|Mark Cunningham warms up with his Needham teammates before a game. (Photos by jon mahoney for the boston globe)|
Needham Post 14 takes big step toward
BROOKLINE — John Gallello’s eyes got wide as he adjusted his Needham Post 14 cap atop his head and breathlessly ticked off the list of new players on his roster this summer. He cut himself off time and again, stopping short on his descriptions simply because he couldn’t wait to get to the next talented newcomer.
“We had one practice and it was like, ‘OK, wow,’ ” the coach said. “They showed up and they came to play ball. It was no-nonsense. They changed everything, they really did.”
Post 14 won just one game last year (1-18), but with the help of six new players — five of whom will play collegiately — Needham has started the season 6-4-1 and is near the top of the standings in District 6’s West Division.
The transformation began over the winter when St. Sebastian’s pitcher Mark Cunningham, entering his third summer with Post 14, saw an opportunity to act as a recruiter. His high school teammates Conor Reenstierna(from Lincoln) and Chris Nadeau (Norfolk) had played for the New England Ruffnecks college development program in the past and were looking for a new place to play for the summer.
“I just kind of gauged some interest over the winter, pulled everybody together and said we can be pretty good if we all played’’ for Post 14, said Cunningham, whose St. Sebastian’s teammate Peter Ciminiis a returning outfielder for Needham.
“They wanted to come here, have some fun and play some good baseball. We've all been playing the past five or six years at St. Seb’s. I thought if I could pull some of these guys together it'd be a big change from last year.”
The additions didn’t stop there.
Roxbury Latin graduates Tom Crispi and Davy Kussell, both Needham residents and former Ruffnecks, signed on. Tucker Cottrell of Dover came aboard, and Jake Levine of Newton’s Waban section and Belmont Hill was persuaded to get a waiver to be eligible to play with his former Ruffnecks teammates.
Suddenly, Needham had become one of the most talented teams in the district. The news of Post 14’s talent influx has already begun to make its way to opposing coaches.
“You can tell that whatever players they’re playing with this year, they’re clearly a lot better than last year,” said Brookline coach Pat Moore. “It seems to be working out for them pretty well.”
New faces are at starting positions all around the diamond: Nadeau (going to Bowdoin College) is usually behind the plate; Reenstierna (Bates College) often mans third, while Levine (Brown University) plays shortstop; Cottrell has made a home at second, and Kussell (University of Pennsylvania) has spent time at first; Cimini (Bowdoin) patrols center field and is often flanked by returners Brian McCannand Ryan Rizzo; Crispi (Columbia University), a 6-foot-4 lefty, and Cunningham (Bates), a 6-3 righty, give the team two aces.
“Last year was tough,” Cunningham said. “Now it's a lot more fun, especially pitching, because you don’t have to try to strike everybody out. Last year we had kids playing positions that they had never played before. This year you can just throw the ball over the plate and they'll make plays for you. It's a big difference.
“We beat Walpole last week. I've been on the team three years and we hadn't beat Walpole once. We hadn't come within five runs.”
Gallello, who has been coaching Post 14 since 1985, expects that this year’s group will have a chance to be competitive with any team it plays. He compared their baseball IQ with his teams from the summers of 1995 and 1996 that advanced to the state finals.
Last season’s struggles now seem like a distant memory.
“The kids want to play,” Gallello said. “Last year it was my fault. We didn't have the right mixture, and a bunch of kids didn’t come out. This year we had kids come out and they wanted to play. The new guys jelled with the old guys. It’s been really enjoyable as a coach to watch these guys.”
The players are enjoying themselves, too. Those planning to play in college are especially at ease now that their commitments have been made and they can play without the pressure to perform in front of scouts and college coaches.
“The atmosphere is a little more laid back,” said Crispi. “A lot of the Ruffnecks had something to really play for, getting a spot on a college team, so the goals were a little more individually oriented.
“This year it's a little more of a team feel. It's a little looser, too. A lot of the guys are playing with a looser energy and it shows.”
The roster overhaul has had almost the opposite effect on Needham’s returners. Many have had to fight for playing time, which has raised their level of play. And even if their opportunities on the field have been more limited this season, they don’t mind. Being part of a winning team has been more fun than what they endured last season.
“One of the kids was like ‘Wow, I'm really going to have to take this seriously this year. We're going to be pretty good,’ ” Crispi said with a laugh. “I think last year they might have checked out after a couple of games. But this team is definitely going to be in it for the long haul.”
Medfield Legion Post 110 has made a good early-season run of its own in District 6. With catcher Will Cousins(Wittenberg University), lefty pitcher Sam Jordan(Trinity College), shortstop Brian McCloud(Dickinson College), and third baseman TJ Valente(Dean College) among those leading the way, they’ve jumped out to a 7-2-1 start. . . . Hopkinton sophomore outfielder Ryan Sullivanwas named to the Northeast team that will participate in the Area Code Games in Long Beach, Calif., Aug. 5-10.
Phil Perry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.