HARWICH ─ The best coaches and athletes know that the surest way to improve in a sport is more playing time. But what happens when there isn't a team on which to gain that playing time? That was the case with Monomoy High School baseball, which has varsity and junior varsity programs, but no freshman team. Until this year.
The move to field a freshman baseball team at Monomoy was fueled by the reality that while students at the middle school (grades 6 and 7) had a team, and high school students eligible for JV and varsity had teams, there wasn't anything for eighth graders and freshmen not yet ready for the upper level programs.
“Eighth graders that moved from middle school to high school basically were in limbo,” said Monomoy's new freshman baseball coach Steve Thomas. “They didn't have a place to play.”
That didn't sit well with player parents, including David Poitras, president of Chatham-Harwich Little League and father of two athletically inclined sons, one of whom is a baseball fan.
“Dave and other parents came together and told the athletic director (Brendan Case) that students needed a place to play,” said Thomas.
“My goal from the beginning working with Mr. Case was to make sure the eighth graders had an option to continue playing,” said Poitras. “With the merger of the schools the eighth graders were sort of in limbo in a lot of sports if they did not make JV.”
The question then was whether there would be enough players to fill a roster.
“I knew the numbers would be there because of my work with the Little League,” said Poitras. “I think at first they doubted that until 46 kids showed up for tryouts for varsity, JV, and freshman.”
So Monomoy freshman baseball, much to the delight of its 11-man lineup, was born.
“I was really pleased Mr. Case was able to make it work and especially find a coach as good as Steve Thomas,” Poitras said.
The inaugural 2016 team is comprised of six eighth graders and five freshmen. At the helm of the program is Thomas, who came to the job by way of a recommendation from Eric Beebe of the Harwich Recreation Department.
“I do a lot of coaching away from the school,” Thomas said. “Eric Beebe told Steve Wilson to call me.”
Thomas is no stranger to the game, having been raised in Harwich and graduating from Harwich High, where he played for Wilson, head coach of the varsity squad.
“It was kind of neat to reunite with him,” Thomas said.
Thomas also reunited with several former players, which was a pleasant surprise.
“I've coached a lot of these kids in years past in Little League,” Thomas said. “I'm very familiar with a lot of these players.”
The fledgling program serves the important purpose of getting kids that otherwise wouldn't be on teams into the game.
“Giving the kids the opportunity to play that wouldn't have it otherwise is good,” said Thomas. “You don't want to see anybody not play who wants to play.”
“Baseball is a tough sport if you take a year off,” added Poitras. “These kids may never have played again.”
Instead, they've become part of an exciting Monomoy tradition.
“It's the first freshman team they've ever had, which is kind of cool for the kids,” Thomas said. “That's pretty neat.”
The difficulty facing Thomas and volunteer assistant coach DJ Mercer was adding games to their schedule.
“The challenging part was getting games,” said Thomas.
Given that the spring season was nearly unfolding when the team was finally formed meant scrambling. The result was a pretty demanding schedule. While it meant a numerically unsatisfying record for the team, Thomas was proud of the way his players did their best to compete.
“A lot of these schools are really top competitors for us,” he said. “We had a really tough schedule. There were no cupcake games for us at all. We played East Bridgewater twice, Falmouth twice, Saint John Paul II twice, and Nauset and Sandwich.”
Thomas said many of those programs allow the teams to bring down upperclassmen to fill out the roster, which meant that his team was often going up against older, more experienced players.
“But we were competitive in every game,” he said.
A part of that edge comes, Thomas said, from the team's pitchers, Josh Poitras and Joe Cottle.
“They've done a great job throwing strikes, getting ahead in the count, making the batters be hitters, letting the defense work, not walking guys,” Thomas said.
Thomas is also impressed with the effort of the Sharks rounding out the roster, Dylan Yuknavich, Noah Tambolleo, Danny Aregoces, Trevor Russell, Robbie Sieger, Jason Zou, Matt Velasquez, Doug Ulrich, and Kyle Chase.
“They're all great kids,” Thomas said. “They all come with a smile on their faces. They're very respectful, work hard at every practice, and they're showing lots of promise.”
What keeps the team focused is Thomas's approach to practices.
“We try to work faster than the game so when we practice, we practice at a top level,” he said. “When we get into a game it's a little slower, and I think that helped them a lot.”
While varsity teams compete with the goal of earning a spot in or winning sectional and state championships, freshman teams have the benefit of focusing solely on skill building and helping players improve so that when they reach the varsity level, they do so with strength and knowledge of the game.
“The benefit is to make sure everybody has the opportunity to play,” Thomas said. “Kids that don't make the JV team that would otherwise have been cut and not have the chance to play now can play on the freshman team. It's also getting them ready for the next level. Plus, it's kind of a bonus for the eighth graders to play on a freshman team because they're getting that extra year of experience.”
While building the skills necessary to play on the upper level teams is a major reason for the freshman team, Thomas also hopes to develop the program into one known for its winning ways.
“That's the goal,” he said. “Obviously winning is a big deal. Kids like to come to schools that win and education is really important, but also having a good athletic program is just as important. Kids love to play sports and love to play on competitive, winning teams. It's hard to bring in School Choice kids if we don't have winning programs.
“Hopefully with the freshman team we can draw more kids to play baseball, to give us more kids to choose from going forward,” he said. “That will obviously help the program.”
Ideally, Thomas would love to play fall ball when the weather is less unpredictable, therefore offering more of a chance for teams to play. But even in springtime, Thomas still loves taking the field with his new team.
“Being outside, being competitive,” Thomas said. “I tell our guys to play every pitch, play every inning, and be competitive. It's just a great game.”