Last season, prognosticators picked the University of Maryland Eastern Shore Division I baseball team to come in dead last in the Mid Eastern Atlantic Conference, and why not? They hadn’t had a winning season since 1995 and finished the 2005 season 6-40.
But the pundits don’t factor a team’s love for and dedication to the game when making their pre-season rankings and, despite a dismal preseason ranking, the Hawks finished the 2006 season at fourth in their division (13-33-1) and won three tournament games before losing 14-0 to Bethune Cookman in the championship game. (Bethune Cookman earned an automatic bid to this year’s NCAA tournament, where they eventually lost 2-1 to Ol’ Miss.)
Playing and playing well on the big stage, in front of swarm of pro scouts, is important for collegiate players aspiring to the big leagues, and though local standout and current UMES player Justin Hoban didn’t get that exact opportunity, his performance in the divisional tournament and throughout the season put him in good position for the next level.
He batted .400 in the divisional tournament (8-20); earning him MEAC all-tournament team honors and held a .354 batting average for the season.
Heading into his senior year, Hoban is faced with the challenge of improving on an already impressive season, though his recent performance at an open tryout for the Philadelphia Phillies may have stoked that fire.
Hoban was one of nearly 25 catchers hoping to catch the eye of a Phillies scout. And in the end, he did.
“It was really cool to see them have that extra interest,” Hoban said of being approached by a Phillies scout after the workout. “A guy named Murphy, dressed in a full Phillies uniform, came up to me and another guy to talk and to take some extra throws. He told us to try some things a little different.”
“If they’re not interested, then they won’t say anything except thank you,” he noted.
Having played the game since he was 4 years old, Hoban has always wanted to play professional baseball. But it wasn’t till he caught for then-professional pitcher Mark Comolli, who was rehabbing an arm injury at a local baseball clinic, did the dream become more a reality.
“I was catching for Comolli in the bullpen and I realized that I could do this,” he said. “You can tell if you’re way out of your league, but he wasn’t overpowering. And that’s when I realized that if he could do it, so could I. Maybe I can play up a level and catch guys throwing 90-plus.”
Hoban never played catcher until his freshman year at Indian River High School but took to it quickly and earned All-Conference honors the next three years in a row before agreeing to play collegiate baseball for Delaware Valley College.
He batted .294 his freshman season but had a strong desire to move up past Delaware Valley’s Division III status.
“I was looking to transfer and have an opportunity to play Division I baseball, so when UMES contacted me, I jumped on it and took it,” Hoban said.
Though he was recruited as a catcher, Georgetown native Morgan Schirmer was the starter. So the UMES coaching staff had to find a way to get Hoban’s bat into the lineup.
He became a platoon player at first base, as well as catcher, but served primarily as the teams’ designated hitter and last year started every game except one.
Hoban batted .250 his sophomore year. But after working diligently with head coach Bobby Rodriquez, he raised his average more than 100 points to this year’s .354.
“I made adjustments to my swing and did a better job of going the other way,” Hoban said. “I became real confident.”
Hoban said he believes that playing a number of positions, in addition to last season’s performance, may give him an edge over other players hoping to take the next step.
“Look at (Brandon) Fahey (of the Baltimore Orioles),” Hoban said. “He was a college shortstop who hadn’t played outfield since his freshman year at Texas. But he wanted to stay up in the big leagues, so he said, ‘Hey, I can play outfield.’”
“You think you’re good and there are always 200 players better. So there’s always something more you can do to help the team,” Hoban added. “And right now I’m like a sponge and I’m trying to soak everything up.”
Currently, Hoban is staying sharp by playing in a Salisbury summer league and taking extra batting practice with fellow Indian River alumni catcher D.J. Clark.
“I’m always asking questions and doing things that work for other people,” Hoban said. “Or I’ll call up a buddy and go up to the Pyle Center and take an hour or two to get my cuts in and continue to throw.”
Hard work and dedication are essential to achieving and, like most seniors, Hoban’s last year at college will be a transitional year. Whether he earns a roster spot in the minor leagues of a pro team or wears a suit from 9 to 5, Hoban has the drive to succeed.
“He’s improved a whole lot and you can see that in how he plays the game,” Clark said. “He can be as successful as he wants to be.”