WESTFIELD – “Every town is known for their sport, and Westfield has always been known for baseball,” said Westfield State University outfielder Kyle Murphy, one of four Westfield High School graduates on this season’s Owls roster, and part of what’s become a strong relationship between the Owls baseball teams and the city’s baseball traditions.
Murphy, a fifth-year graduate student, joins fellow grad student Nate Barnes, junior shortstop Colin Dunn, and freshman first baseman Sean Moorhouse in what has quickly become a tradition of some of the city’s best players staying close to home while playing college baseball at a high level.
It’s now a 10-year string of locals who have had an impact on the Westfield State program, which has been both regionally and nationally ranked in recent years, and beat the number one ranked team in the country earlier this season.
Slugging first baseman Josh Blair ’12 was the first of the recent string of Bombers to don the Owls blue and white colors, followed by catcher Evan Moorhouse ’16 (Sean’s older brother) and infielder Arismendy Larancuent ’17.
This season, Barnes, Murphy and Dunn have been lineup regulars for Owls’ coach Nathan Bashaw.
“Barnes and Murph have been two-year captains and really good leaders for us,” said Bashaw, who led the Owls to a 28-9 record and a MASCAC title a year ago, and a 18-14-1 record so far this season.
“Dunn’s become a tremendous college shortstop, and his bat has really developed over the last three years and turned him into a good offensive ballplayer,” said Bashaw.
While each picked their own path to Westfield State, the inter-connectivity among the local products helped them all to land on the Owls roster.
NATE BARNES: Nate Barnes was a highly regarded left-handed pitcher coming out of Westfield High School with Division I aspirations to attend the Air Force Academy.
“I would have gone in as a Cadet, and tried to walk on to the baseball team, or play club hockey,” said Barnes. “But a few weeks after I was admitted, I got a letter that I had been medically disqualified. Sometimes God has other plans. I ended up here, and I am happy about it.”
“It’s close to home, and I am a homebody at heart,” said Barnes, “And it’s a good institution. But it wasn’t just a fall back school for me, I wanted to excel athletically and academically and really connect with the community.”
Barnes did not play his freshman year due to Tommy John surgery, but has been productive both as a pitcher and a field player for the Owls. Prior to a double header on Tuesday, Barnes had made 24 career starts with a 3.25 earned run average and sported a 3-0 record this spring.
Barnes entered Tuesday’s games having played in 110 games as pitcher or first baseman and hit for a .296 career average. His most notable game with the bat came against Elms College in 2017, as he rapped out a school-record six hits in seven at bats.
“Barnes has been a two-way guy for us for four years, he’s been a front-line starter for us on the mound, and is a really solid defensive player at first base,” said Bashaw.
Barnes decided to pursue a master’s of public administration degree at Westfield, as he looks forward to a career in sports management, which also gave him the opportunity to use his fourth year of collegiate eligibility, as he was granted a medical redshirt after missing his freshman year while rehabbing from the surgery.
“That first year I connected through baseball, but since I wasn’t playing I was able to take a back seat a little bit,” said Barnes. “I was working and attending a lot of different kinds of events and met a lot of people, and it academically challenged me. I’ve been blessed with the ability to handle schoolwork, but it also gave me time to realize it would take a little more work to get through than high school.”
[Evan] “Moorhouse was a good friend of mine, growing up playing hockey together, so knowing I would automatically have a connection and a comfortability here was huge, and he did a great job of taking me, and Murph and other guys under his wing and showing us the ropes of Westfield State.”
KYLE MURPHY: Murphy is in his fifth year in the Owls program after earning an injury redshirt with a broken wrist in 2017. Murphy had a breakout year in 2016, hitting .262 with some extra base pop, after primarily being used as a defensive replacement and pinch runner and in an occasional platoon as a freshman and sophomore.
“Murph is really athletic, a good outfielder, and an all-around scrappy ball player,” said Bashaw.
The 2017 season was a rough one for Murphy.
“It was a good opportunity starting in center field, and I started off 0-19,” said Murphy. “I couldn’t hit my way out of a wet paper bag, and it was really disappointing. Then I got back in the lineup and first game back I broke my wrist. I was just under the cutoff where I could redshirt – if we had made it to NCAA’s I was ready to play, even if it was just pinch running, but I couldn’t have stood to watch my team in the tournament and not play.”
“It helped that Nate was coming back so I wouldn’t be the old guy by myself,” said Murphy, who graduated with a degree in criminal justice and is pursuing a master’s of Public Administration degree and has hopes for a career in law enforcement.
The return has paid off for Murphy, who has started 22 games in either right field or center, has five extra base hits, and is on the cusp of an unusual record, having reached base via the hit-by-pitch 11 times this season, just one shy of the school record.
When looking at colleges, “At first, it was go anywhere but Westfield State and I looked around at other schools,” said Murphy. “I had known Evan Moorhouse and (former Owls infielder) Jeremy Tanguay and grew up playing with them. But talking to them, then coming and doing my overnight and experiencing Westfield – It wasn’t until I got here how lucky I felt. It’s a different world, different feeling than downtown Westfield. But I’d also be with my family and they’d be able to see a lot of games.”
“It came down to Westfield State and Western New England, and they are double the price of Westfield, so that helped a little bit, he laughed.”
COLIN DUNN: Dunn was named to the D3baseball.com “national team of the week” for April 2 after rapping three home runs in three games.
Dunn, a business and finance major, is a .308 career hitter with a .380 on-base percentage and has been a catalyst in the Owls offense.
“Going through the process, I played for some pretty prestigious travel programs and seeing a lot of guys that had Division I offers. I was getting some phone calls here and there, but coach Bashaw really was on me, kept calling me … but it was more of a personal feel, it was more than just baseball … it came down to me talking to Evan, and Kyle, and Nate, they said come check it out. As soon as I got on campus and experienced practice and nightlife, it didn’t feel like I was 10 minutes away from my house.”
“You meet and play with people from Boston, the Cape, Connecticut, all over, that you wouldn’t meet otherwise,” said Dunn.
“I looked at Southern New Hampshire and St. Anselm, but I didn’t get a great financial offer from either. I would have been paying a lot more for school, and I didn’t get the home feeling I got here, and coach Bashaw told me with who they were graduating, that if I worked my butt off I would have a great chance to play.”
THE PROCESS: “When we are recruiting we want impact guys that can come in and fill a need, regardless of where they are from,” said Bashaw. “Obviously you need to take care of your own back yard in recruiting too, but not everyone thinks they want to stay in Western Mass. We want to keep that door open for than, and be an option where they can stay locally and play a high level of college baseball.”
High level, indeed. The Owls defeated the number-one ranked team in the country earlier this season.
“We’ve found that until players go through the recruiting process, they don’t always know a lot about what Westfield State offers, academically and athletically,” Bashaw added. “But once they go through the process and do their recruiting visits and see different schools, they see that we are a quality option.”
“I never would have pictured myself here [at Westfield State] living off campus,” said Murphy. “I lived on campus my freshman year, and it’s a town within a town. It’s a small school, you get to know people really well on campus. I wasn’t really comfortable being the only one from my group of high school friends to come here at first to stay in Westfield, but I now I wouldn’t change a thing.”
IT’S A BASEBALL TOWN: “Westfield is a baseball town,” said Bashaw. “People take pride in it right from Little League, Youth, Babe Ruth, obviously hosting the Babe Ruth World Series a couple years ago, and right up through the high school, Westfield turns out competitive baseball programs. They have good teams.”
Murphy and Barnes played together on back-to-back Western Mass high school championship teams in 2012 and 2013, with the latter team including both Dunn and Larancuent.
“Sports in Westfield is life,” said Barnes. “If you’re from Westfield, you’re expected to be good and the teams are expected to win. It’s so much more special for us here because we are playing for our city that we grew up in. Not only is it a privilege to play for the University, but we’re representing our city that we have grown up playing sports in since we were five years old. I just really appreciate being able to keep playing for Westfield. It gives us extra motivation.”
“It’s special that Nate and I were captains last year because we were both captains in high school together, and since we had won Western Mass as (high school) seniors, we wanted to do it again in college,” said Murphy.
“The leadership and character from these guys (Barnes and Murphy) in high school made me start to love baseball because of the winning atmosphere, and it was a no brainer to come to a team with leadership and character like that,” said Dunn.
COMMUNITY SUPPORT: “Every town is known for their sport, and Westfield has always been known for baseball,” said Murphy.
“It really starts with Babe Ruth, and that’s when it really hit me. How much it means to the city. When I was 13, we hosted regionals, and the amount of fan support from the entire city that would show up for those games, and then in high school the whole town came out to Bullens for those games, it would be 7:00 at night and standing room only.
The Owls’ recently renovated Bud and Jim Hagan Field gives Westfield State a baseball facility that’s on par with the best programs in New England.
“You can tell the outpouring from the city and the sponsors, they want to see Westfield State baseball succeed as well, added Murphy.
“You’ll be out to eat and see people, and they’ll ask how the game went” said Dunn. “Everyone is always keeping tabs.”
“One of the funnier things, we’ll be out to dinner after a game, and people already know your stats, added Murphy. “They know how you did. You don’t have to tell them. They are on the website tracking it all the time.”
Dunn and Murphy slugged back-to-back home runs to lead off a game earlier this season.
“When we went back-to-back at Worcester, Evan Moorhouse was tweeting it out right away and there’s a text outpouring,” said Dunn.
“Whether it’s a good game or a bad game, you can always count on 3-4 texts from alumni after the game,” said Murphy. “That’s really special as well.”
“When you come here you start as a family and get closer and closer every year, said Dunn.
“The family aspect is something that is irreplaceable,” said Murphy. “You’re with these guys year round, fall ball, off season workouts, then practice in the field house, finally when that season starts you’re with each other almost all day, every day, and I couldn’t ask for a better group of guys for my whole five years. You’re a big family and there’s no one odd man out.”
“It’s a sense that I’m home and where I want to be,” said Barnes. “I love it.” – Courtesy of Dave Caspole/WSU Sports