2024 high school baseball preview: Loaded Hopkins Academy aiming for third state final berth in four years

Hopkins Academy pitcher Liam Flynn throws against Bourne in the MIAA  Division 5 baseball state championship game last year at Polar Park in Worcester.

Hopkins Academy pitcher Liam Flynn throws against Bourne in the MIAA Division 5 baseball state championship game last year at Polar Park in Worcester. STAFF FILE PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Smith Vocational’s James Lavallee (10) lines a single against Sutton last year in the MIAA Div. 5 Round of 32 game at Arcanum Field in Northampton.

Smith Vocational’s James Lavallee (10) lines a single against Sutton last year in the MIAA Div. 5 Round of 32 game at Arcanum Field in Northampton. STAFF FILE PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

By GARRETT COTE

Staff Writer

Published: 04-03-2024 6:17 PM

Modified: 04-03-2024 7:46 PM


Fresh off its second state championship appearance in three seasons, the Hopkins Academy baseball team and head coach Dan Vreeland are hungry for more.

The Golden Hawks fell 10-5 to Bourne in the 2023 MIAA Division 5 state final, but they return all but two players from that roster – and have even added a few key pieces as well.

All signs point to another deep run in Division 5.

But Vreeland doesn’t set those expectations himself. Now in his ninth season at Hopkins, he stopped laying out what he hopes to get out of each season a few years ago – instead letting the players dictate that themselves. And with talent all over the field, including three high-caliber pitchers capable of going the distance, Vreeland’s players know exactly what they’re striving for.

They want to get back to another state championship game, and this time be the team to hoist the trophy.

“Earlier in my career, I was one of those people who pinned up the amount of wins I expected to have on a board and said ‘this is what we’re chasing,’” Vreeland said. “Now, I let my players come in with the expectations. Putting a number on something puts limits on it. The players are pushing for the highest possible goals, and there isn’t anything higher than a state championship. I do everything in my power every day to help them get there.”

After losing pitcher Cody West to graduation last year, Vreeland only really had one pitcher – Liam Flynn – with varsity experience in big games coming back this spring.

However, senior Beau Elson, a Hadley native who transferred to Hopkins ahead of the school year after spending time at Phillips Exeter, is back in the gold and blue. Elson, a future Division 1 player committed to Fordham, has plenty of baseball knowledge, and the lefty can throw heat that gives Vreeland another option on the mound.

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“It’s always great to have an extra arm in western Mass. baseball,” Vreeland said. “I’ll take everyone who plays baseball that I can find.”

On top of that, sophomore Chace Earle has taken strides that have stood out to Vreeland as well, and his arm has only gotten stronger with the work he’s put in over the offseason. Expect Earle to also carve out a pivotal pitching role this spring.

With now three deadly arms and a plethora of savvy bats at the plate, Hopkins should be in the mix to compete for a third state final appearance in four seasons.

“It’s kind of the standard now,” Vreeland said. “Our players expect it, our community expects it, and we’re ready to make another run at it.”

Following a year filled with ups and downs as an eighth grader starting at shortstop in 2022, Earle ripped 30 hits a season ago and took a step forward both in the field and at the plate. And now, as a sophomore, he’s taller, stronger and faster.

Earle established the blueprint of what to do throughout the offseason, and Vreeland hopes the rest of his squad follows suit for years to come.

“Chace is the one I’ve been most impressed with when talking about a player’s growth over the offseason,” Vreeland said. “He puts in lots of time and work, and you can clearly see it. The biggest jump for him has been his physicality. The ball is jumping off his bat like it never has before.”

Flynn didn’t lose a single start in 2023 until the state championship game, and he took it upon himself as the captain of this year’s team to make sure his teammates were improving their craft regularly. He gathered players and went hitting or throwing – doing whatever he could to help them improve as much as possible.

“As for Liam, he was one of the seven best players in western Mass. last year,” Vreeland said. “He took it upon himself as one of the team captains to gather up the guys and go hitting in the offseason.”

As a new player, it may not be the easiest thing to come into a program that has established a certain culture, but Elson hasn’t had any problems.

In fact, he’s set the tone for how to attack practice each and every day. And while the buzz of his 90 miles-per-hour fastball has gotten Hampshire County’s attention thus far, he’s just as solid in every other aspect of the game.

“For Beau, I haven’t been around him very long, but you can just see the work ethic that he puts into everything he does,” Vreeland said. “However long practice is, he puts in the work for the full time. He looks great at the plate as well, he isn’t just a good pitcher with a powerful fastball. He wants to help the team in any way he can.”

The nine seniors on Hopkins’ roster are the most Vreeland has ever had while with the program. Flynn and Cooper Beckwith were on the 2021 team that won a state championship, and played huge innings last year. They’re both back for their fourth seasons of varsity.

Second baseman Dom Aloisi and third baseman James Fitzgibbons are in the same boat, having been on varsity for several years and having played in plenty of pressure situations.

Again, only graduating three seniors over the past two seasons means this team is not only very familiar with each other, they also have a championship pedigree that was established years ago.

“We have nine seniors, and that’s a huge number for Hopkins Academy,” Vreeland said. “We’ve never had those kind of numbers. It’s great. In a lot of cases, it’s awesome for me to look out and see all these seniors. It’s a bunch of seniors who have been here for everything. Liam and Cooper have been on two different state final teams. You look around, it’s not just age. It’s experience, too.”

Hopkins will have to start its journey back to the mountain top on the road this spring. Both the Golden Hawks’ baseball and softball fields are under construction and won’t be done until – best-case scenario – the end of the month.

Despite its first eight games being away from home, Hopkins shouldn’t be impacted in the way one would think. The Golden Hawks went undefeated on the road last season, and they’re prepared to do so again if need be.

“We finagled a schedule where we’re pretty much gonna play on the road,” Vreeland said. “I’ve been told the field could be ready as early as April 29. There’s people out there working on them every day. For now, we’re just road warriors. We didn’t lose a game on the road last year, so it doesn’t scare us all that much.”

Vikings hoping for similar success following 20-win season

A 21-3 record, a Tri-County League North title and a runner-up finish in the Class C Western Mass. tournament was the result of Smith Vocational’s 2023 campaign.

The Vikings won their first 16 games of the season, and didn’t give up a single run through their first six. Their juggernaut offense scored double digits in all but five of their wins a year ago, and they also flashed the leather and had strong pitching on the other side – holding their opponents to one run or less in 66 percent of their contests.

Smith Voc’s tremendous season came to a close in the MIAA Division 5 Round of 32, where it fell 5-4 to Sutton in extra innings. The game prior, the Vikings lost 3-2 to Frontier in a battle for the Class C crown.

Now a year later, Smith Voc has the weapons to put itself back in that same position.

Its roster features 11 juniors and seniors, one of the biggest numbers across Hampshire County this spring. With the veteran presence of guys like James Lavallee, Tyler Carlson, Pat Millin and Jared Baer, Smith Voc head coach Luis Bonilla (in his seventh season with the Vikings) believes his team has what it takes to take a step forward in 2024.

Those four have played plenty of varsity baseball, and behind them, Smith Voc has a very good chance at clinching a third consecutive league title.

Raiders returning bulk of 2023 production

A season ago, Hampshire won 15 games and found itself in the Class B Western Mass. semifinal against Monument Mountain. The Raiders fell to the eventual champion Spartans 12-5, then went on to lose 5-1 in the Division 4 Round of 32 to Tyngsborough.

Now in 2024, Hampshire is ready to repeat its successful regular season and build on the experience gained from the postseason with the majority of its production back this spring. The Raiders will need to navigate a difficult Suburban League West, which features powerhouse programs like Pioneer, Frontier and Greenfield.

Liam Pond, Drew Thompson and Mikey Thompson are a three-headed monster at the plate, with each of them batting at least .350 last year. Pond put up a team-best .435 batting average while Drew Thompson hit .405 and blasted five home runs to go along with 30 RBIs. Mikey Thompson recorded three long-balls himself en route to a .350 average at the dish and 18 RBIs.

Jack Boyle was the do-it-all man for the Raiders as a junior, and will be once again as a senior this time around. Boyle was good with his bat, but did a ton of damage on the bump. His six wins were a team-high and his best outing came against Hopkins, a six-inning effort where he surrendered only three hits.

Will Hogan and Drew Thompson are two strong arms also likely to help out in the pitching department for Hampshire. Head coach Mark Baldwin listed catcher Zach Phakos as a potential breakout star this spring.

Seven starters back for upward-trending Tigers

South Hadley turned in a respectable 13-9 record last season, and the Tigers were winners of eight of their last nine contests entering the postseason.

They fell to western Mass. powerhouse Taconic in the Class B Western Mass. quarterfinals and to Northbridge in the Division 4 Round of 32 by one run. With seven starters and even more utility players suiting up again this season, South Hadley head coach Matt Foley sees a big year on the horizon.

Three seniors, Matt Drobiak, John Viola and Burke Belsky, anchor the pitching staff for the Tigers in 2024. They are all veteran arms with big-game experience. An old pitching staff typically means a good one in high school baseball, so that bodes well for South Hadley.

Furthermore, the Tigers should be effective at the plate as well. The aforementioned seniors have good bats as well, and sophomores Memphis Huertas, Logan Carpenter, Ryan Netkovick and Griffin Soderbaum each played a ton as freshmen and are expected to take a leap forward now a year older and stronger.

Senior Jack Maziarz and junior Jackson Keller each started for South Hadley in 2023 and will again this season.

Foley, who is in his 28th season coaching baseball, expects Drobiak, Huertas, Viola and Carpenter to lead the charge for the Tigers with solid campaigns. South Hadley has five seniors, four juniors and eight sophomores on its roster.

More to watch in Hampshire County

After 10 strikeouts in an emphatic 12-1 win over Northampton in its opening day, Belchertown pitcher Josh Misiaszek is now just 13 away from 100 in his career. With he as the team’s ace and strong bats from Ian McDonald, Derek Gould and Misiaszek himself, Belchertown has the weapons to succeed in Hampshire County. Evan Ferguson and Jake Waller provide depth on the mound for the Orioles as well.

Frontier is fresh off a 17-7 season and is searching for a third straight Suburban League West title, but it will have to find a replacement for its best pitcher in Liam Skribiski-Banack. Head coach Chris Williams feels he has enough in house to do just that, with Grayson Loos stepping into the ace roll for the Redhawks. Seniors Tyler Cusson and Wyatt Edes are two veterans sure to contribute regularly both at the plate and on the mound as well.

Coming off a 10-11 campaign last spring, Easthampton is eager for development in 2024. The Eagles are fielding a young roster filled with underclassmen, as head coach Ed Zuchowski, who is back for his 25th season as the skipper for Easthampton, said “freshmen will try to make a name for themselves” this year. Do-it-all senior Topher Reardon also proves to be a player to watch for the Eagles.

Amherst only won two games last year, but started this season off on the right foot earlier this week – defeating Ludlow 15-6 in an offensive explosion. Pitchers Thatcher Rudnik and Spencer Waite are two solid arms for the ‘Canes, and Elijah Rubenstein, Aryeh Rubenstein and Nate Ziomek each recorded two hits in the season opener against the Lions. Signs of improvement seem evident early on.

Now in his 21st season with the Rams, Granby head coach Jim Woods will be relying on his seniors to do the bulk of the damage for his team this spring. Following up on an 8-12 2023 campaign, seniors Nik Misiaszek, Colin Murdock, Anthony Gregorio and Spencer Labonte lead the charge, with Misiaszek and Labonte to see some action on the mound. The Rams lost to eventual Western Mass. champion Pioneer in the Class D semifinals last season, and have started their season 1-1 thus far.

Smith Academy doesn’t have the deepest roster, but first-year head coach Jacob Butler is excited to see what kind of noise his Falcons can make in his coaching debut. Harry LaFlamme is Smith Academy’s “all-around stud,” according to Butler, and after losing half a dozen seniors from last year’s roster, LaFlamme, a sophomore, will be tasked with leading this inexperienced group that has just one senior in Isaak  Bara noski.

Also in his first year coaching, Northampton skipper Andrew Serio takes over a young Blue Devils team fol  lowing a disappointing 2-16 season last spring. Northampton took an early 1-0 lead over Belchertown in its season opener on Monday thanks to an RBI single from Matthew Walko, but couldn’t manage any other runs in a 12-1 defeat. After graduating a whopping 16 seniors from last season’s squad, it’ll be a new-look Blue Devils team this spring.

“We’re a young core trying to build a new identity,” Serio said.