Cutting varsity team can’t slow down baseball in Vermont

In 2009, the University of Vermont athletic department made the difficult decision to cut the varsity baseball and softball teams. But less than two years since the last game played by the varsity baseball team, baseball prominence has found its way back to Burlington.

In its inaugural season playing in the New England Club Baseball Association (NECBA), the UVM club team outscored their opponents 112-22, posted a record of 12-0 and defeated Boston University 9-6, winning the league championship on Oct. 24.

The NECBA is made up of 16 schools in the New England area, including some large Division I athletic programs that do not have varsity baseball teams such as the University of New Hampshire and Boston University.

Unlike conventional baseball seasons, the NECBA plays their primary schedule in the fall and a less important — unofficial — season in the spring.

While most of the former varsity athletes who played for the team had to find a team elsewhere — or not play at all — three former varsity baseball players were on the team and were at the heart of this season’s success.

Owen Ozanich, Tom Jackson and Tom Kelly were all members of the varsity team who decided to continue playing baseball at Vermont despite the cutting of the varsity team.

Ozanich acknowledged that the transition from varsity to club wasn’t an easy one but was extremely proud of what the club team was able to accomplish.

“While club baseball is great, it’s not varsity baseball,” Ozanich said. “That being said, club baseball allows guys who love the game to continue playing at a completive level with players who would never be able to play Division I baseball but have the passion for the game. We meshed so well. We had a big group of guys who just loved to play baseball.”

When looking at the statistics, the success of the team so early in their existence is due in large part to the three former Division I athletes.

Ozanich — a pitcher and a shortstop — pitched 35.1 innings, tallying a 6-0 record with a 0.39 ERA. Kelly — an outfielder and pitcher — batted .545 with two homeruns and led the team in runs batted in with 20. He amassed a 6-0 record on the mound striking out 35 batters in only 23 innings posting an era of 1.56. Jackson — a catcher and outfielder — led the team in hitting with a .600 batting average.

“We were facing good competition every game,” Kelly said. “It wasn’t like we were up against terrible pitching. Each lineup we faced was strong one through nine and the pitchers were solid.”

Team treasurer Dan Maldonado, one of the seven Vermonters on the team, knew that they had a chance to be a championship team early in the season.

“After the first six games, we had 10-run ruled every team by the fifth inning,” Maldonado said. “It was always in the back of our minds that we could go undefeated. If we played to our potential we knew we could beat anyone.”

The team finished up their perfect season by beating Boston University 9-6 in the NECBA championship game. The title left the former Division I players feeling bittersweet about the season and circumstances surrounding the club team.

“It’s obviously great to win a title in club baseball with a great group of guys on the team and great head coaches,” Kelly said. “It’s just going from Division I to club, it’s a huge change.”

The club team accomplished something that both the former Division I athletes and the newcomers to baseball at the University can appreciate and celebrate together.

“I was pleased to see how well the Division I guys meshed with guys who were playing baseball at this school for the first time,” Maldonado said. “I hope the administration recognizes the success of our team. Being a Vermonter I am proud to represent my state and university as a championship baseball team.”

“Certainly our team, this school and these former Division I guys miss the varsity team. I hope for the time being, the club team can fill the void as best it can. Vermont needs a team to represent itself and, other than the Lake Monsters, we represent Vermont baseball at its highest level.”