by Ken Brown
HARDWICK – The Hazen Union baseball team reached the Division III state title game last spring in head coach Spencer Howard’s third season at the helm and are poised to make another deep playoff run in 2023 with two of the top players in the division returning for their senior campaigns.
It has been a progressive rebuild for Howard and the varsity baseball program at Hazen Union the last three years, culminating with a 15-win season, the school’s first ever No. 1 overall seed in the playoffs, and their first trip to Centennial Field in 15 years in 2022. The Wildcats ran into a Peoples Academy buzzsaw named Ben Alekson in the title game last June, but those Wolves and their star pitcher have moved onto Division II and after 28 wins and consecutive trips to the Final Four, Howard’s squad enters the spring as one of the favorites to raise the hardware at the end of the season for the first time in 41 years.
“The weather has made it a much different start to the season. Last year we were already prepping the field, but we’ve only been able to get out of the gym and into the parking lot once or twice the last three weeks. We have a talented and experienced core returning, but we lost some key pieces to graduation in Aasha Gould, Tyson Davison, Jas Zendik, and Wyatt Flanders. Those guys were pivotal to the run we had down the stretch last season. We are a different team this year and it will take time for new players to step up and develop into new roles. It is a great group of kids and they know our goal is to get better with every practice and every game, stick to the process, and build off of the foundation that we’ve created here the last three years,” said Howard.
The Wildcats enter their second season in the gauntlet called the Capital League that includes two state champions in Spaulding and Peoples Academy, state runner-up Lyndon Institute, and semifinalist Thetford Academy. Howard will counter that firepower with some of his own in senior stars Tyler Rivard and Lyle Rooney. Rivard was a Capital League First Team selection after leading the Wildcats and most of the League in several offensive categories. He batted .434, drove in 18 runs, swiped 31 bases, and led Hazen in hits. He also earned three wins on the mound and saved a pair of games. He will bat second in the lineup for Howard and will be the main focus of every opposing team’s defensive game plan.
Rooney was once again the ace and workhorse for Howard’s pitching staff and was a Second Team selection in the crowded Capital. He struck out 74 batters in 53 innings, posted a 2.10 earned run average, and threw the second no-hitter of his career. Fellow senior Jadon Baker also returns to patrol center field and terrorize opposing teams on the base paths with his elite speed. James Montgomery will manage the pitching staff behind the plate once again in his final season for the Wildcats and Howard hopes he can pick right up where he left off offensively in the second half of last season.
Andrew Menard leads a junior class returning that includes Dan des Groseilliers and Jake Davison that will play vital starting roles in lengthening the lineup for the Wildcats offensively. Menard was also a key to Hazen Union’s pitching rotation in 2022 and will look to take the next step this spring after winning a Babe Ruth state championship with Rooney over the summer for the Green Mountain Wild. Sophomore Brendan Moodie comes over from Peoples Academy and Howard likes the speed he adds to an already athletic roster, as well as depth to the pitching staff.
“Tyler’s already in good form after playing a lot of summer ball with the Vermont Strikers traveling team. We’re just continuing to work on him making solid contact and driving the ball hard. We are already seeing big improvements in his pitching and mechanics as well. Lyle also played a lot of ball over the summer and he came in with more strength being a year older and we’re just fine tuning his command for the season. These two are really good ball players and they’ll lead us, but we have some great talent around them and we’ll keep working and developing so teams can’t just focus on them. Jadon and James provide great toughness and leadership that is so important for this team and Andrew is so versatile for us in the infield and has near perfect pitching mechanics. This whole group works hard and with their determination to build off of last year’s success…the sky’s the limit,” said Howard.
Joey Rivard and Opie Upson round out the coaching staff for Howard again this season and their knowledge of the game and understanding of the kids are invaluable according to Howard.
“They add a lot of continuity to this program and they just have unbelievable baseball minds. They are great sounding boards for me and the kids and we’ve been on the same wavelength from day one in trying to rebuild this program at Hazen. They give a lot of their time and I’m so grateful to have them so involved. We are all excited to get outside and get the season started. We have a lot of athletes on this team, so our goal is to figure out how to get as many guys on base as we can and continue to be aggressive,” said Howard.
The Wildcats are scheduled to open the season at Danville next Thursday and will host Montpelier next Saturday in their home opener at Hudson Fields.