Independent league gives local ballplayers another option

Summer baseball on the local scene is often much more than just baseball.

For evidence today, we take you to the Hollis-Brookline baseball community, where coach Rich Loftus’ Dodgers just completed their season in the New England Independent League semifinals.

The Dodgers are a compilation of athletes from Amherst, Milford and Nashua, with the bulk of the players from Hollis and Brookline. The NEIBL is comparable to Senior Babe Ruth.

Loftus, as you might remember, was the Hollis Brookline High School varsity coach, who stepped down after this past spring campaign. His desire to teach the game of baseball and the proper character it takes to play the game still burns brightly.

“We had a great summer together,” said Loftus, whose club fell in a walk-off, 3-2, to ConVal in the semis on Tuesday night. “We won some games, and we lost some games, but the kids played hard and improved.

“These are definitely kids who want to be out there, kids who want to play ball. These are kids who are looking for a place to play.”

Loftus found a nice mix in this wooden-bat league. Instead of whining about the kids’ exodus to AAU ball, he worked with the issue, inviting AAU guys to play during the week with the team, then hit the road to showcase your stuff to the college scouts.

“To improve and get better in this game, you have to work and you have to hit every day, not just one or two days a week,” said Loftus. “We gave these guys a great opportunity to play all week long.”

In just a short summer season, Loftus found plenty to be proud of.

He points to Milford’s Nick Kahle, who returned after his freshman year at Worcester Poly Tech. Focussing on his studies at WPI, he had to be jonesing to play baseball again and showed that enthusiasm with his new teammates.

“Here’s a kid working a full-time job at BAE Systems, and he’d show up at practice and games straight from work in a shirt-and-tie. He had perfect attendance,” said Loftus. “He’d change clothes and still be one of the first kids on the diamond. He’d come to pitch and was our ace, just a kid you love to see setting examples for the other kids on the team.”

Kahle took the tough loss in the semis, throwing 110 pitches on the night and leaving everything he had out there in what will be his final Dodgers game ever.

Mario Barassi is another college guy, who returned for one more summer. The HBHS alum went to Southern New Hampshire University last year.

“Just a real nice athlete,” said Loftus. “He had some key hits and was just a rock behind the plate for us. We couldn’t have gotten as far as we did without him.”

Tyler MacDormand was Loftus’ captain this spring with the Cavaliers. He rolled that into a big Dodgers’ summer.

“Just another great role model,” said Loftus, who used him at catcher, pitcher and center field. “He had great attendance, hit for high average and made all the plays at all the key positions. He’s the kind of kid you want to be your neighbor, just a really nice young man.”

Some of the guys Loftus didn’t even know before things started.

Bobby Henline, from Souhegan High School, moved from West Virginia for his sophomore year with the Sabers. He was key for the Dodgers, playing short and center, pitching too, while holding down the leadoff spot in the lineup.

Loftus said that he felt Henline was a bit homesick, that is until the Dodgers’ season convened.

“He meshed with a bunch of kids,” the coach said. “He spent time with guys on and off the field. It was great to see.”

Loftus remembered his first meeting with Henline in the Alvirne High School parking lot before the season opener with Hudson.

“Here’s a kid with really long hair, and I was really trying to get to know him, asking all these questions,” said Loftus, his old-school baseball attitude leaking through a bit. “He answered every question correctly, about playing, practicing, just the answers that were so encouraging for a coach to hear. And he didn’t disappoint all summer long.”