Young core turned Amherst baseball back into a playoff team

  • Amherst catcher Nate Mills tags out South Hadley’s Keegan Earle at home plate this season. He’s one of four seniors that has steered a young Amherst Regional baseball team back to the playoffs. STAFF PHOTO / KYLE GRABOWSKI

  • South Hadley’s Tyler Evans slides in to third base under a throw to Amherst’s Ryan Schneider in South Hadley. Schneider is one of four seniors that has helped the Amherst Reigonal baseball team return to the postseason. STAFF PHOTO / KYLE GRABOWSKI

  • Amherst’s Nate Mills dives back to first base against South Hadley earlier this season. Mills is one of four seniors that has helped guide a young Hurricanes squad back to the postseason. STAFF PHOTO/KYLE GRABOWSKI

  • Amherst first baseman Thatcher Rudnik fields a grounder against South Hadley. Rudnik is part of a core of underclassmen with the Hurricanes that has propelled them back to the postseason. STAFF PHOTO / KYLE GRABOWSKI

Staff Writer
Published: 5/29/2022 2:25:19 PM

COVID-19 reset the Amherst Regional baseball program’s trajectory. 

The Hurricanes entered the spring 2020 season loaded with eight seniors. They aspired to the program’s first playoff berth since 2014 and a Western Massachusetts championship.

“We’ve got a team that's going to come out and compete probably get us to a Western Mass. championship because we're loaded top to bottom,” said Amherst coach Jeff Gladu, who was an assistant at the time. “It was the best decade that we had of guys for Amherst.”

Amherst, like the rest of the state, never played a game together – as the beginning of the pandemic halted sports and life March 15.

“That was demoralizing,” Gladu said.

The Hurricanes entered the next season they could play, 2021, carrying only one player with varsity experience, Evan Dooley. Then-coach Mike Prattico stepped down two days before the season to focus on his mental health, leaving the program to his assistants: Gladu and Amherst College football coach EJ Mills, whose son Nate Mills played (and still plays) on the team. He also coached the team throughout its Sandy Koufax and Mickey Mantle youth seasons.

Gladu originally moved to Amherst in 1979 and played for both the Hurricanes and the town’s summer teams.

“They didn't have to ask me twice to be a part of it because it was something that I never thought I'd have a chance to do when I was younger,” he said.

They fielded one of the youngest rosters in Western Mass., regularly relying on freshmen and eighth graders due to numbers. Amherst played in the toughest league in the area against powerhouses like Pope Francis, Westfield and Minnechaug.

The Hurricanes lost their first 14 games of the season before taking out Mohawk Trail in the regular season finale. They opted into the Western Mass. tournament and fell in the preliminary round against Pittsfield.

“It was sort of kind of being like thrown in the fire,” Nate Mills said.

Those flames cleared everything so Amherst could start fresh, and the buds of new growth are showing this spring. They first poked through at the Amherst College batting cages in February, where the Hurricanes gathered to practice their swings. The bonds that carried them started to sprout, as well.

“It's a tight bond. We're like family, every practice we’re just joking around, having fun,” senior Ryan Schneider said. “We just got to know each other better.”

Both the extra reps and the stronger connections showed. Amherst started just 3-6 but won eight of its last 11 games to crack double digit wins (11) and earn a Division 2 postseason berth.

“We have a different mindset this year and understand that we can be a winning team,” Nate Mills said. “We are going to fight every single pitch.”

The same group (minus one senior) went from one win to 11 in just a year. The state tournament seeds will be released this week.

“There's a feeling of accomplishment, looking back on where the program has been in the past couple of years,” Nate Mills said. “I love the fight and I love just how far everybody has come.”

They’re still young. Amherst still relies on two freshmen, including ace Thatcher Rudnik, and six sophomores. They often play in high-leverage areas like sophomore Spencer Waite at shortstop or Elijah Rubinstein at third base. Many pitch to fill in gaps created by pitch limits.

“We're all standing with each other, and we all want to be great,” Waite said. “We all come to work.”

That youth is bolstered by the class of four seniors: Dooley, Mickey Maroulis, Nate Mills and Ryan Schneider.

“My seniors are everything. They're their leaders, their big brothers,” Gladu said. “They're extra coaches on the field.”

You can never have too many good coaches. While Gladu is nominally the head coach, he considers EJ Mills a co-coach. They both lead practices and offer insight in huddles. Gladu often stays in the dugout while Mills makes crucial calls at third base because it allows him to give extra insight to the hitters.

“Coach Mills, by far, is the most prepared person I've ever dealt with, and that comes with a college football mindset,” Gladu said. “He's shown me the way to get it done and the last two years, it’s side by side with him. There's no egos on our team whatsoever. The kids see that, and then they leave their egos at the door.”

Gladu certainly doesn’t have time for ego. Life showed him it’s too short for it in November.

“I was a day away from dying,” he said.

Gladu had five major blood infections and a mass taken out of his chest. It was during the height of a COVID surge, so emergency rooms lacked beds. Eventually he was rushed to Beth Israel Hospital in Needham at 95 miles an hour for emergency surgery. 

“I don't take one second of a day for granted, nor do I take these guys for granted,” Gladu said. “We throw the word family around all the time, but seriously, if you watch us play on a regular basis, they’re in it together.”

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.


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