Summer is usually the time when high school sports give way to traveling all-star teams and national tournaments. Such was the case for a team of ballplayers from communities north of Boston last weekend, except with a little twist.
The group exchanged the smaller ball and slower pace of baseball for the bigger ball and faster speed of softball, competing at the Amateur Softball Association’s boys’ fast-pitch nationals in Rolla, Mo.
The Seadogs have been a successful team on the men’s fast-pitch softball circuit for more than 20 years, but with fast-pitch teams fading, longtime player and team founder Tony Aresco of Stoneham wanted to introduce the game to the youth of the area.
“I want to get the game to grow in this area, and the only way to do it is with young kids,” Aresco said. “Softball is a game they can play into their 40s and 50s, unlike baseball, which is done after high school for most and after college for everyone else.”
Aresco had a starting point in his son Anthony, a junior at Northeast Regional, who took up pitching a couple years ago and takes monthly lessons from softball Hall of Fame pitcher Paul Algar.
Anthony went to the nationals last year and played for another team, but this year he wanted to convince his friends to join him and play on their own team.
The younger Aresco recruited friends from hockey and baseball, inviting 41 youths before eventually getting nine to commit. The squad features seven players from Stoneham and one each from Woburn and Malden. They team added a second pitcher from Utah whom they found while Anthony was at the US junior national team tryout camp in Salt Lake City in June.
“When kids hear softball they think it’s a girls’ game, or that it’s lob ball,” Tony Aresco said. “But the kids who came out all loved it and want to come back again next year.”
With the team in place, Aresco entered the squad in one of the Cambridge men’s leagues to get them accustomed to the speed of the game, the different view of hitting an underhanded pitch and other situations.
“Playing in Cambridge helped us so much, we bonded right away,” said Anthony Aresco. “We got a chance to practice a lot more things.”
For most everyone else on the team, it was an introduction to the game, learning the nuances and, in the process, building a passion for it.
“I really like the pace of the game,’’ said shortstop Anthony Annunziata. “It’s a lot faster and you have to make quicker decisions.”
Annunziata is a baseball player at Stoneham High who had to learn that an extra bounce of the ball or a delayed throw is often an infield hit on the 60-foot basepaths of fast-pitch. He said playing in Cambridge helped him work those situations out weekly in preparation for the nationals.
He has a naturally short, level swing, helping him adjust a lot more quickly than most baseball players making the transition. But the movement on the various pitches was a learning experience.
“I used the same approach as in baseball, I just have to keep in mind to stay off the riseball,” he said.
After 10 weeks of games, the elder Aresco felt his team was ready for Rolla. They entered in the 16-under age bracket, but there was only one other team competing, so they played a best of three series with that entrant from Michigan Friday afternoon.
In the first game, it was clear they had made the right adjustments at the plate, scoring 15 runs en route to an easy win. Annunziata was 4-for-4 on the day, but the big hit came from another Stoneham native, Christian Keskinidis, who belted a three-run homer on his way to a 3-for-4 game. In the circle Anthony Aresco allowed only one earned run for the complete game victory.
The bats stayed hot for game two as the Seadogs plated 14 runs on their way to the series-clinching win. Stoneham’s Alec LeFave was the hitting star with two triples and four RBI, while Malden’s Jonathan Dilba had two hits and three RBI out of the nine spot.
With the 16-under championship secured, the Seadogs focused on the 18-under division. They won their first game Friday night against a Missouri team, but by Saturday fatigue started to set in. The team dropped its next three games in sloppy fashion, as six games in 36 hours in stifling Missouri heat took its toll collectively and especially on Anthony, who pitched all but six innings of the tournament.
“We just ran out of gas,” said the younger Aresco. “But we seemed like we were right up there with all the teams.”
With the tournament over, the team will start to focus on next year, said Tony Aresco, who added that a couple of his players will have the opportunity to try out for the US junior national team next year as well. He hopes that sparks more growth in the sport.
“It was a lot on all of them, playing that many games in a short time, but I am so proud of them,” he said. “As long as they want to keep coming, we’ll keep trying to raise the money.”
Nick French can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org