HAVERHILL — The 2022 Northern Essex Community College baseball team is not only heading to the JUCO Division 3 World Series in Tennessee on Thursday.

They are heading there with the best record in the country at, get this, 41-2.

Impressive.

“It’s best team we’ve ever had,” said coach Jeff Mejia.

That’s saying something as this is NECC’s sixth trip to the World Series in nine seasons.

Even more impressive, though, is the collective NECC baseball story, and the winning that these young men are doing in other areas, as in school and their futures.

Ryan McAuliffe is the poster boy, among others, representing the newest phenomenon in the Merrimack Valley.

The 27-year-old North Reading native was a big-time pitcher, leading his team to a state title as a junior with his 90 mile-per-hour fastball and, as impressive, a biting, ultra-spinning curveball.

He was also a big-time dud in the classroom. He didn’t qualify academically for any Division 1 school.

“I actually never missed a day of school,” recalled McAuliffe, of his days North Reading High. “But when it came to test-taking and homework … those things were always on my back-burner. I wasn’t really focused on academics, which was all on me.”

Then came an opportunity for a second chance, or in reality, his only chance at fulfilling a dream of playing Division 1 baseball, and then becoming a pro.

“I was pretty much set to go to a prep school, but was talking to Jeff Mejia (NECC baseball coach), at the Rams Baseball facility, which he was part-owner,” recalled McAuliffe.

“He said, ‘Why pay $50,000 when you can to Northern Essex (CC) for a lot less and we can help you get to where you want to go.’”

Eight years later, and McAuliffe not only went to two JUCO Division 3 World Series, but he played two years as a star pitcher at St. John’s University, signed as a free agent with the N.Y. Mets organization, retiring after two injury-riddled years.

Today he is a successful account executive with a regional software company, basically loving life.

Earlier this month he was inducted into the NECC Athletics Hall of Fame.

“For me, it was the first time in my life, first attending NECC and then playing baseball, that I had structure in my life,” said McAuliffe. “I was still living at home, which was humbling, with many of my friends off at college having fun partying.

“I was waking up with a plan every day, setting goals. You have a lot of personal time, alone. I reflected a lot. It was where my life changed, for the better.”

The 2021-22 NECC baseball team is loaded with Ryan McAuliffes.

Guys taking advantage of a second chance at either school or baseball. Or both.

Ten current players have already committed to either Division 1 or Division 2 programs, most getting a healthy amount of scholarship money and financial aid.

Logan Burrill, of Amesbury, is headed to the University of Maine in the fall.

Burrill is coincidentally returning this week to the team for the World Series after breaking his forearm running into the wall in Winter Haven, Fla., in March. It came shortly after his second home run of the game.

“I had no offers while in high school,” said Burrill. “I still was under-developed as a baseball player. But I also didn’t have great grades. I was immature as a student and a player.”

Burrill had heard about a few former Amesbury High players who matriculated to NECC.

“The program was already good, going to a few World Series,” said Burrill. “But honestly, it was better than I thought. There were a lot of guys like myself, who loved the game, and really needed a chance to prove ourselves. It’s honestly like a family, with guys from all walks of life. We just mesh. It’s hard to explain.”

Burrill’s grade point average is a honor roll-esque 3.2, easily the best of his life.

“We have like 30 guys on the roster,” said Burrill. “And we’re all growing up and maturing together. I am going to Maine in the fall, but the friendships I’ve made here will last forever.”

As Burrill noted, there are players with different stories on their trek to NECC.

Exhibit A: Richie Williams, of Georgetown, and Dallas Vaughn, of Haverhill.

Williams was a starter at perennial Massachusetts superpower St. John’s Prep before finding his way to UMaine in the fall of 2020.

He was also a top tier student, making the National Honor Society at The Prep.

It was a dream come true, playing Division 1 baseball in Orono, Maine.

But then the season happened. Williams, an outfielder, played only six innings, getting three at-bats the entire season.

He ended up joining a teammate at Maine, Jeffrey Mejia Jr., to South Dakota for summer baseball. Jeff’s father, Jeff Sr., made a visit to see his son and had a discussion with Williams.

“I had first talked to Jeffrey and he had gone to UMass Lowell, where it didn’t work out, and then played for his dad at Northern Essex (CC),” said Williams. “I talked to coach Mejia and he told me about what my options could be.”

Williams said leaving Maine was one of the most difficult decisions he ever made, because of the relationship with his teammates and head coach.

“People call it a reboot, but I looked at it differently, like I was starting over,” said Williams. “Because of COVID and injuries (blood clot, broken bone in shoulder) I hadn’t really played since my junior year at St. John’s. I wanted the opportunity to play and take my game to another level.”

Williams, a great defender in centerfield, did just that this season.

Entering the World Series this weekend, Williams is hitting .407 with five home runs. In the Northeast Regional championship game in Bronx, N.Y., Williams was 3 for 4, with three runs scored and two walks.

“I’ve had so much fun here, playing baseball, building relationships and being part of a special team,” said Williams. “There is so much talent here.”

Williams will be attending Division 2 St. Anselm in the fall and has no qualms forfeiting the Division 1 dream.

“St. Anselm, the school and baseball program, are perfect for me,” said Williams. “That (Northeast-10) conference, especially at the top, with Southern New Hampshire University and Adelphi, is pretty much Division 1 caliber. I am very excited.”

Vaughn, like Williams, had no academic issues, graduating with a 3.7 GPA at Haverhill High.

“I didn’t have anything coming out of high school; no interest at all,” said Vaughn, who is 7-1 with a 1.38 ERA, striking out 48 batters in just 39 innings.

“I love the game ... love it. But I wasn’t ready, physically.”

Following the NECC program, seeing its successes with wins and player development, Vaughn reached out to coach Mejia.

“There is a stigma, going the JUCO route,” said Vaughn, who also has committed to St. Anselm. “But honestly, that’s starting to change. Kids aren’t getting the offers they want or expected. I remember thinking it would be good baseball, based on what I heard. But it was better, much better.

“This is by far the best team I’ve ever been on. It’s a melting pot, with so many different stories. I feel very lucky to be here. and I saved a lot of money.”

The architect of “Second Chance U” is Coach Mejia.

He joined the program late in the fall of 2012, which was immediately following NECC’s second-ever World Series trip the year before, with the 2006 team going as well.

“I was very excited that first year, believing that four or five All-Americans, all of whom had another year, would be returning,” said Mejia. “But when the coach (Chris Shanahan) resigned, they decided to leave. So we started at my first practice with 12 kids … and no catchers.”

The process, for Mejia, was to fill the roster first and build for the future later.

“I was a salesman the first few years,” said Mejia. “I was trying to sell opportunity, the fact that they could come here, to Northern Essex (CC), and possibly have the opportunity to play at a four-year school.”

Then it actually happened, with McAuliffe going to St. John’s, Colby Maiola to UMass Lowell, R.J. Warnock to Ave Maria University and Keith Linnane to UMass Amherst.

“That was huge in recruiting, actually seeing guys get to four-year schools,” said Mejia. “Then the kids started calling me. For most of them, early on, there were academic issues they had to also resolve here.”

What took NECC baseball to another level was not only the transfers, which increased by double digits every year, but that high academic students were looking to attend NECC to help their baseball recruitment.

“We found out that we could also help out the late bloomers, like Richie Williams and my son, Jeffrey,” said Mejia. “Some aren’t ready to play at a high level, and remember, we are a high level, with Division 1 talent on our team but also facing Division 1 talent almost every game. Why pay thousands of dollars and go to a prep school or sit? Why not come here, without all those probable loans, get a good education, and play baseball at a high level.”

One thing Mejia has been able to offer all of his players, especially if the team is good, is the chance to be seen by four-year schools.

NECC baseball makes an annual trek to UMaine for two scrimmages. Merrimack and St. Anselm were also on the schedule this past fall.

Maine and St. Anselm liked what they saw and scooped up a few NECC players with interest in a few others maybe the year after.

“I’m not going to lie. I love to win more than anybody. I love being part of a winning program and going to a World Series again,” said Mejia. “But the best part of what I do is seeing another player sign with a four-year school. I get chills thinking about it.

“In the end, that’s our job here at Northern Essex. We are trying to help young men get a good, affordable education and chase their dreams. My dream is to see their dreams come true.”

You can email Bill Burt at bburt@eagletribune.com.

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