Star Pitcher Carries Vineyard to Playoffs

Sam Reece Becomes One of Top Pitchers in Massachusetts

By JOSHUA SABATINI

He stands on the practice mound, a few yards past the right-field line of the regional high school's baseball diamond. His cleats kick up a cloud of dust as he winds up, lifting his left leg high and raising his right arm over his head before extending it before him. The ball shoots into the catcher's glove in a ritual repeated again and again.

Sam Reece has practiced this motion for many days. Today, the 18-year-old senior pitcher for the varsity baseball team warms up for the first round of the state tournament - a game the team will win to advance to the second round; a game in which Reece will strike out nine and allow seven hits.

Standing six feet, two inches, and weighing just over 200 pounds, Reece's pitches have been clocked at 84 miles per hour. His arsenal on the mound includes a fastball, curveball and change-up, and he adds variations to all three by changing speeds and using different grips.

While he is among the fastest pitchers at the high school level, he is not solely a speed demon. "Sam is a complete pitcher," said Vineyard head coach Doug Hoehn. "We've had kids that have thrown as hard as him. But he knows he has to do more than just speed. He works on it all the time, all year long. He is a pitcher for sure."

Reece, who practices year-round, believes it is his training ethic, his strong affection for the diamond, that has carried him this far. "It definitely doesn't come natural to me as much as it does to some kids," he told the Gazette.

This past fall, Reece decided not to play golf for a fourth season, opting instead for the conditioning that running provides. "Cross-country helped me with the endurance part of things. Running three to five miles a day helps strengthen the legs," he said.

From November to March, Reece followed an intensive five-day-a-week weightlifting program. And right after the December holidays, he began visiting an indoor practice facility in Bourne twice a week, taking the 2:30 p.m. boat over and returning home at 6:15 p.m.

Off-Island, he pitched, took lessons and worked with instructors. "That gets me ready for preseason," he said. "You cannot just go out there and start throwing hard. You have to strengthen your arm and get your endurance up and your muscles."

His offseason work paved the way for a record of 4-2 in the regular season, in which he struck out 66 batters in only 53 innings. His two losses came early in the season. When not on the mound, he played third or first base, and at the plate hit .451, with four home runs and 22 runs batted in.

His coach has noticed in Reece what anyone will see in just a short conversation with him about the sport. "He puts forth maximum effort every time he does something," said Mr. Hoehn.

His hard work and consequent success on the field have brought a reward: Reece was recruited to play next year at Eckerd College, a well-known Division II baseball school in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Playing ball in college "is a rare step for a baseball athlete at the regional high school," said Coach Hoehn.

Eckerd "has a good solid program," Reece explained. "I wanted to be south and I wanted to play in warmer weather." The school, which plays a 56-game schedule beginning in early February, he added, "just made sense."

He is undecided about whether he will advance as a pitcher or as an infielder, but Eckerd will allow him to continue to play as both.

Although naturally a righty, Reece hit left-handed for most of his at-bats - an advantage against the overwhelming majority of high school pitchers, who are right-handed. He began switch-hitting during games at age 14, but the seed was sown when he was just a youngster. In the Reece home, there is a picture of his father, Doug, throwing a wiffle ball to two-year-old Sam, who wields one of those big Fred Flintstone baseball bats.

"My mom tells me my dad was saying back then, ‘Sam, just turn around and try hitting lefty,'" he said. "That's what he would do. That's probably the big reason why I do it now."

He said his dad has helped him develop over the years and continues to watch each game carefully.

"Whenever I do have a problem, my dad is someone I can always talk to," said Reece. "He can come and watch me at the game and see if I am dropping my glove or getting out too far forward. He has really taken the time to become a student of the game."

Reece played baseball in Missouri before moving to the Island about four years ago. He began playing in an off-Island summer league then, and continues to do so now. As a 14-year old, he was throwing in the mid-60s; by age 15, the mid-70s. "Every year I gained a couple miles per hour until where I am now," he said.

In his first summer, his team went all the way to the nationals and came away with second place out of the top 64 teams in the nation.

"It was so exciting to play against some of the best athletes in the whole country and to put yourself up against them," he said.

When Reece was a freshman in high school, one of his teammates' fathers saw him for the first time and was reminded of baseball great Walter Johnson. The man called Reece by Johnson's nickname - Big Train - and it has stuck ever since. Often, Reece's teammates call out "Choo-Choo Grande" during a game.

But Reece doesn't see himself as similar to Johnson, or any other pitcher for that matter. "There is no one I really base myself off of or look a lot like," he said. "Nobody pitches or hits the same. You have to have your own style."

When game days arrive now, Reece concentrates fully and leads his team in a calm manner. "I'm pretty quiet in the dugout when I am pitching," he said. "Even that day in school, I am always just thinking about the hitters I am going to face and what pitches I want to throw. I try and visualize the spots."

Taking the mound, his intensity and love of the game shine through. After a pitch misses the mark, he can be heard talking to himself on the mound - "Get on top of it," for example, if his curveball is off.

"I say stuff to remind myself," he said. "It's just little things that I know I need to do in my pitches that I don't think about all the time, and if I don't do them the pitch doesn't work," he said. "So I have to remind myself."

Reece said his enjoyment of the game comes from its challenges.

"I see baseball as one of the toughest games because it is such a mental game," he said. On Friday, he said, "I was standing by one of the freshmen on the team and I said to him, ‘Here comes a curveball.' And he threw the curveball. And the freshman turned to me and said, ‘How did you know that?'

"I was watching the catcher," Reece explained. "On the curveball, he doesn't move his feet at all."

These nuances have charmed Reece into dedicating most of his time to the sport. He hopes the team will knock off the number one seed in the tournament so he can take to the mound in the semifinals. But no matter how the season ends, Reece will not be disappointed. His career stretches out before him, over the horizon.

"The game - there is so much more I have to learn about it, which is the best part," he said. "There is so much more I can learn that would make me a better pitcher, hitter, whatever. It's just the best game in the world to me."