Written by Crae Messer, Keene Sentinel
When Connor Longley got a phone call from Valley Blue Sox manager John Raiola back in May, Longley's destination for summer baseball was a question mark.
Longley had just finished up his sophomore year at Keene State, where he solidified the middle of the Owls' lineup. He batted .395 with four home runs and 24 RBI last spring.
But after an open tryout in the Futures Collegiate Baseball League, he was still without a contract. Hours later, that changed. It was Raiola, Longley's former pitching coach at Bridgeton Academy on the phone, offering Longley a temporary deal.
The Blue Sox went on to win their first New England Collegiate Baseball League championship after a two-game sweep of the Ocean State Waves.
Not a bad summer for a division III collegiate ballplayer in a league mostly ruled by division I players.
"I made a huge jump this summer," Longley said.
That's an understatement.
In past summers, he got his swings in by going to mini golf parks and feeding coins into the batting cages for a few extra pitches.
The NECBL was quite a step up.
In fact, of the 30 players on the Blue Sox roster at the end of the season, Longley is one of two that play for a Division III school, and one of five that play for a non-Division I school.
Most of his summer teammates weren't familiar with Keene State, including his roomates Zach Kohn (Central Michigan) and Andrew Schultz (Tennessee).
That created a learning curve for Longley, a left-handed hitter with a big leg kick and a big swing.
Playing in the Little East Conference with the Owls, Longley said he was used to fastballs in the 82-88 mph range. Step up to the dish in the NECBL, and those speeds bump up to 90-95 mph.
"If I was down 0-2 at Keene, I'd be able to foul off some curveballs or changeups or something. Once I get down 0-2 (in the NECBL), I'm like 'this is the real deal,' I never know what's coming," Longley said.
While he ultimately found a rhythm in the Blue Sox lineup, it wasn't instant success. Being from a Division III college, he was forced to overcome challenges and earn his playing time.
"I knew I could play with everybody. Once I got there I knew I could compete. It just came down to me getting my shot," Longley said.
"I had never sat the bench like that, so it was tough. Especially after Keene (State), where I hit in the three hole every day to sitting on the bench for nine innings, and traveling on the bus to just sit there."
He wasn't an everyday player, but Longley appeared in 22 regular season games and batted .309 with 68 plate appearances. He reeled off a nine-game hitting streak from June 28 to July 22.
Despite the game being faster in the NECBL than Division III ball, and the obstacles Longley faced , he was eventually able to make it work — all thanks to his mindset.
Longley said his teammates were shocked with his success, even asking what he was doing that was working.
"Just go up to the plate and swing the bat. So they said 'I'll try that.' "
Longley started in right field all three games Valley played against the SwampBats at Alumni Field in Keene. For each one, a small group of friends gathered beyond the outfield fence. Playing in his college town in front of friends was part of what made his summer with the Blue Sox a special experience.
Facing Keene in Holyoke, Mass., Longley faced off against Keene State teammates Noah Rizio and Andrew Houde. In one appearance against Houde, he struck out.
"He struck me out pretty good," Longley said with a chuckle. "I texted him after the game and said 'what the hell?'"
Longley got the final bragging rights, though — an NECBL championship. In the first round of the playoffs, Valley eliminated the Bats 5-0. Longley was 1-for-4 with an RBI double.
He struggled through the playoffs, facing the league's best arms, batting just .125 with nine strikeouts. The championship, though, was the icing on the cake of a summer well-spent. Longley described it as, "like a movie."
"I'm so grateful to have been given this unbelievable opportunity and I can't thank the Blue Sox organization enough for giving a guy from a small Division III school a chance," Longley said.
"I will never forget the feeling of winning that first title. It was truly the best experience of my life and I can't wait to see if this game can take me other places."
Other Summer Highlights
Rising junior Devin Springfield finished the summer playing for the Rome Generals of the New York Collegiate Baseball League. Springfield finished the season batting .380 in 36 games with 11 doubles, two triples, one home run and 18 RBI. He was also selected as a starter in the NYCBL All-Star Game, where his Eastern Division team posted a 4-1 win. He also won the Best Outfield Arm award.
As mentioned, Andrew Houde saw some time with the Keene Swamp Bats after starting hte year with the Virginia Beach Waves. Houde made three appearances for the Swamp Bats, including one start. Noah Rizio also made three relief appearances for Keene.