Following the summer of 2010, Medford Post 45 was on the verge of folding.
A storied American Legion team that had been around for nearly 90 years, Post 45 had just completed its ninth consecutive losing season, and appeared to have hit rock bottom with an 0-20 campaign.
It was unclear if the team would be taking the field in 2011, but Ryan Kozul , the 22-year-old assistant coach on the Medford High School varsity baseball team, wanted nothing more than to keep the tradition alive, so he accepted the managerial role.
He had experienced the downfall first-hand, as a member of the Post 45 team from 2003 to 2006.
“When the opportunity presented itself, I knew it was going to be a big challenge,” Kozul said. “But I felt I was uniquely qualified to know the challenges and what I needed to do because I had been a part of the struggles.”
Now, off to an 8-2 start and sitting atop the standings in Zone 5B, Post 45 is on track for its first winning season since 2001.
According to Kozul, a 2010 Boston College graduate, the major issue surrounding the team’s decade-long losing spill was commitment.
“Once the team would lose three or four games, kids would flee for the local Babe Ruth leagues and it would turn into a disaster,” he said.
With the team barely surviving, and only thanks to the considerate funding of the Legion, Kozul had to make smart decisions out of the gate to alter the commitment problem.
His first recruit was John Lavoie , a Medford High pitcher who is now playing in his third summer for Post 45. Kozul says Lavoie “has been our most important player for the last three years.”
“He is one of the most dedicated kids I’ve ever been around,” Kozul said of Lavoie. “This program wouldn’t be anywhere near where it is today without him.”
Lavoie, who graduated in June and will be playing for Saint Anselm College next year, had no doubt that following Kozul to the Post 45 team was the right thing to do.
“He’s a great coach, a players’ coach who’s always there for us and always has our backs,” Lavoie said.
Other Medford High kids felt similarly and quickly bought into Kozul’s plan to turn the team around, as well as a handful of players from Arlington Catholic, Kozul’s alma mater.
In his first season at the helm, the team went 8-11 — the highest number of wins Post 45 had accumulated in over a decade. That was followed up with a 10-12 record last summer.
Kozul has focused on building a team with incredible depth. That’s been crucial since the team’s top two pitchers, Lavoie and Ryan Covelle, have missed significant time this summer due to injuries.
Other pitchers have had to step in and Medford has had to play gritty ball, coming back to win several games with aggressive base-running and timely hitting.
On Tuesday, Post 45 duked it out with North Chelmsford Post 313, and rallied from a 3-2 deficit to win the game thanks to a bases-loaded RBI single off the the bat of Globe All-Scholastic catcher Jake Porrazzo .
“We have a bunch of really tough, hard-nosed kids who go out there and leave everything they have on the field,” Kozul said. “They just have this mentality that they aren’t going to lose, and it makes it really fun for me to coach.”
Not only does Kozul have fun coaching, but according to Medford High varsity head coach Mike Nestor , he’s a natural at it.
“For a kid his age, he just knows a lot about the game and he knows how to respect the game,” Nestor said.
Kozul lives and breathes baseball. He’s been a player and a coach, and he has also worked for the Red Sox as an on-field security guard and occasional bat boy fill-in since 2006.
Nestor says he is not surprised Kozul’s team has turned around its fortunes.
And at the end of the day, that’s who Kozul credits more than anyone: the kids and their competitive yearn to win.
“They do everything I ask of them, and I’ve considered it a privilege to watch them grow into the great young men they are,” Kozul said. “We’re looking forward to taking this ride as far as we can.”
Lawrence plays scrappy, smart
Despite losing its best pitcher early in the season, Lawrence Post 15 is still hanging on to one of the best records in District 8.
Liam Doherty pitched a one-hit shutout in Lawrence first game of the season, but the righty hurt his arm during a no-hit bid on June 20, and still has a way to go before he can return, according to manager Kevin Bartlett.
Post 15 (6-4) has gone 3-4 since losing Doherty, but their scrappy play and smart base-running has been keeping them in ball games as they remain tied for second in the district in points (12) as of Wednesday.
Cody Demers , David Quezada, and Darluigi Gonzalez have all provided gutsy performances on the base paths, something that Bartlett says is key in a wooden bat league where runs can be hard to come by.
“If we play the game defense-first, our bats will come around and we’ll get our runs and squeak out some games,” Bartlett said. “That’s what we’ve done so far.”
Demers, of Central Catholic, helped Lawrence eke out a win on June 23 against Gloucester when he stole home late in the game. With another runner on first and two outs, Demers broke for home and was safe at the plate, scoring what would eventually be the game-winning run.
Quezada (Northern Essex Community College) and Gonzales (Lawrence High) also put forth admirable performances on the base paths Tuesday night against first-place Lynn Post 6.
In the third inning, Quezada took off toward third, but was hit in the groin by the catcher’s throw. The right fielder stayed down for a few minutes but remained in the game.
Then in the fifth inning, Gonzalez singled and successfully got inside the head of the pitcher from first base. As the pitcher was focusing on home, Gonzales clapped loudly. Lynn’s pitcher attempted a few pickoffs, but to no avail, as Gonzalez stole second and third before eventually scoring.
Gonzalez had three of Lawrence’s seven steals on the night, but Lynn (8-3) came out on top with a 10-6 win, as it remains in first place in District 8.