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Braintree's vigorous bats hitting stride

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Nate Weitzer for ESPN

BRAINTREE, Mass. -- It’s a sweltering May afternoon, and the Braintree Wamps don’t have a baseball game for a change. So practice is held a couple miles from the high school at a practice facility that head coach Bill O’Connell calls the team’s “home away from home.”

Founded two years ago by junior varsity baseball coach James Joyce, the Braintree Baseball Club serves many purposes. Camps, clinics, and AAU practices make use of the several batting cages and two pitching mounds that comprise the facility, but on this afternoon, it’s the home of a varsity team that is making plenty of noise during the 2015 season.

Braintree (11-1) is currently one of the front-runners to qualify for the MIAA Division 1A Super 8 Tournament, as the Wamps are scoring 7.25 runs per game, and holding their opponents to just 2.1 runs per game.

While their excellent pitching staff deserves plenty of credit for their early season success, the heart of the Wamps’ order is the engine behind this Eastern Mass. power.

Seniors Connor Columbus (.500/.622/.794, 3 HR, 17 RBI, 4 SB), Anthony Venuti (.500, 8 XBH, 15 RBI), and Kevin Troy (.342, HR, 9 RBI) are three of the best hitters in the state. They are carrying a Braintree lineup that is sporting a collective .320 batting average this season, and are home grown products that have been able to continue to improve thanks to excellent coaching, and state of the art facilities.

Once Rivals

Growing up across town from each other, Columbus and Venuti faced off in Little League games on several occasions. Despite the competitive rivalry between Braintree’s youth teams, the two infielders remained great friends.

“Anthony [Venuti] has been one of my best friends since first grade,” said Columbus. “We always looked up to the kids playing at the high school, and we both wanted to play in college, so we were always working on our game.”

As freshmen in high school, they joined forces on the Braintree Travel Team along with Kevin Troy. That team made it to the Eastern Mass. Finals, and indicated that a great crop of talented hitters would soon be available to O’Connell’s varsity squad.

O’Connell first saw the trio of hitters at a youth camp that the high school program runs, and said, “It’s a great opportunity for us to get to know some of the names and players. I never know if they’re going to be stars or not, but I knew that they had a chance when they were coming up.”

For Venuti, playing alongside his good friend on the left side of the infield on travel and junior varsity teams created a positive sense of familiarity.

“Right away it felt like Connor and me had perfect chemistry, and knew where each other would be at all times,” said Venuti. “It was a good feeling, because we knew that we’d probably play together on the high school team over the next few years.”

Now Venuti primarily plays second base for the Wamps, while Columbus moved over to third base after joining the varsity team during his sophomore season. While the nimble big man is an excellent defender with a cannon of an arm, his prowess at the plate is what allowed him to earn a scholarship to play Division 1 baseball at UMass Amherst next year.

“I think we have the best coaching staff in the state,” Columbus effused. “They’ve all helped me by providing little bits of advice that helped me reach my dream of playing Division 1.”

Venuti will play baseball at Framingham State, and Troy is committed to play at Mass. Maritime Academy, but before they graduate, these high school sluggers have their sights set on a goal that eluded them last season.

Driven To Succeed

Last June, Braintree defeated Catholic Memorial, St. John’s Prep, Lincoln-Sudbury, and Bridgewater-Raynham to advance to the finals of the inaugural Super 8 tournament.

While the Wamps finished the season 20-4 after losing to Newton North in the state championship game, they got right back to work over the summer, and formed the core of a Legion Baseball Program that advanced to the regional semifinals.

Then came perhaps the most brutal winter in Massachusetts’ history, and the ability to trudge to the Braintree Baseball Club a few times a week proved invaluable for these hitters.

“This is place is literally perfect,” Venuti said, gesturing to the air-conditioned training facility that’s complete with artificial turf. “There are enough cages, you can take live ground balls, and it really helped us stay sharp during the offseason.”

Columbus led all players in the Super 8 tournament in HR and RBI last season, and finished first in the Bay State Conference with a .398 batting average. While he was always a talented hitter, he’s reached an elite level by focusing on his craft.

“I stopped playing football last season to concentrate on baseball, and came over to [The Braintree Baseball Club] three or four days a week to work on my swing,” said Columbus. “Hitting in the offseason has really helped this year. If feel I’ve matured as a hitter, and pitching has slowed down a bit for me. As of right now, we have a lot of work left to do, but we have the potential to make it deep into the tournament again.”

In order to qualify for the Super 8 in their final season, the Wamps needed some quality wins, and came through in spades when they swept Newton North (2-0, 6-1) in a home and away series last weekend.

“Last year Newton North was the team to beat, and they took us down in the final,” lamented Troy. “We didn’t want it to end that way, and we came back this year with those games circled on our calendar. It was great to get some payback. We had a tough loss to BC High (8-6) early on, but ever since then we’ve come a long way, and right now we’re a tough team to beat.”

Stepping Up

Columbus has been a mainstay for the Wamps over the past three years, but Venuti and Troy are stepping into much bigger roles as seniors.

Troy served as a utility player and pinch hitter last season, while Venuti is batting cleanup after primarily hitting eight or ninth during the Wamps’ title run last spring.

“Anthony [Venuti] is having a breakout year offensively,” O’Connell said. “Last year we had so much offense that we didn’t need to count on him, but seniors always surprise us. He worked really hard this offseason, and has surprised us with his production at the plate.”

Now hitting fifth, Troy played a huge role in extending Braintree’s current 10-game winnings streak in a win over Natick last week. Batting on the Wamps home turf with the game tied at 3 and Columbus on third base, Troy launched his first home run of the season to propel his team to victory.

“I knew I was in a big spot, and I was a little nervous because I had to deliver with two outs,” Troy recalled. “The wind started picking up behind me, and I got a good pitch that I was able to drive. That was definitely the biggest at-bat of the season for me so far.”

For O’Connell, one of those three hitters coming up huge in a clutch situation is nothing unusual.

“All three of them have tremendous bat speed. It’s something you don’t see much at the high school level. They can all hit for average, but they can all drive the ball out of the park if you make a mistake,” said O’Connell.

He speculated on how they developed that bat speed, “It’s a combination of natural strength and ability, but it also has a lot to do with working out year round. Because of places like [Braintree Baseball Club], these players have a great opportunity. If they love the game and want to get at better at it, then they can.”

Grinding To The Finish

The entire roster has stepped up with a packed schedule, as Braintree played its first of 19 scheduled regular season games on April 22 due to delays created by the weather.

O’Connell explained how the Wamps have already played two five-game weeks, and are in the midst of another four-game week. He said, “This season right now has just been a grind. We’re in the middle of it right now, and we’ve got our head down, pressing forward. We’re pretty happy with the results thus far, and it’s pretty remarkable how we’ve been able to play at this level for a sustained period with everyone gunning for us.”

Part of the reason for Braintree’s continued success is the leadership present at every position. There are ten seniors on this year’s team, including captain Cal Berman, who bats leadoff for the Wamps.

When asked about the three old friends that form the heart of the order, Berman said, “They’re all leaders in their own right. Connor [Columbus] leads the corner infielders, Venuti leads the middle infielders, and Kevin [Troy] leads the outfielders. As seniors, if you’re not a leader then there’s really no spot for you, so it’s great to see them step up in that role.”

O’Connell added, “Cal Berman is more of our vocal leader, while [pitcher] Bobby McNiff is the quiet leader. Connor [Columbus] is our third captain, and he’s a bit of everything. He leads on and off the field. He’s the lifeblood and the personality of this entire group. He can be vocal, he can be one of the guys, and he can be a middle man for the coaches.”

More than anything, Braintree’s trio of hitters seem to lead by example, as they’ve vastly improved their respective swings by spending countless hours at the baseball club.

Now one of the prohibitive favorites to return to the Super 8 Tournament and make a deep run towards the state title, the pressure is on the Wamps to finish the season strong.

“I feel like we’re a better team overall this year,” said Venuti. “We play together, and we can take down anyone we see. We’re good, but we’ll have to go out and prove it in the tournament.”