After Harwood’s baseball team turned itself around this year, advancing to the semifinals (after going 5-11 last season), The Valley Reporter reached out to coach Luke Russell for details on how he turned the team around this year. This year’s team had no seniors (other than an exchange student who’d never previously played baseball), five juniors, one sophomore, and seven freshmen. They finished the season 11-8 with two playoff wins and ended the season winning eight of their last 10 games.

VR: Tell us about your year and your coaching style?

LR: We came into the season knowing we would have a young team, and that there would likely be some growing pains early on in the year. We only had seven returning players after graduating eight seniors last season, so over half of our roster had never played in a high school baseball game prior to this year. Our big focus coming into the year was developing our team as much as possible, with our eyes set on the coming years for when we really might be able to make a deep playoff run. Fortunately, our younger players were able to adapt to the higher level of play fairly quickly, and we saw some success sooner than we might have anticipated. While we did struggle a bit early on, we were able to find our identity as a team and get on a roll about midway through the season, going on a seven-game win streak before our loss to Mt Abe in the semifinals. 


VR: How did you turn your team around from last year’s 5-11 to this year’s trip to the semifinals and your 11-8 with two playoff wins and ending season winning eight of your last 10 games? 


LR: The addition of all the young guys really gave us a great opportunity to remold the program into what we hope to see in the future. We received a lot of buy-in early on from the team, which is so important in achieving the results that you’re looking for. We also added two new coaches (Sam Grandfield and Riley Abair) at the beginning of the season, and they’ve both been huge assets as far as providing new insight. Sam has been phenomenal working with our pitchers all year, and Riley, as well as returning coach Jake O’Brien, have done a great job bringing a type of energy to the team that is really fun to be a part of.


Coming into the season, we put a big emphasis on doing the little things right. This meant really focusing on limiting the free bases that we were giving up (walks and errors), while also doing everything we could to minimize our own strikeouts, and putting pressure on the opposing team by putting the ball in play. We went from striking out once every 3.6 plate appearances last year, to once every 5.24 plate appearances this year, while the amount of batters we walked (or hit) also decreased from 1.05 per inning, to 0.72 per inning. These improvements were a huge part of the reason we were able to take our win total from 5 in 2023, to 11 in 2024.


VR: What is your background and interest in baseball? Did you play in high school?


LR: I played four years of baseball under Coach Casey at Harwood, and then attended UVM where I played five years of club baseball. All four of our coaches played baseball at Harwood, so we’re all very passionate about seeing this program do well and succeed at a high level. 


VR: Tell us a little bit about your team and what made them succeed this year?


LR: Everyone on our team was able to contribute this season, which is not something you always see from a high school baseball team. Every player on our roster found a role, and did a good job focusing on how they could best help our team win games. We had players who were used primarily as pinch runners that helped us win games on the bases, players who only played in the field and primarily focused on developing their defensive abilities, as well as other players who were strictly used as designated hitters and greatly improved their skills at the plate. This is a very unselfish group of players, and they did a great job coming together to form one cohesive unit.


VR: Plans for next year? 


LR: Our main focus for next year is continuing to improve as a whole, and hopefully starting the season off in a similar fashion to how we were able to finish this year. With 6 seniors, and a very strong group of underclassmen, we should be in a great position to build on the success we had this past season. 


Aside from the results on the field, one of our main goals is to continue to build interest in the Harwood baseball program. I think we did a good job developing a bit more buzz around the program than we had seen in past years, and it’s really exciting to see bigger crowds present at our games throughout the season. 


Additionally, we’d like to do whatever we can to keep local youth interested in baseball. Harwood spring sports are notorious for having strong programs, which draw a lot of interest from kids in the area, but we want to show them that there is good baseball to be played here as well.