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Little league friends in Vermont making their mark at UMass

Rehan Talat/Collegian File Photo

The baseball partnership between native Vermonters Adam Picard, Dylan Begin and Aaron Plunkett began at the most rudimentary level of organized baseball: little league.

Picard, Begin and Plunkett, all juniors on the Massachusetts baseball team, hail from Essex, Vt., where they battled for village supremacy in their childhood.

“In little league it was me versus Dylan and Aaron, because I was from the junction and they were from the town so we split divisions and we always came together in the championship,” said Picard, a diminutive, yet burly, power-hitting outfielder.

And the result of those multiple championship battles?

“We always won,” Picard said with a laugh.

Soon the trio stopped beating up on each other, and joined forces at Essex High School to beat up on the rest of Vermont.

“Once we got to high school, we were together from there on out,” Picard said.

However, it actually took three years for the classmates’ high school baseball timelines to intersect.

Begin, a 6-foot-4 first baseman, proved the most precocious of the group, playing four years of varsity. Former Essex High School baseball coach Steve Ferreira took Begin as a freshman, and he became only the seventh freshman to make varsity in Ferreira’s 43 years as coach.

“Begin played every position on the infield in his four years, and he could just hit the hell out of the ball,” Ferreira said.

Picard’s varsity start came a year later, but he made a splash immediately. He crushed Metro League pitching – Vermont’s best league – in his sophomore season. He batted .526 with seven home runs and led the Yellow Jackets to a Division 1 state title.

“Adam’s got the speed, he’s got the power and he’s got the arm,” Ferreira said.

From sophomore year on, Picard and Begin teamed up to form a murderer’s row in the middle of Essex’s lineup. Ferreira remembered a tournament in Montreal in which Begin and Picard hit back-to-back home runs three times in a single game.

“They were destined to be college players, primarily for their hitting,” Ferreira said.

Plunkett, a left-handed pitcher, was the late-bloomer of the group. He spent two years on the junior varsity team before joining Picard and Begin in his junior year. However, Plunkett morphed into the ace of the pitching staff by senior year, and played an integral role in Ferreira’s fifth and final title at Essex.

“He was a good pitcher his junior year, but he came on really strong his senior year,” Ferreira said. “I know it’s Vermont baseball, but he was a stopper for us.”

Each player had racked up gaudy statistics and impressive accomplishments by graduation in 2010: Picard held a .465 career batting average and was the Vermont Gatorade Player of the year in his senior year; Begin batted .500 in Essex’s 2010 championship, and struck out only 14 times in four seasons; and Plunkett recorded 136 strikeouts in 106 career innings, and remarkably lost just one game in his career as a Yellow Jacket.

“They were the best players on the team, and the dominant players in the state,” UMass coach Mike Stone said. “In order to play at the Division 1 level, you have to be a dominant player at the level you’re playing at.”

Each player expressed gratitude towards Ferreira and credited him for their development.

“(Ferreira) was real tough on us,” Begin said. “He always preached that we need to play the right way to win, and I think that helped because coach Stone is just like that too. He goes old school, by the books and everything’s done the right way.”

“He has a lot of years of experience in the baseball world, and he’s someone who really helped us get to where we are today,” Picard said of Ferreira. “He was just a guy that would do anything for you.”

The trio hoped to continue their decorated careers at the collegiate level. All three had aspirations of playing D1 baseball. However, they were also aware of the difficulty Vermonters face reaching that level. Other than Picard, Begin and Plunkett, only five current Vermont high school graduates play D1 college baseball, and only two of those players get regular playing time.

“High school baseball in Vermont is pretty weak,” Begin said. “We always played summer ball on teams that played teams outside of Vermont, so we always got exposure to the better baseball, especially in New England.”

Each player received interest from a mix of schools: Begin from Gardner Webb and St. Johns; Picard from Saint Michael’s, Saint Anslem, Virginia, Greensboro College and Southern Maine; and Plunkett from a number of Vermont colleges.

UMass showed early interest in Begin and Picard – an assistant coach discovered Picard at a legion tournament in Keene, N.H., and Stone made initial contact with him when he was a sophomore at a showcase hosted by UMass.

However, the recruitment process intensified in 2009, when the University of Vermont cut its baseball program and distributed its funds to both lacrosse programs and women’s hockey.

“To be honest, it really came down to the fact that Vermont dropped baseball,” Stone said. “I think they would have been recruited and played for UVM.”

Ferreira voiced a similar opinion.

“I can’t know this for sure, but I think (former UVM head coach) Bill Currier would have more than likely made these guys an offer because they were close to home,” Ferreira said.

Picard recognized that UVM would have been on the radar.

“It definitely would have been an option, just because I had Bill Currier all the way up,” Picard said.

UMass looked like a sensible match for Picard, whose uncle, who had coached Stone at the University of Vermont, gave him a glowing review of Stone and his program.

“I asked my uncle about it, and he said it was a good spot for me as well,” Picard said.

Finally, the Minutemen reached out to Plunkett in the winter of his senior year, at which point the trio realized they had the opportunity to do something special.

“Adam and I came down together on a few recruiting trips, and the three of us knew we were all being recruited, and we thought playing together would be a pretty cool thing,” Plunkett said.

Each player made their choice based on personal factors, but they also were influenced by the opportunity to play together.

“I was going to go to where I thought was best for me, and then the fact that they were thinking about going too made it better because starting off at a new, big school knowing two other kids really helped me out,” Picard said.

Each player loved UMass and the opportunity to play together was an added bonus.

“We didn’t really think about it until they were getting talked to by the coaches here,” said Begin. “We started to talk, and it was like ‘we have a chance to play together, that’d be awesome’ because we’re childhood friends and we’ve always played together growing up.”

For the first time in his 26 years as the Minutemen coach, Stone accepted three players from the same high school.

Time at UMass

The trio’s time at Essex was defined by success: whether it was the two high school championships or the Vermont legion championship in 2010.

But through three years at UMass, success has been fleeting at best and non-existent at worst. Since they arrived on campus, the Minutemen are 40-63-1, which includes a 1-12 start to this season.

“Obviously the record isn’t what we want it to be, but I feel like everyone is battling and that’s all you can ask,” Begin said. “Eventually things will start clicking.”

Picard showed promise in his freshman season (.286 average in 21 at-bats), but failed to break out the following year, as he batted just .230 and led the team in strikeouts (42).

But through 13 games, Picard represents one of the lone bright spots in UMass’ hapless offense. He leads the Minutemen in total bases (16), on-base percentage (.400) and has one of UMass’ three home runs.

The other two home runs belong to Begin, who, after a slow start to the season plagued by an injury, appears settled in. The junior has two home runs in his last three games.

Begin saw the most playing time of the trio in his freshman season, starting 26 games and posting a solid .260 batting average. He cemented himself as one of the team’s best hitters the following season as Picard and him tied for the most home runs on the team.

“He’s our best hitter overall,” Stone said. “Once he gets completely healthy he’ll be our No. 4 hitter.”

Plunkett provides a strong left-handed option out of the bullpen for Stone. After working nine ineffective innings as a freshman, Plunkett carved out a niche for himself as a sophomore. He appeared in 10 games – the second most on the team for a relief pitcher – and he posted a 3.38 earned run average in just over 10 innings. This season, Plunkett leads the team in appearances with six.

“Right now he’s more of a situational guy and a spot starter, but he’s been successful,” Stone said.

What the future holds for the three remains a mystery, although Ferreira believes a career in baseball after college is possible for Begin and Picard.

“We’ve had seven guys that have been signed to minor league contracts out of Essex High School, obviously Dylan hasn’t been signed yet, but I think he’s going to be signed,” Ferreira said.

“And of all the guys signed, I think he has the best chance of making the major leagues, I sincerely believe that. And if there was a guy in second place, it would be Adam.”

Plunkett, a sociology major, mentioned pursuing a career in criminal justice upon graduation.

“Anytime you get to play a D1 sport it’s pretty exciting, especially with people you grew up with, but there’s still a lot left to go, so hopefully it will all work out in the end,” Begin said. “I think all of us are happy with where we’ve come, and where we can go potentially.”

Jackson Alexander can be reached at jtalexan@student.umass.edu.

 

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