The floodlights behind home plate and past both right and left field comes to life as batting practice rages on. The sounds of a bat slapping a ball across the diamond echo seemingly endlessly. For 51 years sounds and sights like these were commonplace at the University of New Hampshire (UNH) as the baseball program prepared for their season. But that is a bygone era.
The last time UNH fielded a varsity baseball team was in 1997. The source of these sounds doesn’t come from student-athletes anymore. They come from students, who must bring their own hats, bats, gloves, and equipment to play the game they love. Students who since 2003 have independently brought baseball back to the university.
For the 2021-22 season, seniors Patrick Shaughnessy, Dylan Degon and Andrew Shumski have amassed the responsibility of running UNH’s club baseball team, though it was never their intention.
All three share a similar story: high school seniors who either didn’t have the athletic capabilities to draw the attention of baseball programs or realized the rigors of such a reality weren’t for them. In turn, they decided to turn their bats and gloves aside for their academics – until they saw a flyer.
“I remember meeting the guys, and right off the bat, they were all great. Just the laid-back feeling of it,” Degon recalls. “It was a very good feeling being there.”
Shaughnessy, who has been teammates and friends with Degon since childhood agreed that, “it’s been a great decision.”
The two Shrewsbury natives played a large role in their first season. Shaughnessy pitched 18 1/3 innings to the tune of a 4.34 ERA while Degon amassed a 0.93 ERA over 9 1/3 innings. Shumski, however, started to earn his stripes in his sophomore year, getting more playing time and hitting for a .333 average over nine plate appearances.
A doubleheader on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2019, against Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute was expected to be the end of the fall stretch of the season. A temporary sendoff to baseball until it returned in spring.
Instead, due to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, it was the final sendoff for the team’s 10 juniors and six seniors, who weren’t aware the doubleheader would be the last time they’d ever get the chance to wear a UNH jersey.
Now Shaughnessy can’t help but think of his teammates who never got a chance to leave the game on their terms.
“The past two years have been brutal for everybody and a lot of guys from last year to not get that senior season, it’s terrible,” Shaughnessy said.
These seniors and juniors weren’t the only ones who had their collegiate careers cut short. UNH club baseball is part of the National Club Baseball Association (NCBA). An intercollegiate organization that works with 313 schools to, “provide collegiate student-athletes with the opportunity to play competitive, organized college baseball and to continually improve this experience for all participants,” according to their website.
Knowing how many others didn’t get the chance to author their own ending, the three seniors have emerged out of the pandemic with a greater appreciation of what this season and the sport means to them.
“This is definitely special to all of us,” Degon started. “Unless Pat [Shaughnessy] and I join an over 40-league or something, this is it. Baseball’s been my whole life and his whole life. So, it’s a mixture of sadness and happiness.”
Teammate and fellow senior Matt Colucci felt similar, noting that, “you can feel in the air everybody’s just ready to play the game again. I think all the boys are excited to get back on the field, even when we just come out here and practice.”
In addition to this new perspective, Shaughnessy, Degon and Shumski will serve as captains during their final season. Both Shaughnessy and Degon remarked on the influence of Charlie Day and Zack Martineau who served as one of the team’s captains when they were both first-year members and how they aspire to do for others what he once did for them.
“I looked up to them seriously. They took me under their wing, and they didn’t have to do that as a freshman,” Degon explained. “That helped me get better in school, meet new people, and helped me feel more comfortable. And I thought if I could do that for somebody else, I’d love to.”
While the sun is setting for these three senior captains, there’s reason to believe the club will be in capable hands moving forward. Roughly 50 students tried out for the 2021-22 team, and though the team only had six holes to fill, it’s an encouraging sign for the future, Shumski said.
Yet somewhere along the way for the three, this club began to become more than an outlet for the love of the game. It turned strangers into friends and a team into a family.
“Joining the baseball team allowed me to meet 25 kids that became very close to me and that I see myself being friends with for a long time,” Shumski said. “So, it was great, not only do I get to play baseball, but I get to make lifelong friends.”
“This gave me somewhere to go. People to talk to. It helped me find my place,” Shaughnessy said.
Until the snow sends UNH baseball back into hibernation, the slaps of a catcher mitt and the pop of a bat will continue to reverberate through the Student Rec Field and serve as a reminder that the sport still goes on.
Photo courtesy of UNH Club Baseball Facebook