Westside Wooly Mammoths pitcher Collin Ledbetter and fan-favorite bat dog JJ enjoy each other’s company in the outfield.

Westside Wooly Mammoths pitcher Collin Ledbetter and fan-favorite bat dog JJ enjoy each other’s company in the outfield.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

Teams counting on new players as USPBL season begins

By: Jonathan Szczepaniak | Shelby-Utica News | Published June 8, 2022

 Birmingham Bloomfield Beavers infielder Cameron Collett tracks down a fly ball in the outfield.

Birmingham Bloomfield Beavers infielder Cameron Collett tracks down a fly ball in the outfield.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes


UTICA — What started as a $15 million idea has not only helped revitalize the city of Utica, but the dreams of baseball players everywhere who hope to have a chance of competing at the major league level.

With 45 players now signed to major league organizations, the United Shore Professional Baseball League has been at the forefront of the independent baseball league community.

The league averaged 60 sellouts at Jimmy John’s Field, 7171 Auburn Road in Utica, where all games are played, from 2017 to 2019 with an attendance record of 4,926 in 2019 during championship weekend. With such a scorching start to the league’s birth, it was a significant setback when COVID-19 hit before the 2020 season.

But as the USPBL starts its seventh season, it appears to be recovering.

“It’s been pretty incredible,” USPBL CEO Andy Appleby said. “It appears we’re coming back strongly; we’re getting a tremendous amount of expressions of interest.”

The USPBL tallied 30 sellouts last year in its first year back to some degree of normalcy, but Appleby said he expects to increase that number significantly this season.

“I think we’ll have doubled that this year,” Appleby said. “We think we’ll have more this year than ’18 or ’19.”

Along with the ballpark itself combined with lawn seating and various suite options, Jimmy John’s Field continues to offer extensive amounts of entertainment for attendees of all ages.

“I think we represent baseball, America, no politics, and summer nights in Michigan,” Appleby said. “I think people have a much bigger appreciation for that.”

The 2022 USPBL season began May 20. Fans will have a lot to watch for with all four teams in the league this year.


Utica Unicorns
As the defending champions for the third consecutive season, and with four championships in team history, manager Jim Essian and the Unicorns return as the top threat to repeat once more.

The Unicorns, who finished 22-12 last season, will be without their ace, Zack Jones. Along with Jones, the Unicorns’ pitching staff features a complete overhaul.

The team will have to fill the void of Jones and teammates Jordan Carr, who signed with the Minnesota Twins, Miguel Cirino (2.70 ERA in 2021), Brandon Krennrich (3.23 ERA), and Jack Ferguson (0.90 ERA).

The Unicorns are currently the hottest team in the USPBL with a 3-0 record and having outscored its opponents 26-9 this season.

Noah Childress leads the way in batting .625 with six RBIs, while Ari Sechopoulos has a team-high two home runs. Sechopoulos carried an impressive .417 batting average over nine games for the Greek National Team from 2018 to 2019.

Drue Galassi (.455), a vital part of last year’s offense, is one of six Unicorns players to carry a batting average over .400 this season. The others are Childress (.625), Sechopoulos (.417), Malek Bolin (.500), Adam De La Cruz (.500), and Matt Parkinson (.400).

Returning starter and three-time champion Jonathan Hodo, who led the team with a .299 batting average last season, has carried the postseason momentum into this season with a .333 average. Hodo drove in the winning run in the championship game last year to earn most valuable player honors.

Hodo said he thrives in high-pressure situations.

“I just feel like when the stakes are a little bit higher, you just lock in a little bit more,” Hodo said. “I feel like even in my first year, in 2020, I turned it on a little more in the playoffs.”

While the offense has been firing on all cylinders, the pitching staff has been lights out so far this season. Headlined by Justin Rasmussen, Jean Muntaner, Jake Fiorito, and Nik Cardinal, the Unicorns’ pitching hasn’t skipped a beat, allowing only six earned runs this season.

Muntaner, Cardinal, and Carsie Walker each earned a win so far this season.


Eastside Diamond Hoppers
After being three outs away from bringing home the championship, the Diamond Hoppers look to finally etch their names as champions.

The Hoppers bring a completely revamped roster into the 2022 season, losing key pieces from the 2021 team that finished 19-16. Crucial departures offensively are 2021 Home Run Derby champion Greg Vaughn Jr., 2021 home run champion Felix Aberouette and outfielder Ben McConnell, who led the team in hits.

Vaughn Jr. departed for the Westside Wooly Mammoths in the offseason.

While their exits are a tough pill to swallow for a team that led the league with 24 home runs, first baseman Joe Burke will look to continue his extraordinary 2021 season. Burke played the final 16 games, batting .375 while collecting 20 hits, driving in 17, slugging .821, and reaching base at a .448 clip.

After joining late last year, Burke said his experience this year has been a smoother transition.

“It’s a lot better; I really like it this year,” Burke said. “I get to meet a lot of great guys, and it’s a lot better to come in and know the guys you’re playing with instead of being thrown into the fire.”

Struggles on both sides of the field have the Hoppers at 0-4 so far this year. The departures of Vaughn Jr., Aberouette and McConnel have left the Hoppers’ offense in disarray. While producing only eight runs, the offense features only two hitters batting over .300.

Alex Pup leads the way, batting .571 with a team-high eight hits, while Sean Lawlar has contributed a .333 average.

Burke, who is currently hitting .214, said he expects the Hoppers to be aggressive offensively.

“A lot of our guys can hit,” Burke said. “I look for us to put a lot of balls in play and put a lot of runs on the board while our pitchers dominate, as well; we got a great staff behind us.”

While the offense has felt the pain of its departures, the pitching staff has yet to find its footing.

The Diamond Hoppers’ pitching arsenal has the potential to be one of, if not, the best in the league, but like the offense, it will have to fill major voids. Adrian Cook, who carried a 5-2 record and a 2.74 ERA last year, headlines the departed pitching staff that also includes Hayden Pearce and Ty Tracy.

Led by Carson Ferry, Alex Leija, and Andrew Verbrugge, the Hoppers carry a 6.39 team ERA.


Westside Wooly Mammoths
In the 2022 Westside Wooly Mammoths, one might see the most dangerous offensive team in the league.

The Mammoths, who are managed by Taylor Grzelakowski, will miss offensive leader and league MVP Lamar Briggs for the 2022 season after Briggs joined the Lake Country Dockhounds, who are part of the American Association of Professional Baseball. Briggs led the Mammoths in batting average (.350), hits (42), home runs (6), and RBIs (25).

While Briggs made his exit, the Mammoths were able to make a splash with Greg Vaughn Jr. joining the team in the offseason.

With the addition of Vaughn Jr., the Mammoths, who finished 16-20 last season, look to pair him with offensive leader Trent Bauer.

Vaughn Jr., son of former Major League Baseball player Greg Vaughn, accounted for 27 hits, five home runs, 32 walks, and a .433 on-base percentage for the Diamond Hoppers last season.

Bauer was roommates with Vaughn Jr. last year, and Vaughn Jr. said he’s looking forward to playing alongside Bauer.

“I’m really excited to play with Trent (Bauer),” Vaughn Jr. said. “We were roommates last year and we’re roommates this year, so now that we’re on the same team it’ll be that friendly competition to see how many barrels we can get.”

With the addition of Vaughn Jr., the Wooly Mammoths’ dynamic duo has performed as advertised.

Bauer was impressive last season, posting a .327 batting average, 37 hits (second in the league), and 18 runs, and has continued his success in batting .400 this season. Vaughn Jr. has a team-high .444 average.

While the offensive firepower is there this season, the pitching staff led by 2021 Pitcher of the Year Greg Loukinen will look to improve. The Wooly Mammoths have been outscored 25-21 this season as they hold a 2-2 record.

Loukinen, who was 5-2 last year, sported a 1.34 ERA while punching out 81 batters in 57.1 innings. Loukinen sports a 3.52 ERA in 7 2/3 innings of work so far this season.

The ace of the staff will have to remain consistent with the loss of Jackson Hicks. Hicks was signed by the Minnesota Twins last season.

The Mammoths will also get innings from former Savannah Bananas player and returning Mammoths right-hander Collin Ledbetter. Ledbetter carries a 3.00 ERA this season.

If Ledbetter and Loukinen can anchor the staff, the Mammoths have the potential to be the most balanced team in the USPBL this season.


Birmingham Bloomfield Beavers
It was a down year for a team that finished in second in the 2020 season as the Beavers fell to a last place finish at 13-23, but a new-look Beavers team could bring excitement and results.

Beavers manager Von Joshua will have to do without an array of talent from last year’s squad.

The biggest subtractions were catcher Connor Bagnieski and Travis McFarland, who commanded the middle of the Beavers’ lineup.

For an offense that finished last in batting average (.218) in the 2021 season, the Beavers have jumped out to an impressive run offensively. Cameron Collett has a team-high .636 average while Eric Whitfield (.333) and Tylor Frailey (.300) have contributed to the offense this season. The Beavers have outscored their opponents this season 12-9 on the way to a second-place 2-1 record.

They have been joined by former Northwestern Oklahoma State University star Marques Paige. As a senior last year, Paige was named to the Great American Conference first team with a .347 batting average, 18 home runs and 51 RBIs in 2021.

Paige will look to have an immediate offensive impact for the Beavers, as will former University of Gonzaga infielder Ryan Sullivan. From 2019 to 2021 with Gonzaga, Sullivan hit .245 with 57 hits in 85 contests.

While the offense sports an exciting new look, the pitching staff provides a completely different look this season. With Malik Barrington having signed with the Minnesota Twins, Austin Shea will lead the staff with a collection of newly acquired talent.

Shea carried a 2.50 ERA in 14 innings of work last season, and has been dominant so far this season, holding a 3.38 ERA and punching out 11 in eight innings of work.

Eric Sandness, who was selected in the 23rd round by the Kansas City Royals in the 2014 MLB Draft, is part of the new-look staff. Sandness, who battled cancer and is currently in recovery, has transitioned into the USPBL with success early.

In eight innings this season, Sandness holds a 2.25 ERA and a 2-0 record.

Sandness said he’s taken in the experience and has appreciated every moment.

“Probably one of my most favorite things is being at the ballpark,” Sandness said. “As a kid, you know, you start out going to Little League and having goals and reaching them, but as I got older, I’m starting to realize all of the things that go into the game outside of the field that make it special.

“I’m trying to pay attention to those things and keep them in the back of my mind, because that’s really what it’s all about,” Sandness said.

Alongside Sandness will be James Krick and Zach Blankenship in the Mammoths’ bullpen.