St. Joseph’s College of Maine freshman infielder Hunter Richardson, a Monmouth Academy graduate, sets himself in the field during a game earlier this month.
Like his fellow college baseball players and countless snowbirds, Hunter Richardson got a cold slap in the face when he returned to Maine from his Florida trip earlier this week.
Unlike a lot of his fellow freshmen, however, Richardson didn’t endure quite as cold and jarring dose of reality while he was making his debut in the Sunshine State for St. Joseph’s College.
For most newcomers, the start of baseball season means either sitting on the bench or, if they do get on the field, struggling to adapt to the college game. Instead, the versatile former Monmouth Academy star played in nine of 10 games on the trip and tied for the fourth-most at-bats on the team.
And he more than held his own at the plate and in the field, getting seven hits in 25 at bats (.280) and committing just one error playing second base and third base for the Monks.
Richardson is surprised as anyone to be playing such a big role so early in his college career. But he sees what Monks coach Will Sanborn has in store for him, and he is all in.
“He’s definitely looking at me as a utility player, which is definitely fine by me,” Richardson said.
As a four-year starter at Monmouth, Richardson played mostly shortstop when he wasn’t pitching. But Mustangs coach Eric Palleschi would put him virtually anywhere in the field when the situation called for it. He also moved around while playing American Legion ball for Pastime Club of Lewiston last summer.
That versatility and Richardson’s ability to adapt to changing positions impressed Sanborn.
“He’s one of those guys whose pretty athletic and nothing is really going to bother him,” Sanborn said. “You can put him pretty much anywhere in the field and he’s going to handle it.”
“He’s got a lot of the intangibles you look for in a first-year player to be successful,” he added. “He’s a really bright kid. He picks things up very quickly. He works very hard and he also communicates well, which is important in those key spots in the infield.”
Richardson, who was also a standout in soccer and basketball at Monmouth, didn’t start to seriously explore his college options until late in his junior year. Since Palleschi played for Sanborn at St. Joseph’s, it was only natural that the Monks became one of the options.
After weighing other suitors such as Endicott, he chose St. Joe’s because of its proximity to home, his major (pre-physican’s assistant) and the shared baseball philosophy of Palleschi and Sanborn.
“Coach Palleschi’s practices are basically condensed versions of St. Joe’s,” Richardson said. “I love playing for Will. He’s an old-school guy. He keeps it to fundamentals. But at the same time, he’s always trying to bring new stuff into the program so we can get better and better.”
Sanborn joked that helping to steer Richardson to St. Joe’s was the least Palleschi could do after tormenting Sanborn for four years. But he was confident Palleschi’s influence and Richardson’s commitment during his high school career would prepare him to contribute as a freshman.
“Those two- or three-sport guys are real competitors. It’s a long grind, the baseball season and leading up to it, and they’re used to doing stuff year-round,” Sanborn said. “He’s got a lot of leadership qualities. He’s not going to be vocal (as a freshman), but already he’s being a leader by the way he’s approaching things.”
That approach started last summer with playing Legion ball and working on his swing and taking grounders with his father, Matt, while also dedicating himself to the weight room.
He said he immediately felt accepted by his new teammates and fell in love with St. Joseph’s campus on the shores of Sebago Lake. But adjusting to the academic and athletic demands takes some time.
“It’s a lot more challenging than high school,” Richardson said. “You’re on your own. There’s no one there to hold you accountable. It was a little easier in the fall. Now that the season is starting, it’s more challenging.”
He showed how ready he was for the challenge on the diamond and drew the start at third base in the season opener against King’s (Pa.) College. Batting eighth, he fouled out in his first plate appearance, then hit a two-run single to left field in his second. The Monks won, 10-6.
Richardson drew a pinch-hit walk in his next game, then went 2-for-5 in each of his next two starts, including an RBI and run scored in a 9-6 loss to Wartburg. After going hitless in eight at-bats over his next three games, he finished the Monks’ 5-5 trip with two hits in his final five at-bats and scored a run.
Currently in the midst of a two-week break before the Monks take the field again next Saturday at UMass-Dartmouth, Richardson said the most jarring adjustment to the college game was the attention to detail and focus.
“Coach Palleschi did a great job of going over the little things, but when it comes to college, I feel like every play is more significant,” he said. “There’s just more emphasis on everything. Everything you do on the field, you’re doing it for the team in your approach. You know, there’s a runner at second and none out and you’re trying to hit the ball to the right side or there’s a runner on third and you’re trying to get the ball in the air for a sac fly. There’s an approach for every situation.”
One thing that has made the adjustment easier, he said, is that college pitchers will challenge him more than they did in high school. He can expect to get a pitch to hit when he steps into the batter’s box, whereas that wasn’t the case when he was the most feared bat in the Mustangs’ lineup. In fact, as a freshman, he’s probably already seen more first-pitch fastballs for strikes than he did his entire senior season at Monmouth.
“Pitchers locate a lot better in college, but at the same time, in high school you might not see a lot of pitchers who throw strikes,” he said. “Granted, college pitchers are harder to hit and they’re throwing harder, but there’s more of a chance I’ll see a pitch I can drive.”
For now, Sanborn is happy when Richardson just makes contact and uses his speed to get on base. He had six singles and one double in Florida. But Sanborn, who plans to add the outfield to Richardson’s duties as the season unfolds, thinks he will start finding more gaps in due time.
“I think he just needs to experience at-bats against college pitching to make that transition,” Sanborn said.
Richardson believes another offseason dedicated to strength and conditioning will help him hit for more power, too. For now, he’s spending the break fine-tuning his swing and defense and hoping the snow melts in time for the Monks’ home-opener scheduled for March 31 against Nichols.
“Moving forward, I feel I can improve on a lot of things,” he said. “I want to get stronger. I want to get more consistent in my stance and feeling more comfortable at the plate.”
Monmouth Academy closer Hunter Richardson, right, celebrates with catcher Nick Dovinsky, left, and shortstop Chandler Harris after pitching the final inning against Winthrop High School in June 2016.