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Belchertown’s James Ryan signs to play football at Sacred Heart

James Ryan of Belchertown signed a National Letter of Intent Wednesday to play football at Sacred Heart.

James Ryan of Belchertown signed a National Letter of Intent Wednesday to play football at Sacred Heart. Purchase photo reprints »

With the stroke of a pen Wednesday afternoon, James Ryan made history.

The Belchertown senior became the first football player in the program’s 12-year history to sign a Division I letter of intent, officially committing to Sacred Heart University of the Football Championship Subdivision.

“That’s a great thing, it feels great to show what Belchertown football can do,” Ryan said. “I’ll always bleed black and orange, and I wish the program nothing but the best going forward. It’s surreal that I’m one of the guys around the country signing a letter. Football is my first love, I’ve been playing since I was nine. Now I just want to keep playing as long as I can.”

Ryan joins 32 other members of the 2013 recruiting class for the Fairfield, Conn. school, which includes nine from Massachusetts.

“I think it’s about seven percent of high school athletes who go on to play at the next level, and this isn’t exactly a hotbed of football around here,” said Belchertown coach John Mayo. “But I’m not surprised that James is moving on to a D-I school, he’s that talented and dedicated.”

Following the ceremonial signing and photo-op, Ryan thanked his family for their support.

“They sent me to the best camps, drove me to all the practices and games, and spent a lot of money on football,” he said. “They’ve always been there for me and really pushed me to make this happen.”

This past season, Ryan was the most valuable player for the Orioles, who reached the Western Massachusetts Division 3 Super Bowl. He accounted for roughly 1,400 yards of total offense while splitting time between receiver and running back. He also excelled at safety.

“This is a big step, going from a small-division high school to Division I college football, so James deserves a ton of credit,” said Mayo. “But this is a kid that’s gotten better every year and worked harder every year. I remember the first day I met him when he was a freshman, and he told me he truly loved football. And he shows it.”

The 5-foot-10, 165-pounder first felt he could play college football during his junior season, but it was last summer that opened his eyes as to how high he could aim. Sacred Heart first contacted him last spring and invited him to attend their football camps.

“When I went to the camps and displayed my skill set, I truly felt that I could fit in with the program and play at that level,” he said.

Mayo witnessed that skill set over the past four years, during which time Ryan was a three-time all-league selection.

“He’s not the biggest kid in the world, but James has really good speed and catches the ball as well as anyone I’ve coached,” said Mayo. “He’ll find out quickly how much it ramps up in college football. Everyone there will have been his team’s best player in high school. That’s where his competitiveness will need to come through, and he’s got that.”

While no specific role with the Pioneers has been discussed with Ryan, he was told his most likely position would be slot receiver or a hybrid running back spot.

“I’m going to work harder than I ever have, doing agility drills, working on my route running and other skills,” Ryan said. “College football is a whole different creature, so I need to be ready.”

Ryan, who plans on majoring in business management with a focus in sport management, has a goal of becoming a football coach. No doubt the close relationship with his high school coach has already made an impact.

“Coach Mayo is a tremendous role model for me, and we’ll definitely stay in touch,” Ryan said. “He’s the best coach I’ve ever had, and a big reason why this is possible.”

BARKER SIGNS TO BRYANT — Smith Academy senior Emiko Barker signed her National Letter of Intent to play Division I field hockey at Bryant University in Smithfield, R.I. during a ceremony at the Hatfield school Wednesday.

Barker, who verbally committed to play for the Bulldogs in August, was happy to finally put pen to paper.

“It was the best feeling in the world, knowing it was completely official,” said Barker, who played six varsity seasons for the Falcons and won Western Massachusetts Division 2 Tournament championships in 2007 and 2009. “I’ve been waiting for this day for two or three years now, signing with a team and a school that I’m completely happy and comfortable with.”

Barker, a member of the National Honor Society, plans to major in business and is interested in focusing on advertising and marketing.

“The academics (at Bryant) were perfect,” she said. “The team was welcoming and the (coaching staff) has been nothing but nice to me.

“I’m one of eight incoming freshmen, so I’m excited to part of building the program up.”

Barker was joined by her parents, Nancy and Tim, Smith athletic director David Keir, current Smith field hockey coach Dena Polverari, former Smith AD and field hockey coach Sherry Webb and current junior Danielle Duseau at the ceremony.

Barker said they all were key in helping her through the entire process and credited her parents with having the right combination of dedication and motivation, while also being a calming influence during the most trying times.

She also credited former Smith teammate and current Fairfield University player Sarah Wickles with helping her mentally prepare for the transition to playing D-I.

“I’ve known her for so long and she’s been such a great help,” Barker said. “She talked about how demanding it is and how much time you have to put into it. The game speed is going to be completely different. She said you need to prepare in the summer and spring. You need to be ready for the preseason.”

OTHER SIGNINGS — Former Williston Northampton student Grant Cohen has signed a letter of intent to play soccer at Kenyon College. The Virginia native graduated from Williston in 2012.

In November, Holyoke Catholic senior Meriza Werenski signed to swim at UMass, while Frontier Regional volleyball star Cassidy Stankowski signed to play at Central Connecticut.

SWIM CHAMPIONSHIPS — The psych sheets for the Western Massachusetts Swimming & Diving Championships were released Wednesday.

Weather permitting, the boys meet begins at 9 a.m. Saturday at Springfield College. The girls meets starts at 3:30 p.m. The diving event will be held tonight at 6 at Springfield College.

On the girls side, Werenski is the top seed in the 200-yard individual medley and 100 breastroke. The four-time All-American, five-time state champ and sixth-time WMass champ won the 200 last year. Teammate Delaney Dyjak is No. 1 and the defending champ in the 50 free.

Easthampton’s Jessica Harper is first and defending champ in the 100 free and 100 backstroke.

Northampton freshman Erin Voss is tops in the 500 free.

The Northampton 400 free relay is also first.

For the boys, Ryan Manniello of South Hadley is first in the 200 free.

Colin Machat of Northampton is first in the 100 free. He won the 50 last year and placed second in the 100.

Ciaran Dillon-Davidson of Amherst is the defending champ and top seed in the 500 free, while the Hurricanes’ 400 free relay is first by 0.01 seconds over Westfield.

MAYO DOUBLES UP AT BELCHERTOWN — Mayo has turned the Belchertown football program into one of the area’s best. Now he’ll attempt to do the same with the school’s baseball team.

Mayo was named this week as the successor to Chuck Jasak, who left the program to take a job in the scouting department of the Los Angeles Angels.

After 16 seasons at the helm of Longmeadow baseball, Mayo takes his 33 years of baseball coaching experience to the Orioles, who went 5-15 in 2012.

“Longmeadow didn’t want me anymore, I didn’t willingly leave on my own,” he said. “I knew the Belchertown position was open, so I set up an interview with (athletic director) R.J. Marchewka. The first few years here with the football team we took our lumps, and now we’re good. It might be a similar situation.”

Mayo prefers a traditional philosophy of fundamental play, while his intensity on the football sideline will likely translate to the dugout, to some degree.

“At times there are similarities between coaching the two sports, but obviously baseball is more laid back,” he said. “But anytime you play a sport, you want to win, and I’m sure our players will have that same attitude. I’m not a coach who likes to lay out set goals. I’ll talk to the guys when we start practice and see what they want to get out of the game. But most of all, we just want to get better, as individuals and as a team.”

FOOTBALL BANQUET — The National Football Foundation will hold its annual banquet at the University of Massachusetts Campus Center on April 7 at 5 p.m.

Former Longmeadow coach Alex Rotsko will receive the Butova Award, which is awarded to a member of the western Massachusetts football community who has distinguished himself in later lift.

For ticket information, contact American International College athletics department at 205-3540.

MILESTONE — With last week’s win over Ludlow, South Hadley boys basketball coach Jeff Guiel earned the 200th victory of his career. ... Olivia Mathieu of Hopkins Academy needs four points for 1,000 entering today’s 7:30 p.m. game against Easthampton in Hadley.

Hampshire Regional senior forward Sarah Kober (17.1 points per game) enters Friday’s game at Palmer with 949 career points. The Raiders have four games left in the regular season.

COMEDY NIGHT — The Northampton Athletic Booster Club will hold its fourth annual comedy night Saturday at the Blue Bonnet Dinner at 6 p.m.

Tickets are $25 each and can be purchased at the door.

NATIONAL REP — Amherst native and Wilbraham & Monson boys soccer junior standout Matan Shmerling has been selected to play for the U.S. Youth team at the Maccabiah Games, held July 17-30 in Israel.

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