By Robert McKinney, Assistant Athletics Director, Communications
SALEM, Ore. -- Three Willamette University baseball players have traveled long distances this summer to play in collegiate baseball leagues in Upstate New York. Jack Brett (Sr., C, Aurora, CO/Regis Jesuit HS) and Connor Bailey (Jr., LF, San Diego, CA/Scripps Ranch HS) have traveled 2,738 miles from Salem to play for the Hornell Dodgers in Hornell, N.Y. Cole Pursell (Jr., C, Oceanside, CA/El Camino HS) is competing 2,877 miles from Salem with the Utica Blue Sox in Utica, N.Y. Despite being so far from Willamette, all three players have made big-time contributions to their teams.
The first objective was to arrive in their new cities and settle into living arrangements.
"We arrived in Hornell in late May," Brett said. "Connor and I are both staying with a host family and they are really good to us!"
"They are awesome and really make us feel like we have a true home on Hornell," Bailey added.
The setup is a bit different in Utica, where Pursell said "the team is staying in the dorms at Utica College." The Blue Sox are not directly affiliated with the college. "I flew into Boston for a couple of days to see a Red Sox game, then drove to Utica from there," Pursell recalled.
Utica has about 60,000 residents. Hornell has a population of just over 8,000.
Summer leagues provide an opportunity for college players to gain experience while competing against other talented athletes from throughout the nation. The Hornell Dodgers compete in the New York Collegiate Baseball League (NYCBL), while the Utica Blue Sox are members of the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League (PGCBL). Many teams feature a mix of players from all three NCAA Divisions and the NAIA. Both leagues use only wooden bats.
"Summer baseball is a great opportunity to focus entirely on developing into the best player possible," Willamette Head Baseball Coach Aaron Swick said. "Competing against high-caliber opponents allows these guys to elevate their skills everyday which will only make our program better. Each of them will play big roles next spring.
"The bonus in their situations is the opportunity to experience a different part of the country and to learn things from players in different programs," Swick added.
All three Willamette athletes have played regularly throughout the summer season, which began in early June and will end with the playoffs later this month. Brett and Pursell have mostly played catcher for their respective teams, while Bailey has seen most of his action in left field. Brett has played first base on occasion and Bailey has sometimes been the designated hitter.
Brett and Bailey have excelled for the Dodgers, and both were selected for the NYCBL All-Star Game and the NYCBL Home Run Derby. Hornell has clinched the Western Division championship and a berth in the NYCBL playoffs. Pursell has provided quality play for the Blue Sox.
As of July 23, Brett held a team-high .399 batting average with 57 hits in 143 at bats. He had 25 runs and 38 RBIs, while pounding out nine doubles, one triple and seven home runs. He had played in 39 games. In addition to leading the Dodgers in batting average, he also ranked first on the team in hits, and was part of a three-way tie for the team lead in home runs. He was second on the roster in RBIs.
"At the end of the Willamette season you could tell that Jack was about to break out," Swick said. "His summer is a culmination of his physical and mental development clicking at the same time."
Bailey was batting a solid .364 in 42 games played. He was 56 of 154 at the plate and had scored 43 runs to go along with 41 RBIs. He was leading the team in at bats and was one of two players tied for first place in games played. He also was tied with Brett and one other player for the team lead in home runs. He was second in hits, runs and doubles (11).
"Connor's success is a byproduct of how hard he works and how badly he wants to be great," Swick asserted.
For the Blue Sox, Pursell was hitting .293 in 27 games played, with 29 hits in 99 at bats. He had provided 14 runs and 19 RBIs, while earning a team-high 10 doubles in addition to one home run. He ranked third on the roster in RBIs and was fifth with 16 walks. During one 10-game stretch, Pursell batted .417 with seven doubles, 10 runs and 10 RBIs.
"When Cole is feeling 100% and dialed-in at the plate he has the ability to be a game-changer in every at bat," Swick said.
Although all three players have busy schedules, they have found time for other activities.
"When we are not playing, we spend a lot of time with the guys on the team and work out at the local YMCA," Brett said. "On the 4th of July, my family and a few other families got to spend the day at Keuka Lake, which was beautiful. We don't get a lot of time off, but when we do, we hang out with teammates at their host families' houses."
Bailey agreed, saying "On our off days we will usually just relax or hang out with our teammates. The other day we went to Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame. It was awesome. I hadn't been there since I was 12."
In Utica, Pursell has had similar -- if not identical -- experiences. "We took a trip to Cooperstown to see the Baseball Hall of Fame," Pursell said. "And we do other events such as working at kids camps."
On most days, nearly everything is about playing a baseball game.
"We have games pretty much every day," Bailey said. "A normal day for us is usually going to hit at the field in the morning at around 9 a.m., going to work out after that, get some lunch, have an hour or two break, and then head back to the field or the bus for the game."
"Before games, I usually go to the gym and work out and hit," Pursell agreed. "After games, we usually get dinner as a team."
Willamette's three athletes in Upstate New York have reached different conclusions as to what has enabled them to achieve success this summer. In all three cases, their efforts at the plate have led to a significant number of extra-base hits.
"I think that my emphasis on preparation has been a key aspect to my success," Brett commented. "Preparation and routine are things that we preach at Willamette, and that helps me get into a groove and attack every pitch with a clear mind."
"A huge part of my success so far this summer has been my relaxed nature of playing," Bailey said. "I have felt loose and have just been having fun the whole summer ... remembering that each at bat is a new at bat and that you can't control what happened the bat before. It has definitely been awesome to see Jack and me have the success that we have had so far, especially since we are teammates."
"It has been nice to have this kind of success in a league that has a lot of NCAA Division I players," Pursell noted. "The PGCBL is a great league. It is a blast to go out every night and play in front of lots of fans."
The Elmira Pioneers are averaging 3,267 fans per night, while the Amsterdam Mohawks are averaging 1,209, and the Oneonta Outlaws are averaging just under 1,000. Utica's average is 561. In the NYCBL, Hornell is averaging 199 fans despite the small size of the town.
Brett and Bailey were both thrilled to play for the Western Division against the Eastern Division in the NYCBL All-Star Game. Both also displayed their talents in the NYCBL Home Run Derby. Although the Western Division fell to the Eastern Division, 4-1, in the All-Star game, Bailey went 2 for 3 with a double, a run scored and a stolen base, while Brett was 1 for 2 at the plate. Bailey was chosen as the game's top hitter.
"That was a great experience," Bailey said. "Getting chosen to be a Home Run Derby participant and representing our division as a starter in the All-Star Game was very cool. It was a very fun day getting to interact with all the guys from different teams."
"I loved being a part of the All-Star Game and getting to participate in the Home Run Derby," Brett commented. "Playing with a group of really good players was an awesome and very memorable experience."
Brett, Bailey and Pursell have been able to focus on baseball over the past two months. It's been a busy time with plenty of strenuous activity and significant travel. In addition, their experiences in Upstate New York have provided them with many moments to remember.
"I have enjoyed my teammates the most," Brett stated. "I have made a lot of great friends and I know that we will stay in contact after the season. We became so close in a very quick period of time and I think that has been a large factor in our success."
"I think the thing I have enjoyed the most is simply getting to play baseball every day as well as meet some great new friends and coaches," Bailey said. "I am hoping that we continue to take our success far into the playoffs and win the NYCBL championship to cap off the summer.
The Utica Blue Sox have provided Pursell with the chance to "... play every night against top competition, while playing in front of lots of fans. It has also been nice to meet players from all over the country and to form many new friendships."
Soon, the three Bearcats will return to their families and to Willamette for the 2017-18 academic year. Brett will be a senior, while Bailey and Pursell will be juniors. They hope to continue the momentum created by the WU baseball team this past spring after earning a 28-14 overall record and a trip to the NWC Tournament championship game.
"The long and grueling summer schedule has helped me to get strong both physically and mentally, which will help me to be at my best every day through the entire baseball season," Pursell noted.
"I think the most important thing I have learned and realized out here is to cherish every opportunity this game gives me," Bailey commented. "I just want to enjoy every second of it over the next two years because that may be all I get (as a player)."
"In Hornell, we have been so welcomed by the community, and everyone is so kind and inclusive," Brett said. "I think that I can take that mindset into welcoming the new freshmen onto campus and showing them our culture at Willamette."