The same beach chairs that dot the sand under the bright sun fill the grassy berm after dark. Sun-splashed kids sprint after foul balls. Future pros sign autographs. The innings drift by slowly.
At Old Mountain Field, South County has found the perfect summer nights to pair with its long history of perfect summer days.
The Ocean State Waves will begin their seventh season in Wakefield this summer. With an emphasis on affordable family fun and a string of recent successes, the New England Collegiate Baseball League (NECBL) franchise has become a fixture in the community.
The team averaged more than 500 fans at home games last year, and the crowds saw a lot of good baseball. The Waves have finished as the NECBL runner-up in each of the last two seasons. Last spring, they had an alumnus play in Major League Baseball for the first time, and several more will be knocking on the door this year. And the league, featuring teams in every New England state, was recently ranked the second most competitive summer league in the country, behind only the famed Cape Cod Baseball League.
This summer will feature the same brand of baseball, plus a new addition as the Martha’s Vineyard Sharks join the league after a successful stint in the Futures League. With the Newport Gulls just across the bridges from South County and the Sharks now just a ferry ride away from North Kingstown, area baseball fans have no shortage of options.
For the Waves, the coming summer will mark the start of a new era. Longtime president and general manager Matt Finlayson, who started with the team alongside founder Jeff Sweenor, departed after last season for an assistant athletic director position at Salve Regina University. Assistant general manager Eric Hirschbein-Bodnar is taking the torch and plans to make the new era look like the old one.
“Matt built this thing from the ground up,” Hirschbein-Bodnar said. “I want to keep it rolling.”
There were no guarantees that the Waves would get a foothold when they first took the field in 2013. As successful as the NECBL is, a number of teams have come and gone over the years. For the Waves community outreach, a strong sponsor base, a dedicated network of volunteers and host families, and a growing reputation in baseball circles helped the franchise take flight.
“I think the organization has come a long way,” Finlayson said. “The sponsor base has grown every year. Attendance has grown every year. Our host families are the best. We’ve had a lot of success on the field. A lot of things are rolling in the right direction.”
Summer ball provides a destination for college players. Host families welcome them into their homes. With wood bats and top-flight competition, they hone their games while showcasing their talents for pro scouts. In Wakefield, they also enjoy a summer by the beach.
The Waves have found a formula for success. With their location and community support as the foundation, they’ve built rosters with players from schools outside the power conferences, but with strong baseball pedigrees. Last year, the team’s top stars hailed from Kennesaw State, East Tennessee State, Winthrop and local programs Bryant and the University of Rhode Island. Several of those players are slated to return this summer, including all-stars Cullen Smith and Garrett Hodges.
The new era will extend to the dugout this season as pitching coach Brian Kehew takes over as the manager for Jim Sauro, who stepped down after last season. Kehew is a Portsmouth native and is the head baseball coach at Becker College in Worcester, Massachusetts.
With new hires staying in the family and familiar faces set to take the field, the Waves want to keep rolling in 2019.
South County has a baseball ideal to live up to.
“My vision is to stay true to our mission. We want to be a community-oriented team, and that’s the most important thing,” Hirschbein-Bodnar said. “The community has given the Waves so much. We owe it to them to give back. The players know what’s expected of them – go to all the reading days at schools, go to all the field days. And the play on the field corresponds with that.”