On July 31, 2022, the Danbury Westerners beat the North Shore Navigators 3-2 behind a go-ahead two-run homer, finishing the regular season at 22-22. Earlier that day, however, the Sanford Mainers downed the Keene Swamp Bats to clinch the final spot in the NECBL playoffs, prematurely ending the Westerners’ 2022 campaign, one year removed from winning the Fay Vincent Senior Cup.
311 days later, Danbury returns to the Roadhouse at Rogers Park, hoping to return to the playoffs and win their second NECBL championship in three years. The Westerners will go into battle without their championship-winning manager, Ian Ratchford, who resigned in December to take a higher role at UConn-Avery Point before being named head coach of the Albertus Magnus baseball team. With Ratchford stepping down, Conor Farrell becomes the 11th manager in team history after serving as the pitching coach the last two seasons.
“Honestly, it’s big shoes to fill,” Farrell commented.
Bobby Rodriguez returns for a third straight summer as the hitting coach, and he will be working with a new assistant coach with Dean White not returning. Mike Hughes, who pitched at Albertus Magnus, previously coached players at the youth level and the American Legion.
Seven players return to the Hat City, led by 2022 NECBL South Division All-Star Sam Mongelli. The NEC Player of the Year produced a season for the ages at Sacred Heart, becoming the school’s first All-American in over 30 years by Collegiate Baseball after hitting .402 with 20 homers and 22 steals.
Mike Becchetti also had a significant spring, batting .329 with 13 homers and earning All-MAAC First Team honors at Fairfield. Neither of those infielders garnered any NECBL honors last summer, but Joey Skarad did. The 2022 All-NECBL Honorable Mention batted .292 with four homers for Slambury but hopes to improve those numbers while serving as one of the team’s primary catchers.
Billy Gerlott and Harrison Feinberg provide offense to the Danbury lineup in different ways. The Penn State senior uses his speed and high-octane energy to get the team going in multiple ways, while Feinberg, a 2022 NECBL Home Run Derby participant, utilizes his power and speed to do damage at the plate. Ryan Higgins (currently in the Super Regionals) and Curtis Clark will bolster the pitching staff, as they had 19 combined relief appearances and two saves last summer. Both Higgins and Clark can pitch in different situations, but they will most likely eat up innings as long relievers.
“They know what to expect,” Farrell said about the returning players. “They know how we are as a staff and what we expect on any given night.”
Although fans have not yet seen the newer Westerners in action, their collegiate baseball resumes cannot be ignored. Behind the dish, Daniel Labrador recorded career highs in both batting average and doubles at Stetson, while Roman DiGiacomo’s only hit at Duke so far is a grand slam.
Luke Boynton makes his long-awaited debut in Slambury after the COVID-19 pandemic cancelled the 2020 season. The Georgia State senior joins the roster after slugging 26 homers over his last two seasons in Atlanta. Javon Hernandez, who spent two seasons with Farrell and Ratchford at UConn-Avery Point, led the Jacksonville State Gamecocks with a .397 average while stealing 11 bases.
The new outfielders feature multiple speedsters who can rake as 2022 Division-III national champion Jason Claiborn and 2023 Second-Team All-Ivy League selection Jakobi Davis combined for 34 steals, 95 hits, and six triples in the spring. Bobby Zmarzlak is a mixture of speed and power as he hit two triples, five homers, and three steals for the Maryland Terrapins.
With the pitching staff, Pat Gleason won the NE10 Southwest Division and NCBWA Pitcher of the Year while earning a First-Team All-Conference selection at Pace University. Despite not earning any conference honors with the Adelphi Panthers in the spring, John Rizzo struck out 76 hitters across 12 starts and 69 innings.
Despite being listed as a pitcher, Anthony Steele is a two-way player who also plays at first base and in the outfield. Expect the Penn State junior to consistently be in the batting order, as he had more plate appearances than games pitched on the mound at Happy Valley.
“Expect us to compete every single night,” Farrell noted about the roster. “[The players] want to be here, they want to win, and they want to get better.”
That passion for winning is critical in the tough New England Collegiate Baseball League. Because the Winnipesaukee Muskrats suspended operations, the North Division now has four teams with the Westerners playing each opponent three times. Danbury’s west division foes, the Bristol Blues, North Adams SteepleCats, and Valley Blue Sox, remain the same, but they instead battle each rival seven times. Despite the tough competition from the other teams in the league, especially in the Coastal Division, Farrell believes that the most difficult opponent the Westerners will face is themselves.
“If we play a complete game, I don’t think anyone is going to beat us,” Farrell pointed out.
Danbury’s 2023 season starts on June 7 against the Ocean State Waves in the first of five straight home games to begin the year. For the second consecutive summer, the Westerners will battle only division opponents in the final week of the season, culminating in the July 29 regular-season finale against the SteepleCats. The rest of the schedule can be found on the NECBL website.
It is almost that time of year when Dave King’s “Danbury Westerners Theme” starts a night of excitement and family fun at Rogers Park. The players and the fans are looking forward to another season of Slambury baseball, but no one is more thrilled for the season to be back than Farrell.
“It’s like Christmas,” Farrell stated about Opening Day. “I would rather sleep at Rogers Park than at my own house.”
Photo by Ryan DeSantis