Div. 3: Bay Staters fit at MIT
BASEBALL TYPICALLY ISN'T FIRST and foremost on the minds of those who consider attending the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It is among the most desirable universities in the entire world, but head coach Andy Barlow is hoping to drop the academics-only stigma that surrounds his program on the New England scene.
"Some of the local kids think that MIT is just a bunch of academic, computer kids and that it might not be the right fit for them," Barlow said.
Really, though, it isn't hard to notice that MIT is about much, much more than that.
Those kids can play ball, too. The Engineers have won 20 games for seven consecutive seasons and played for the New England Women's & Men's Athletic Conference (NEWMAC) title four times in the last five.
With help from top assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Todd Carroll, who hails from Burlington, Mass., two Bay State natives looked past that stigma during their respective recruiting processes and signed on to help engineer more success on the diamond in Cambridge this spring.
Senior stalwart Max Lancaster (Attleboro, Mass.) and freshman pitcher Casey Bussone (Danvers, Mass.) are the only New England natives on a roster that includes players from 15 different states, including six from California. In fact, Lancaster is the first New England native to play four years at MIT since James McKinney (Wakefield, R.I.) finished his collegiate career in 2013.
Whether they are athletes or not, MIT prospects obviously have to have the grades, but Barlow and Carroll knew they could — and do — offer these guys the best of both worlds.
"Academics were obviously one of my top priorities coming into school, so you can't beat what we've got here at MIT," said Lancaster, a computer science major who made 33 starts last season, hitting .299 with 27 RBI. "The coaching staff does a really good job recruiting, setting people up when they come on campus and making you feel like they want you to come play here. That culture was really attractive to me."
The recruiting process was much more recent for Bussone, who is in the midst of his rookie season at MIT after earning Catholic Conference All-Star and team MVP honors at St. John's Prep, a school that routinely provides athletic talent to top Division 1 programs.
Bussone quickly found MIT to be the right fit, and he's jumped right into the fire as a member of a pitching staff that lost four-year starter David Hesslink to graduation. The 5-foot-11, 180-pound righty made his collegiate debut in the Engineers' series finale with nationally-ranked Trinity (Texas), tossing two scoreless innings.
"Coming to MIT was probably the best decision I've ever made," Bussone said. "The baseball here is phenomenal and definitely compares to some of the bigger programs that a lot of other kids go to, and the community here is awesome. Even though there aren't a lot of local guys, you make friends with everyone. It's really awesome. We're a close team."
While Lancaster was on MIT's radar early in his Hockomock League All-Star career at Attleboro High School, the Engineers had to battle to lock up Bussone. Carroll remembers those conversations well.
"When we went to see Casey, there were a bunch of local Division 1 coaches behind the backstop with us. They would ask what we were doing there, and I said, 'The only way he's going to your school is to teach' because he was that kind of student," Carroll said. "We felt fortunate to win a couple battles with him because there were some really, really good academic and baseball schools on him. We think he has a real bright future for us."
As the most recent MLB draft showed, that future can extend beyond four collegiate seasons as the Engineers produced two players who heard their names called in June.
Two-time NEWMAC Player of the Year and former All-American short-stop Austin Filiere was an eighth-round selection of the Chicago Cubs and will continue climbing up the organizational ladder in 2018, while Hesslink pitched in the Seattle Mariners system last season before putting his analytics expertise to work as a member of the team's front office.
No matter where career paths lead, MIT not only offers a world-class education but also gives its players a shot at reaching their professional baseball dreams. The work ethic that Filiere and Hesslink showed during their college careers certainly provided an example that today's team continues to follow.
"I'll be telling people for the rest of my life that the best baseball player I ever played with was Austin Filiere," Lancaster said. "Those guys who go in the draft are obviously talented, but one thing you notice is that they have an incredible work ethic that just puts them over the edge. Austin hit five times as much as some of the other guys. He absolutely loved to hit, and that passion for the game and desire to get better just rubs off on everyone else."
What Filiere and Hesslink accomplished is the ultimate rarity for a Division 3 program, but their collegiate and professional success can serve as inspiration for future Engineers. And this year's leaders know what it took for them to get there.
"From a recruiting standpoint, it's big because kids in high school will say, 'Wow, high academics and two kids drafted into pro ball,'" Barlow said. "It's been a little bit of a struggle early on in the season trying to replace (Filiere and Hesslink in the lineup), but I think we're going to be OK. We've got great kids."
After all, it's not just a computer school.