Seven games into the season, Wakefield Post 63 manager Steve Pacheco faced an unsual challenge when he started his sixth year on the Wakefield Legion coaching staff. With nine schools represented on this year’s squad, his players had to quickly get accustomed to one another.
But the newness has worked. In its first seven games, the Wakefield squad has won six, including victories over powerhouses Lowell and Billerica.
“It’s been a great year for us so far,” said Pacheco, in his third year as manager. “This year has been a little bit different. We didn’t have a huge Wakefield high turnout, but because of the recruiting rules to take Catholic school players, we got some kids who are a great fit for this team.”
One of the standouts is Malden Catholic’s Dylan Dennis . The Wakefield resident has been dominant at the plate, picking up where he left off with the Lancers this spring. Dennis led the state in home runs with eight and has hit two through seven games for Post 63. A pitcher, he has also picked up a win in two complete-game starts, striking out 14 batters. Dennis can hit 91 m.p.h. on the radar gun, according to Pacheco.
“I just try to hit the ball hard every time,” said Dennis. “The way I hit the ball in the spring has definitely carried over, and facing great pitching like I did will only make my cuts better too.”
Bates recruit and St. John’s Prep pitcher Robert DiFranco has thrown 16 innings for Wakefield, striking out eight with an ERA of 0.875 through three starts and a save. Teammate Brett Barbati a three-year starter, is among the team leaders in batting average with a .364.
“A lot of us have been on the team for two, three years now and that chemistry is definitely the reason why we’re playing so well right now,” said the Melrose High all-star. “Our starting pitching has really carried us. I think we have the two or three best kids from each surrounding city.”
The Billerica Post 286 squad has started its season strong as well, with a 6-1 record. Their roster features nine players from Billerica High and players from six other schools.
Two of Billerica’s aces on the mound, Walker O’Connor and Soren Hanson, have struck out a combined 35 batters in 27 innings of work. Hanson also leads the team in RBIs with six, but the team’s defensive chemistry has helped O’Connor and Hansen give up only two earned runs.
“A lot of these kids have played together before, which certainly helps,” said Billerica manager Jeff Paquette . “ We’ve had some clutch pitching performances by a few of our guys, and right now I think that we’re doing things well enough defensively to win games. But we’ll need to hit better down the road if we want to make it far in either of the two tournaments.”
Tourney extends Legion’s season
Competing with AAU and other baseball leagues, American Legion baseball prides itself on providing the best competition for baseball players who want to excel collegiately. AAU had some pull recently, scheduling about 18 more games than Legion. But with a new tournament in place, the American Legion baseball league will add roughly two weeks to its schedule, finishing in early August instead of late July.
“The state athletic committee has lengthened the season for us and added a new tournament in July called the National-bound tournament, which will be played as a round-robin,” said District 5 chairman Len Noce . “By lengthening the season, we’ve increased the quality of play and the playing time for some blue-chip players.”
The new tournament is single elimination, with the winner advancing to the Northeast Regional.
The other teams will go back to their regular schedules upon elimination, and the winner of the tournament will not be eligible for the traditional statewide tournament held Aug. 4-8.
AAU or Legion?
Still a tough choice
Although many managers and players involved in Legion baseball say that their brand is the best, they can’t deny the competition AAU brings and the way the the AAU teams bring it. Billerica ace Dylan Lavery and Lowell’s No.2 pitcher Cam Latta , who both had dominant spring seasons for their high schools, are playing AAU this summer. With the length of the seasons now roughly equal, the choice between the two leagues is tougher to make.
“Kids I know who play AAU say it’s more college exposure, but I don’t necessarily agree,” said Lowell second baseman R.J. Gray . “You’re on a team with the best kids from the three towns around you and if you’re not producing, the guy behind you will. If you’re good enough, college coaches will find you.”
Lavery disagrees. Originally on the Billerica Post 286 Legion team, he chose to do a few showcases and play for the Future Stars Elite AAU team out of Dracut, due to a commitment he made in the fall.
“We travel to four or five tournaments and visit colleges along with playing games at their schools,” said Lavery. “I think there’s more exposure.”
AAU is offered for kids as young as 9 years old, while the bulk of American Legion players are aged 15-19.
But Noce isn’t worried about the future of American Legion baseball, saying the brand will outlast the others, trusting in the quality of baseball they play.