"The Last First Class"
Newton, Mass - The Lasell College men's baseball program has a history that only extends back four seasons. This spring they will say goodbye to six seniors – Conor Cavanagh, Patrick Girard, Carlton Lentini, Matt Mahoney, Matt Pitts and Joshua Sullivan – who have been there since the beginning.
This group of six players holds most of the programs single game, single season and all-time records. Their accomplishments on the diamond may be equaled or surpassed at some point, but they will always be bound together by being the first group of four-year baseball players the program has ever had.
"This was an exceptionally special group of guys not only because of their baseball abilities, but because I got to see them mature and grow on the field," said head coach Greg Harjula.
The group took different paths to get to Lasell, but found common ground and took on a challenge that would scare most people off or that people wouldn't see through.
Sullivan and Mahoney, both hailing from Rockland, Mass., saw similar benefits to joining their former summer baseball coach, Jim Dolan, at a first year program.
"I think a lot of the draw was having a comfort level with Coach Dolan, and knowing that we would get a chance to play right away and build something from the ground up," Mahoney said.
Sullivan echoed his teammate's thoughts.
"That comfort level with Coach Dolan was huge, as was getting the chance to play early but there was also a big draw to be near home," he said
Cavanagh, from Quincy, Mass., also felt a strong pull toward the idea of starting a program from the beginning. He actually came a year before the rest of the class, and was a part of the team's 2008 club season.
"There's just something satisfying about saying that you were there from the start," said Cavanagh. "When you think back to that club year, playing with some guys who couldn't catch to where the program is now, it gives me a great sense of pride to know I was a part of that."
For Girard, baseball was certainly a factor, but the college's academic reputation had a strong draw as well.
"Their students had a track record of getting great internships, and being this close to Boston opened up a lot of opportunities from that perspective," he said. "Those options really appealed to what I wanted from my educational experience."
Indeed, the Lasell College experiential learning philosophy provides great opportunities for its students, and for those majoring in Sport Management, such as Girard, opportunities abound. Drawing on the connections he made at Lasell, Girard ended up spending the summer before his senior year as an intern with the Connecticut Tigers, a Class A affiliate of the big league's Detroit Tigers.
Pitts and Lentini ended up choosing Lasell for different reasons than their classmates, and each walked onto the team their freshman year, but ended up equally engaged in the prospect of beginning something new.
Lentini, from Wilmington, Mass, chose the school with the intention of playing multiple sports. The baseball program is certainly pleased the former 2007 Cape Ann League All-star soccer player made the decision to focus on baseball.
"I originally thought I wanted to play both soccer and baseball in college, but ultimately ended up deciding that baseball was something I wanted to pursue once I got here," Lentini said.
Pitts, a pitcher from Stoneham, Mass., learned of the new program from a teammate and decided that he wanted to be a part of it.
"One of my teammates from Stoneham was going to come here to play, and he talked to me about the program," he said. "Once I found out Lasell had my major (Accounting), I decided that I wanted to try and walk on to the team."
After deciding to walk-on, Pitts made the team, and now holds the programs record for most appearances by a pitcher. He ranks in the top 3 in a number of other career records for Lasell, including finishing second in wins.
Early in their freshman campaign, and coming off of a 2-2 start to their inaugural season, the Lasers baseball program headed to Florida for the first big test of their careers. The young team went 1-5 – playing six games over four days in Fort Myers, Fla. – while gaining valuable experience along the way.
"We really didn't know what to expect or what we were in for going down there, which probably was a big reason we weren't nervous and got to enjoy it," Cavanagh joked.
Once the Lasers took the field they got a true test of the challenges they would face as a first-year program.
"It was hard," Pitts said. "Those other teams had been playing together, they knew what to expect from each other. They'd been in those games together before and could draw on that experience when things got tough. We just had to work our way through it."
As an NCAA Division III program, the offseason presented challenges for the young squad too. At the Division III level, coaches aren't allowed very much contact with their players outside of their playing season, so most programs rely on their upperclassmen to show the young players what it takes to get better. Without the benefit of senior leaders, the youthful Lasers were forced to rely on each other to push themselves.
"In the offseason, Sully (Josh Sullivan) and I just started getting in the weight room every day," Cavanagh said. "We knew it was important to get stronger and so we made it a point to get in there and push ourselves and our teammates.
"We wanted the program to improve and we knew the only way that was going to happen was if we put in the work," he added.
While their sophomore campaign didn't end with as many victories as they would have hoped, it did have a moment that many of them pointed to as being an important one in the program's development.
"When we split a doubleheader with St. Joseph's (Maine) our sophomore year, I think we all really started to believe we could compete with teams in the league," said Mahoney. "They had come into the year ranked regionally and nationally, and were coming off winning the GNAC regular season the year before. It gave us confidence that we were moving in the right direction, fueled us to see if we could compete at that level all the time."
Their sophomore season come to a close in a one-run loss at Emerson College in the GNAC tournament, in which they had runners in scoring position in both the eighth and ninth innings but were unable to drive in the tying run. Now halfway through their career, this group was hungry for success and was chomping at the bit to get their junior year underway.
Heading into their junior season, assistant coach Greg Harjula assumed the manager's role after Dolan decided to return to the high school level.
"We were all very comfortable with Coach Harjula stepping into the head coach's role," said Sullivan. "He had been taking on more responsibility our sophomore year, and was with the program as an assistant from the beginning so it was a very smooth transition for us."
After a season opening win over Polytechnic (N.Y.) the team again headed to Florida, this time to play 10 games in seven days. They made the trip by bus this time, covering the roughly 1,500 miles each way in a little over a day, and allowing them to spend a lot of quality time together.
"I think that bus ride played a big part in our success our junior year," said Girard. "We definitely grew closer, and it pulled the younger guys into the team even more."
"It helped us build great team chemistry, and I think that year was easily the most cohesive group we had up to that point," he added.
The seniors smiled, although Pitts did so grudgingly, claiming "he did not enjoy the bus ride as much as his teammates," when they talked about some of the memories from that trip.
The 2011 team went 6-4 while in Florida, including a particularly memorable performance against Bethel University (Minn.). Lasell had just suffered their second loss of the season at the hands of Bethel in the first game of the double header, 17-2, and were trailing 10-6 heading into the top of the sixth inning of game two.
A three-run homerun by Cavanagh sparked a four-run top of the sixth, and the squad would go on to score two in the seventh to earn the come-from-behind victory.
"I think that game helped our confidence in ourselves that we could come back in a game if we got down," Mahoney said.
"It was a great win, and showed our maturity not to fold under adversity," agreed Girard.
The group unanimously agreed that their favorite on-field memory came during their junior year, when the defeated Albertus Magnus to advance to the quarterfinal weekend of the GNAC tournament.
"It was something we'd been working for since we got here, getting to play on the weekend after going out in the [GNAC] opening round our first two years, we finally felt like we had achieved something" Cavanagh said.
That victory also preceded what the group of seniors agreed was the single-worst on field memory of their career. In their quarterfinal matchup with top-seeded St. Joseph's (Maine), Lasell exploded for five runs in the top of the eighth inning to break a 4-4 tie and open up a 9-4 lead. Heading into the bottom of the eighth inning and needing only six outs to advance, the Lasers just couldn't get out of the eighth inning. When the dust cleared, the Monks had scored nine runs, and they held on for the 13-9 win.
"Just knowing we were right there and that we had the game, made it that much harder to take," Pitts said.
Collectively, it seems that game will go down as one of the worst moments the class of 2012 had in a Lasell uniform, but their junior year was also a major step forward as the finished with the first winning season in school history, going 21-15 overall and 8-6 in the GNAC.
As seniors, this group fell short of the lofty expectations they set for themselves, and Cavanagh said it best when addressing the 2012 struggles.
"We thought coming on the heels of last year that we would be competing for a conference championship this year," he said. "It just seemed like anything that could go wrong did, especially when injuries became a big factor with our depth.
"It hurts because all along, we've been fighting to improve, to take the next step and when the season ended we were always looking toward next year," Cavanaugh added. "Now there's no next year."
When pointing to positive memories from their final season, Sullivan was quick to remember the team's final home game against Albertus Magnus, which was interrupted and eventually cancelled due to rain. The team's 30-minute rain delay featured a faux-jousting match between Lasell and Albertus players, a revolutionary war battlefield re-enactment featuring at least 16 members of the Lasell team as well as human bowling and deer hunting demonstration with baseball players for deer and bats doubling as hunting rifles.
"Obviously our senior year didn't finish the way we wanted to, but to walk off the field that afternoon, having fun with our teammates is a pretty good memory to have in a Lasell uniform," Sullivan said.
With their final games at Lasell under their belt, these seniors hope they've left their younger teammates with a foundation to build on.
"I hope they understand where this program is and where it has come from" said Pitts. "This year's team was still very young (19 freshmen and sophomores) but that doesn't mean things are going to be easy.
"They're going to have even more depth next year, and I hope they understand that depth creates urgency and if they don't bring the right approach they won't be able to keep this program moving forward," he added.
Mahoney wants to make sure they understand the opportunity they have.
"I hope they don't take anything for granted," he said. "I have great memories of fighting over the last four years to build this program, and feeling like we were an underdog.
"They don't have to feel that way, because we've proven that Lasell is good enough to play with anyone in this league," Mahoney added, "but the work we put in to get there, I hope they don't take that for granted."
Girard is hoping the returning players have learned to hate losing the way he and his classmates do.
"I missed the bulk of my last two years because of being injured, but I didn't want to walk away from what we started here," he said. "I hated losing so much I did anything I could to help this program continue to get better even when I wasn't healthy. If the young guys understand how much we wanted to win and how badly we wanted to see each other succeed we'll have left them with a path to success."
"I just hope they understand that the beauty of a place like Lasell is that they can have an impact here," Sullivan added. "We had an impact here, and there's more work to be done, so I hope they want to pick where we left off. When I look back and think about what six kids coming from the towns we came from accomplished here, we have to feel pretty good about it."
This group may have finished their careers at Lasell, with their names covering the bulk of the Lasell baseball record books, but that doesn't mean they're done with the game. Cavanagh is heading to an independent league tryout and everyone is already planning for the summer baseball circuit in the Cranberry League, the Yawkey League and the Inner-city League.
Harjula will certainly miss their production on the field, but he'll also remember their significance to the baseball program, saying "From here on out, almost everything that happens with this program will have already happened - when these guys were here, everything was the first. There were 8-10 other players in that first class, yet these 6 finished the entire 4 years of college baseball."
Even as they leave, they leave behind a legacy that is greater than numbers, stats and wins. They are the first group of four-year baseball players at Lasell, and they weren't afraid to build something from the ground up. Collectively they've set the tone for the future of the Lasell baseball program, they've accomplished many of the program's firsts, and they've done it all because they love playing baseball the right way; together and unafraid of failure.
"We're probably going to be the 35 year-old guys still trying to hang on for one more summer in the Cranberry League," said Sullivan with a smile.
That tells you all you need to know about the first class of four-year baseball players at Lasell.