This is the fourth story in an ongoing series called Education, Interrupted which looks at how school closures during the coronavirus crisis are affecting individual students. Sign up to receive a regular newsletter from the Great Divide team. You can reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas and tips.
NORTH ANDOVER — It was the stuff of high school legend, as Brendan Holland, a rangy, untested sophomore for the North Andover Scarlet Knights, climbed the pitcher’s mound against heavily favored St. John’s Prep at last year’s Super 8 championship.
The lefty had already defied odds to start the game: The natural choice would have been the team’s star pitcher, who just two weeks earlier had been drafted by the Red Sox. But Holland pitched six scoreless innings to help usher the Knights into high school history, becoming the first eighth-seeded team to win the prestigious tournament.
“I was so nervous, but once I got to the field all the nerves went away,” said Holland, now a junior.
This was going to be the spring when Holland took his talent to the next level, hoping to impress college recruiters.
But then the coronavirus hit. Massachusetts canceled school, and with it, the spring baseball season — a major blow for promising young athletes like Holland, whose chances at a scholarship, once so close, now seem painfully out of reach.
“This was his year to get the exposure he needed,” said North Andover baseball coach Todd Dulin. “This is going to hurt him.”
The loss of the spring season has been deeply disappointing for the 12,300 or so high school baseball players across Massachusetts, as gloves stiffen and bats go quiet. But for the significantly smaller ranks of elite high school athletes — of nearly 500,000 high school players across the country, a little more than one in 50 go on to play NCAA Division One baseball — the sting is even sharper.
Nowhere is that more true than in North Andover, where the Knights were eager to extend last year’s extraordinary run. Several returning players have already committed to play college ball, but for uncommitted players like Holland, the loss of the season is doubly disappointing.
“This is the biggest year,” he said. “It was definitely hard to think about.”
Holland is a solid student, and Dulin said he’s been “back and forth with a number of Ivy League schools about him,” including with coaches at Columbia and Harvard universities.
Recruiters came to nearly every game last season as well, but back then scouts seemed interested in just one player: Sebastian Keane, North Andover’s once-in-a-generation talent who was drafted by the Red Sox in the 11th round.
Some of his teammates have fielded scholarship offers of their own, but Holland, 6-foot-5 and thin at around 160 pounds, is a late bloomer — all technique and potential, if not quite filling out his uniform.
Nevertheless, he’s a tireless worker, and he’s adaptable: Holland’s not a natural lefty, but when he was a child, his father brought home three new gloves from Walmart.
“I just assumed they were all righty gloves,” said his father, Dennis Holland. “One was a lefty, and he just happened to pick up the lefty glove.”
He’s been pitching southpaw ever since, becoming, by all accounts, extraordinarily accurate for a high school pitcher. Holland can place the ball where he wants it, and, at 17, is all but unflappable on the mound.
“Mentally, he’s as good as anyone,” Dulin said.
So when North Andover’s star pitcher, Keane, had to be in Boston the night before the championship game last year, Dulin turned to Holland, the lanky sophomore.
“To go out there in front of that many people, on that type of game, and throw the way he did with so much poise — it really says something,” said teammate Brett Dunham.
Holland attended a pitching academy over the winter in hopes of adding speed to his fastball, maybe his main weakness. There, trainers helped overhaul his choppy motion: straightening his lead leg, learning to release the ball later, and leveraging his considerable height for more power. He gained more than a foot extension off the mound. His ball released closer to the plate. It got there quicker.
By mid-March his fastball was in the low 80s — solid, but far short of Keane’s mid-90s fastball. He still needed to internalize all he’d learned, but then they closed the schools.
“I’m just hoping when I finally pitch again, I don't slip back into what I used to be doing,” he said. “I was hoping I’d be able to get it up to the mid-80s, maybe even high-80s.”
What Holland likes most about the game is its mental aspect: reading a batter, analyzing his weaknesses, and thinking his way out of problems — skills honed only on the mound.
But these days Holland must make do with his home setup, spending a few hours each day on distance learning and the rest of his time working as hard as he can to keep up his conditioning.
Using a length of flooring in the family basement, he works to maintain his new form, careful to make sure his lead foot points straight ahead. He lifts kettlebells each day, using bands to increase his flexibility — a lesson he learned last year from Keane. And he tries to get his name “out there” by writing to college athletic directors, listing his stats and including this year’s schedule, just in case.
He’s hoping the summer season is still on, when recruiters often come to games, but these days, who knows.
“I don’t know what to do after that,” said Holland. “If this doesn’t work out, then senior year would be a great year to get recruited.”
For now, the high point of his day comes when his father, Dennis, returns home from work.
Grabbing their gloves, father and son head out to the side yard, just like they used to do when Brendan was in Little League, the satisfying thunk of a ball hitting glove punctuating the evening air. He and his father gradually increase their distance until they’re at opposite sides of the lawn, Dennis tossing lobs, as his son’s throws begin to whistle.
“It moves,” Dennis marveled as his son’s ball came in low and fast. “This is usually when I jump out of the way.”