Published DateLACONIA — Noah Crane, general manager of the Laconia Muskrats, recalls a distinct sensation of inexperience he felt four years ago, when he and his family brought the amateur, wooden-bat New England Collegiate Baseball League team to Laconia. With every step, he's learned a bit more, and this year he thinks the team could set a new high point, both in terms of on-the-field performance and in-the-stands attendance.
"I certainly went into this thinking, 'I don't know what I'm doing'," said Crane. His baseball acumen was sharp, which helpedto build a team that finished fourth in the league and earned a post-season appearance in the first season for the Muskrats. The teams have continued to be competitive or better – the 2011 team won the Eastern Conference title and played in the team's first championship game. Last year's team didn't enjoy such a long post-season run, though still finished third in the standings.
More challenging, said Crane, have been the other parts of managing a team, namely, filling the stands with fans and building relationships with local sponsors. "It's encouraging that we're growing. We're getting better in terms of attendance and sponsorships," Crane said, though he added, "We're still not where we need to be."
For both spectators and sponsors, there's a core of solid support that Crane greatly appreciates. There's not quite enough of them, yet, he said.
The 2011 season, with its extended playoff run, saw the team's highest season total of more than 10,000 fans admitted. Attendance flagged a bit last year, though, with a total of 8,500. This year, the Muskrats organization is pursuing a goal of "13 for 13," 13,000 fans admitted for the 2013 season.
Crane thinks the team can do it, for a few reasons. The league added a couple of games to the regular season this year. The Muskrats and Robbie Mills Field will be hosting this year's NECLB All-Star game, which will surely draw hundreds from around New England. Lastly, he thinks the team should be fun to watch.
Returning talent includes Conway native Nick Kevlin, a right-handed pitcher who talked his way into a try-out last year and earned a spot in the Muskrats bullpen. Now a sophomore at Fort Scott Community College in Kansas, Crane expects Kevlin to be an improved and versatile pitcher that could be used in many situations, including as a starter. Also returning are Joe Torres, a speedy outfielder from Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y., and left-handed pitcher Nevin Wilson, a sophomore at Vanderbilt University.
Crane is also excited to bring Wilson's battery mate at Vanderbilt, freshman Walker Buehler. With a fastball in the 90s that he throws in between changeups and breaking balls, Buehler was recently ranked the top baseball draft prospect of his class. Crane said that Buehler was drafted out of high school, but that he declined professional offers so that he could play for Vanderbilt, a team which was recently named the number 2 seed in the NCAA baseball tournament. Some of the players from the earlier Muskrat teams have already begun professional careers, and Crane said Buehler is expected to follow them in a short amount of time. "He's special – we're excited about him," said Crane, noting that the only downside is that Buehler's Laconia appearance might be delayed if Vanderbilt goes deep into the NCAA tourney.
While Crane is excited about several of the players on his roster, he's learned a lesson from previous years and packed his team deep with talent. He's been burned in the past by players that either become injured or simply don't show up for the season; if that happens this year, there will be plenty of other players to fill that void.
The coaching staff remains a point of stability for Crane. Manager Matt Alison is in his third year in his current position and his fourth with the team. Pitching coach Luke Demko, a Gilford native and a star pitcher for the Golden Eagles during his high school years, also returns.
As with last year, all regular season games will begin at 6:30 p.m. New this year is the price structure: those 16 and older will be admitted for $5, while those 15 and younger will be admitted for free.
The first game for the Muskrats this year will be at home on June 6, when Laconia hosts the Plymouth Pilgrims at Robbie Mills Field. For a full schedule, visit laconiamuskrats.com.