By Tris Wykes

NORWICH – Hanover High has claimed state titles in virtually every sport it offers, with the glaring exception of baseball. Could this be the year that box is finally checked? 

Hanover High’s Casey Graham delivers a practice pitch Friday. Copyright Octopus Athletics. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to ctwykes@aol.com.

“It’s the most talented team I’ve had here,” said sixth-year coach John Grainger, who helped the Marauders reach the 2018 NHIAA Division II semifinals before they went 8-9 a year later. “We’ve got five veterans returning and some really talented new players and this is the deepest pitching staff I’ve ever had.

“We’ve always had one dominant pitcher but not much after that. Now we’ve got four guys who throw over 80 (mph) and if someone’s struggling, we don’t have to just try and wait it out.”

Hanover’s lone trip to the state finals came in 2005, when it lost to Monadnock in what was then known as Class I. A resurgent interest in baseball in Hanover and Norwich that began nearly a decade ago might be ready to pay off. 

“A lot of guys here, we’ve been playing together since Little League,” said junior first baseman Casey Graham, recalling how well his age group performed in a Boston-area league three years ago. 

“Ben Williams and I have been on the same team for eight or nine years now and the chemistry we have is going to take us places if we can execute in games.”

Hanover High’s Ben Williams, right, talks with coach John Grainger. Copyright Octopus Athletics. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to ctwykes@aol.com.

Ah, Ben Williams. The fleet center fielder has been the talk of the local baseball scene for several years but has yet to play a high school game. The sophomore has excelled in summer and club baseball, however, and Grainger said he expects the prospect to jump to prep school later this year. 

“He’s really fun to watch,” Graham said of his friend. “He’s always been fast and a good hitter, but his outfield skills have improved so much. I don’t think he missed a ball the whole season last summer.”

Another starter back is junior third baseman Ian Hedgepeth. Colin Pierce, who’s also the football quarterback, appears to have the inside track at shortstop and Mason Gantrish is the likely second baseman. All are juniors, as are returnees Josh Bucci and Wes Stocken. 

The pitching staff includes Colin Pierce and his twin brother, Trevor, Stocken and sophomore Sam Sacerdote. Hedgepeth and Graham can also take the mound and given a reduced, local schedule with only two games per week and 12 total during the regular season, the Marauders should have more than sufficient depth.

“I’m really excited,” Graham said. “Our offense is going to be really good. I was skeptical about our pitching at the start, but now that I’ve seen a bunch of our arms – we’ve got some good talent.”

Grainger said his team’s speed should produce numerous stolen bases and Hanover’s collective baseball smarts, born of his players’ dedication and experience, means the Marauders don’t have to spend as much time on the basics as in previous years. 

The Marauders are in a regional pod with only Lebanon and Stevens as Division II foes, so contests with Division III members Fall Mountain, Mascoma, Newport and Division IV Sunapee might not be as challenging. 

“If you’re Bow or Pembroke, you’re surrounded by DII schools and you’re playing a DII schedule,” Grainger said. “We’re not being done any favors, but you can’t worry about it.”

One factor over which Grainger and his players do fret is the condition of their field which is off Route 5 in Norwich. Patches of the outfield have been damaged by skunks and birds digging for grubs, the coach said, and its infield drains so poorly that dead grass far outweighs healthy tufts. 

Hanover High’s Ben Williams leads off second base. Copyright Octopus Athletics. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to ctwykes@aol.com.

“You have to really body a ground ball up, because there are going to be some bad hops,” said Graham, who’s lost 30 pounds to increase his agility. “Especially on (the first-base side), there’s some bad stuff going on because of all the running and it’s in the shade.”

Grainger, who has pleaded with Dresden School Board members and district voters for financial help, said a new field maintenance company plans to insert quick-growing grass seed this weekend. The infield dirt will be turned over, graded and rolled in advance of Tuesday’s season opener with visiting Sunapee. 

“Hopefully, it will look better in two or three weeks,” Grainger said, noting that thanks to dry weather, the Marauders are on their field at the earliest point since 2016.

Notes: Hanover has worn a Marauder head logo on its caps for more than a decade but its lids now sport a simple, block H. There has been discussion at the school of changing the mascot, used since 1951… Grainger gave a group lesson on mound maintenance after Friday’s practice, encouraging players to kneel and work the clay with their hands before pounding it flat with a heavy tamp… Tom Avellino, a former multi-sport varsity coach at Woodstock High, is now Hanover baseball’s JV coach and assists with the varsity. His son, Doug, a former baseball player at Woodstock High and Colby-Sawyer College, is now head racquet sports manager at The Country Club in the Boston area. 

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Hanover High catcher John Hill can’t hold a pitch missed by batter Casey Graham. Copyright Octopus Athletics. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to ctwykes@aol.com.