Varsity Baseball Coach Matt Sawyer has an astounding and specific memory when it comes to sports. He can tell you nearly any professional athlete’s jersey number – in any sport, any position, any team, almost any year. Ask him next time you see him; it’s impressive, almost unbelievably so.
It’s with the same certainty and confidence that he can recall his 1996 team’s 11-1 record, and the standout work from seniors Keith Croft and Brian Powers. It was 23 years ago, but he remembers it instantly, just as he does senior captains Cris Amanti and Luke Suchecki, as well as Glenn Jones, all of whom played on his first team in 1995, or his 1999 team, which went 15-3 and won the league title behind the talented pitching talent of seniors Matt Naylor and Jason Magnus. Magnus went on to play at Columbia; Jones came to Williston from Bermuda, where he had only played cricket, but ended up starting at shortstop on Sawyer’s first team.
He can also rattle off the jersey numbers of each of these players: Croft: 11; Powers: 5; Amanti: 8; Suchecki: 17; Jones: 11; Magnus: 8; Naylor: 16. He didn’t need to consult a document for any of these stats, though he’s got them at the ready in the top right drawer of his desk on the English floor of the Schoolhouse, where he’s taught English for the past 25 years — more than half his life. He dedicates every spring to the sport and, most importantly, to the success of the student athletes in his charge. To that end, he’s the winningest baseball coach in Williston’s history, with a 182-167 record.
You won’t hear Sawyer take credit for this; he’s too unassuming, too dedicated to the craft of the game to gloat, or even deflect attention from where he believes it belongs: on the players. So when he steps onto the field this year for his 25th season as Varsity coach, Sawyer will make sure, as he’s always done, to give his kids the best opportunity for success. Like any talented and respected coach, Sawyer has a method to achieve this.
“My philosophy is to focus on skills during practice and to really expect dedication and hard work every practice,” Sawyer said. “When it’s time for games, I just let the kids go out and play and feel comfortable they’ve put in the work to do well.”
Since so much of baseball is mental, Sawyer said “I don’t want them feeling if they’ve made a mistake I’m going to yell or take them out of the game. I want them to feel they can work through their mistakes.”
It’s a positive approach Sawyer has honed as both a celebrated high school and college player and, after his own career, a coach – and coach of coaches – all over Easthampton and Northampton. For years, Sawyer served on the boards of both Easthampton and Northampton Little League. Although he’s off the boards of both organizations, he still helps run player and coaches’ clinics every winter; this past February and March he ran one clinic for players and three for coaches.
“It’s my way of trying to give back and help kids become the best players they can be,” Sawyer said. “It’s a really hard sport to learn, there’s a lot to it, and there’s a lot of adults with a passion for helping the kids and being good coaches, but very few who have the intricate baseball knowledge I can help with.”
Following little league and high school ball in Clinton, Mass., as well as Babe Ruth League and American Legion ball in and around the central and eastern part of the state, Sawyer to Amherst College, where he was the football team’s quarterback. (He was recruited for football but ended up playing baseball as well.) Despite years of success on both fields, his failures in college sports planted the seeds of his coaching approach.
“I didn’t always start in baseball,” Sawyer recalled, “and I lost my starting job [on the football team] as a senior.” These setbacks, he said, “helped me understand different experience for different players on team. I was the star in high school, so I didn’t understand what it meant to be on the bench.” Reckoning with not always being the top talent “helped me be a better coach.”
Fresh from Amherst, Sawyer came to Williston in the fall of 1994, and, as the only person who’d played baseball in college, took the head coach position in his first year after the former coach, Scott Jackson, left. “He’s a big-time lawyer in San Francisco now, so he landed on his feet,” Sawyer joked.
For such a young teacher, that first year could’ve gone either way, but Sawyer remembers those first players – Amanti, Suchecki, Jones, Naylor, Magnus, Croft, Powers – helping him ease the transition from player to coach, student to teacher.
“They loved baseball, and were happy to be at practice every day,” Sawyer said. “They bought in to what I was doing in terms of trying to bring drills and skills that we worked on at college to a high school team. They were all in, and that really helped.”
Though he said the team’s record wasn’t anything great that year – “maybe .500, maybe under .500,” – “it was a really special season for learning how to be a head coach.
This year promises to be another special one, Sawyer said, especially because for the first time in his career there’s a cadre of young talent. “We’ve kept five freshmen on the [varsity] team,” Sawyer said. “I don’t think I’ve ever had more than one before. It’s a really talented group.”
That freshman squad consists of Mike and Ray Toth, Jerry Landman, Dallas Elliott, and Sawyer’s 15-year-old son, Will, who, Sawyer noted fondly, has been on the team in one fashion or another since fifth grade, when he was the bat boy.
The reason the Wildcats can incorporate so much young talent on the team, Sawyer said, is because of the leadership abilities of his veteran players, including senior captains Aidan Burke and Nick Barber, as well as fellow seniors Chris Denham, Robby Hill, and Ryan Dwyer.
“It’s one of the best classes of kids I’ve been around in terms of character and leadership,” he explained. “Part of the reason it can work with younger kids is because the seniors are such a good group.”
One could say, given the scope of his academic and athletic career at Williston, that Sawyer is the ultimate utility player. He’s the Ninth Grade Dean, 9th Grade Program Coordinator, Head of John Hazen White dorm, advisor, devoted dad to Will and 7th grader Anna, and husband of nearly 20 years to Sarah, who serves as the Head of the English Department. It’s no surprise, then, that Sawyer’s stance on coaching has much more to do with creating well-rounded and strong young men than purely powerful players.
“I believe in being an educator first and a coach second,” he said. “Providing a really positive team experience, along with individuals getting better as players, is paramount. I think if we do that well, the winning sort of takes care of itself.”