Division III World Series last year, led by the aforementioned McAuliffe. Keith Linnane, who was part of the Navs’ quartet of regular catchers last summer, is among NECC’s returners. Zarif Pajazetovic and MacDaniel Singleton also joined the Navs’ 2015 roster from NECC, while promising freshman Evan Glew is another local arm set to toe the slab at Fraser this summer.

In the Area

No summer team in the region is as close to Boston as the Navigators. And as evidenced by the local schools across all levels mentioned above, the springtime options for North Shore fans are many. For one, Fisher plays its home games on the Navs’ own Fraser Field, and several local Division III competitors will pay the Falcons a visit this season. (All of Lynn’s high schools also call the historic ballyard home, including defending state champion St. Mary’s.)

I mentioned many Greater Boston schools that are well within driving distance from the North Shore above, but local fans can check out Fecteau and Richardson’s Vikings just a few miles north of Fraser Field in Salem.

Former Navs manager Jon Cahill is in his sixth year as an assistant at Endicott, which has surprisingly never been the collegiate home of a Navs player. There is also lots of optimism in Beverly as the Gulls received votes in the D3Baseball Preseason Top 25 after being picked as the team to beat in the Commonwealth Coast Conference, which also includes North Shore neighbor Gordon, who plays on campus in Wenham.

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