Kamal Asar has seen a lot in his 14 years in the North Shore Baseball League with the semipro Kingston Night Owls, but this is something new.
For the first time, it appears likely that someone other than Peabody or Swampscott will prevail as the NSBL playoff champions, and his Night Owls (16-6-1) are one of the top two contenders. Regular-season champion Newburyport/Amesbury (18-5-1) is the other.
As a result, the NSBL playoffs get underway next week with more anticipation than at any time in recent memory.
"We've been competitive, but we've never won the regular season or the playoffs," said Asar. "We've never had this much talent or this much depth. It's kind of nice."
Much of the credit, says Asar, belongs to new coach Paul Sartori, the former Lawrence Legion coach with strong ties to the Merrimack Valley.
Sartori attracted a plethora of former Merrimack Valley Conference players and held the most competitive tryout ever held by the Night Owls. After it was over, 15 players had been cut.
"I was worried about just making the team," said the 44-year-old Asar, a resident of Haverhill and the oldest player in the NSBL. "Paul came in wanting to win and you could tell right away.
For the first time in a long time, we've had practices when we don't have games. Not too many (NSBL) teams do that."
An indication of the Night Owls' rising strength is that, while Asar remains one of the top players in the league, he lost his usual slots as the team's leadoff batter and starting center fielder.
Replaced in both spots by former Central Catholic standout Roberto Valenti, Asar now plays left field and bats anywhere from second to ninth in the batting order.
"That's fine with me," said Asar. "Roberto is an excellent player, very fast and a good hitter. I'm just happy to be playing and in the lineup."