FIRST-TIME FLIGHT: Harford Fighting Owls power their way to Grand Junction
Tom Eller didn’t hesitate with his answer when asked about what makes the Harford Community College (Maryland) baseball team a fun team to watch.
“We hit home runs,” said Eller, who is in his 10th year as coach of the Fighting Owls. “Actually, we just try to hit the ball as hard as we can, and a lot of times we’re able to do that.”
Eller’s matter of-fact tone understates how much power Harford will bring to the Alpine Bank Junior College World Series.
No doubt, the Owls’ offensive prowess has carried them this season. Their 113 home runs ranks third in the NJCAA and first among teams in the tournament.
This is Harford’s first trip to Grand Junction.
“This feels amazing because getting here is something we’ve always worked for as a program,” Eller said. “We’ve come close a couple of times but something has always gotten in the way that has kept us from going to the big show. Now we want to show what we can do when we get there.”
It’s not just one or two guys in the Owls’ lineup who hit the long ball. Five Harford players have hit 10 or more home runs this season, with another, sophomore outfielder Jack Hamner, entering the tournament with nine.
The focus on power hitting is a change in philosophy, Eller said, from the small-ball, run-manufacturing tactics Harford relied on in the past. Eller and his assistants decided they needed to change something to take the program to the next level.
“We used to bunt and ... steal 200 bags every year and all that stuff,” Eller said. “But we knew there was something more we could do, and it all came in the way we were teaching our guys to swing the bat. That’s made a huge difference for us.”
The coach wouldn’t go into detail about what the coaching staff was teaching their players, but he did say the approach the Owls take at the plate is allowing them a little more time to see the baseball. And it has paid off: Harford hit 80 home runs in 2015 before reaching this season’s total.
Harford’s production doesn’t stop with how far it hits the ball. The Owls also lead the NJCAA in walks (361), are second in runs scored (653) and sixth in the nation in on-base percentage (.464).
It’s not like they’ve completely stopped stealing bases, either: Harford has 143 steals as a team, with Hamner’s 25 stolen bases leading the way.
The 6-foot-5 Joe Burton has 15 home runs and has also swiped 21 bases. Eller said Burton looks like an NFL linebacker when he’s hitting and brings a combination of speed and power to the lineup. Daulton Weeks, who has 20 home runs and 80 RBI, is also one of most productive bats in the lineup, and Dominic DiSabatino leads the team with 84 runs this season.
Harford’s pitching staff is also solid.
The Owls have a pair of undefeated starting pitchers in Michael Adams and Josh Silvestri, both with 11-0 records and four complete games with each throwing more than 70 innings this season.
Adams is 6-4 with a fastball that can reach the low 90s.
Silvestri is 5-10, and is good at hitting his spots around the plate.
Michael Devecchio has 79 strikeouts in 58 innings and T.J. Pagan has nine saves out of the bullpen.
Harford comes into JUCO with an eight-game winning streak — and a lot of confidence.
“I think we have a shot,” Eller said. “This group of guys is the kind that, when the lights get bright, they tend to shine.”