Eric Callahan knows how to lead the flock.
With his Westhampton Aviators down 2-1 to Riverhead in the top of the fifth inning, the 6’3” rising senior at Millersville University belted a three-run triple for a 4-2 lead en route to a 7-3 win and Hamptons Collegiate Baseball League championship series sweep at Veterans Memorial Park in Calverton July 30. He also had a stolen base, and lunging backhanded grab of a line drive hit by Bryce Wallace for the third out with the bases loaded in the seventh.
The Aviators continued to soar high above the HCBL standings toward their league record fourth championship, and Callahan, the MVP of the series, who had a five-RBI performance with a grand slam in Game 1, was not only dominant in the final two games of the season — he put up three runs, two RBI, and three walks in a series sweep of Southampton. Callahan even hit a walk-off single during the first game of the series against the Breakers for a 4-3-win July 25. The shortstop averaged .438 across the postseason.
“This goes to my teammates,” he said of the MVP award. “They get on base for me almost every at-bat. I’m just up there trying to do a job, move runners. I got a couple of pitches over the heart of the plate and made the most out of it.”
Callahan rejoined the Aviators after a one-year hiatus. He was on the 2017 team that lost in the championship series, and wanted to help his club redeem that loss, but knew Westhampton was up against a tough Tomcats team. Both finished the regular season 27-11-2, a club record for Riverhead, which in 2018 became the last HCBL team to win its first title, and was trying to become the first in the league’s 12-year history to nab consecutive championships. But Westhampton was making its fourth appearance in a championship series in five years, sixth altogether. The Aviators failed to reach the playoffs only twice — in 2012 and 2014.
Westhampton manager Alex Brosnan said he never doubted what any of his guys could do.
“I have guys that have played in college world series and guys that have played in super regionals — my guys’ experience is unparalleled in this league, and you can see the difference right there,” he said. “The whole series we found ourselves down, but we find a way to pick it back up — they’re just unfazed. They hit a little bit of adversity, and they get right back in.”
The Aviators combined to hit .305 in the playoffs with five home runs and 38 RBI.
George Washington University right-handed pitcher Harrison Cohen said he too knew from the get-go he was on a championship-caliber team, and said going on a 13-for-15 playoff run, others teams started to see it, too.
“We knew from the first week we were going to be a competitive team. We had the talent,” the junior said. “And that run — it’s unheard of.”
What makes Westhampton so dangerous is there’s no easy out. In fact, the Aviators scored 10 runs or more in three innings this season. Brosnan said when you have the league’s home run leader in Sean O’Keefe batting seventh, it’s a good problem to have.
“That’s also a perfect spot for him,” he said, “because he has guys in front of him that get on.”
In the six-hole, Northwestern State University junior Chaney Dodge finished the postseason batting .231 with six runs, three RBI, two walks, and four stolen bases. O’Keefe racked up four runs and six RBI, averaging .313. Batting eighth, New York Institute of Technology sophomore Dave Franchi went .500 with four runs, two RBI, and five walks. His older brother Dan, a senior at Binghamton University, batting leadoff, had four runs, two RBI, and four walks with a .294 batting average. The pair are the first siblings to win a title in the same year, and the older Franchi is the first player in the league’s history to win the championship twice.
‘It Feels Great’
“It feels great to win the championship together,” Dan Franchi said. “This is more than likely last time playing on the same field together.”
The 5’10” leftfielder, who holds the record for hits in a season and hits across a career for the Aviators, showed he also has defensive prowess. In the eighth inning, with runners on first and third with two outs, Franchi, at center field, which goes back 384 feet, scooped up a Jason Coules RBI-single that scored Brian Morrell, and threw the ball a football field’s length to get Robert Gallagher trying breaking for home to end the inning. Coules is ranked Top 10 in average according to the National Alliance of College Summer Baseball.
“I knew I didn’t want that guy scoring,” the two-time New Era Cap Player of the Week said. “If that guy scored, momentum could keep building, so the only thing I was thinking is throw the ball as hard as I can. That’s exactly what I did.”
Both starting pitchers turned in five-inning efforts, throwing 90 pitches each. Westhampton’s Ryan Smith (2-0 in the playoffs, 0.90 ERA) gave up four hits, two runs (one earned), and four walks, and finished with six strikeouts. Riverhead’s Bobby Vath (1-1, 3.75), ranked Top 20 in the NACSB in ERA (1.44), allowed five hits, five runs (three earned), one walk, and fanned four.
Westhampton General Manager Tom Pisaneschi has been big on family and familiar faces, another reason the team has gelled so well. He brought in his son, Brett, a Westhampton Beach High School graduate and former Aviator himself, to be the team’s pitching coach after finishing his career at Post University in Connecticut. Nick Bottari, the league’s Most Valuable Player in 2017, returned this season along with his younger cousin, Jason Bottari.
Brosnan said his guys also wanted to be coached, which made his job easy. Cohen, who is ranked Top 25 in the nation in ERA with a 1.79, according to the NACSB, and is headed to the Cape Cod Baseball League to finish out the summer, said he knew his manager was going to do right by his team.
“This has been amazing,” said Cohen, who came back from injury — sitting out his entire sophomore season — to drastically improve his numbers during his first year in the league. “I think the competition here is truly underrated. It’s one of the best developmental leagues in the country. They do a great job. I’m thankful for the opportunity.”
“An organization like the Aviators takes a lot of pride in what they do,” Callahan added. “It always feels good to give back to them with a championship banner.”