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."
In fact, Asar — even at his age — remains one of the faster players in the league and one of the better hitters. He's hitting over .300 and, with more walks than he's ever had, enjoys a high on-base percentage.
"I still hear people say when I get up, 'watch out for the bunt' or 'he's got wheels,' and that's kind of nice," said Asar.
What's even nicer is the talent that he's surrounded by, the nucleus of which is from the MVC. In addition to Valenti, it includes position players Mike Ferriero (second base), Corey Highfield (infield/outfield), Steve Schultz (outfield), Chris Sartori (first base) and veteran Brock Fay (catcher). Ferriero played at Tewksbury while all the others are from Central Catholic.
As a group, the positional former MVC players are hitting a robust .370 and averaging more than three RBIs per game.
Former MVC pitchers aiding the cause are Haverhill's Sean Hayden and Central Catholic grads Chris Dion, Dennis Torres and Brian Wolfendale. Torres is considered a closer and Wolfendale has been superb in relief.
As a group, the ex-MVC hurlers have averaged better than a strikeout per inning and have an ERA of 2.50.
"Also, the 10 (former MVC) players have made only five errors all year," said coach Sartori. "They make the plays they're supposed to and then some."
Hayden joins aces Steve Carrodine of Londonderry and Chris Anderson, the former Northern Essex from Portsmouth who was drafted, to form a deep and talented group of starters.
It's the depth that is the key to the team's success according to Sartori.
"Every night someone different is contributing," he said. "You can't highlight anyone's individual stats because so many guys are responsible for our season."
But Sartori does give credit to Asar's leadership.
"He is the consummate teammate and role model," said Sartori. "His energy, love of the game and competitive spirit lifts everyone's enthusiasm, and all our players admire and respect him. He plays every inning and every at-bat as if it were the final game of the World Series."
Asar no doubt appreciates the compliments, but he believes that a bigger secret to the team's success, in addition to the revamping done by Sartori, is stability.
"We have a stronger core and we also have the same starting lineup every game," said Asar. "Other teams in the league are always changing."
But the Night Owls, with the veteran Asar, are as stable as they come and ready to shake things up in the playoffs.
The MVC Night Owls
Following are former Merrimack Valley Conference players who have helped carry the Kingston Night Owls to their outstanding season.
Mike FerrieroTewksburyBentleySecond base
Steve SchultzCentralBunker HillOutfield
Chris SartoriCentralBentleyFirst base
Roberto ValentiCentralSouther MaineCenter field
Chris DionCentralSt. Joseph'sPitcher
Sean HaydenHaverhillSt. AnselmPitcher
Dennis TorresCentralUMass AmherstPitcher
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