HERKIMER, NY – The Herkimer Generals are well-known for their domination on the soccer pitch and on the basketball court. What is less known, though their notoriety grows with every passing year, is their dominance on the baseball diamond. The Generals have been a mainstay in the Region III championships for almost all of Jason Rathbun’s tenure as head coach, which made their first round exit last year at the hands of the Erie Kats all the more surprising. However, the 2018 version has already stormed out of the gate, putting together a respectable 9-5 record and winning five of their last six games.
“A lot of guys are ready to go and put last season in the past,” Rathbun said of this season’s edition of the Generals, which bring in 20 freshmen this season against only 11 sophomores. “ I wouldn’t classify last year as a failure, but I wouldn’t say it was a success either. Our expectation is to get to the [NJCAA] World Series, but with the talent this team has, anything less than a regional championship this year is a disappointment. The depth of our talent is very good…we’re playing every hitter every day.”
One of those hitters that has lived up to expectations so far is freshman catcher Matt Parkinson. The Whitesboro graduate has been a force to be reckoned with for the Generals, racking up a team-leading .433 average in 15 games. Parkinson is also among the team leaders in on-base percentage and slugging percentage, trailing only fellow freshman Brandon Stillman in both categories. That performance has already allowed him, along with a little prodding from Rathbun, to get some attention from several major league clubs while the team was in Florida, with the Cincinnati Reds showing the most interest.
“Coach Rathbun has connections all over the country,” Parkinson said. “If you do what he tells you, he’s going to get you somewhere. It’s showing me that what I’m doing is working. It’s not just me, either; everyone who does their work and buys in to the program will get noticed. I think we have the potential to win a title. I’ve never been on a team that has this much talent. We could have a guy go oh-for-three and another guy will pick him up.”
“They all know each other from summer ball, and that’s the neat thing about Herkimer,” Rathbun said. “We will get them in front of professional people. That’s a big part of our recruiting.”
Parkinson is not the only local player looking to make a splash for the Generals. Little Falls native Kobe Jackson joins the former Whitesboro Warrior behind the plate for Herkimer this season, but unlike Parkinson, Jackson has only seen five games of action so far. Other Mohawk Valley graduates on the Generals’ roster include Proctor graduate Vito Castronovo, as well as former VVS standout Zachary Durant. All the local flavor has helped all of them ease into the new season, as well as forge some friendships from old rivalries.
“Vito and I, we were rivals [in high school], but once we got here, we put that to the side,” Parkinson said. “I think that built a mutual respect for each other.”
Another common thread between most of the roster is their versatility. Parkinson is the best evidence of that, playing three sports at Whitesboro, while Jackson did the same at Little Falls and several of the others starred on the football field. According to Rathbun, that has bolstered the Generals both on and off the diamond.
“I’d rather have an athlete than a kid who just plays baseball,” Rathbun said. “I think it helps a lot…If you have an athlete, you can move them around the field. When you play other sports, you compete in everything; everything becomes a competition, including in the classroom.”
“I think I got a lot of skills from the other sports,” Parkinson said. “I learned hard work from football, I learned toughness and grit from hockey. The sophomores have helped us along a lot… you learn a lot of routines they’ve developed. It’s a system….some guys buy into it, and those are the ones that are successful. I think they’re all very accepting when they really didn’t have to be.”
Another thing that has helped the Generals bounce back from an underwhelming season is the challenging schedule. Ten of Herkimer’s first 14 games have been against nationally ranked teams, mostly during their span in Florida, including a familiar foe from last year’s tournament in Century College. However, since returning from their trip south, the unpredictable weather has forced Herkimer to play two home games at Onondaga Community College and cancel two other games. Luckily for the Generals, neither the weather, nor the change of venue has really affected their performance.
“If you’re winning games, it doesn’t matter who they are,” Rathbun said. “You’re better prepared…It doesn’t help to go out and beat someone 15-2 if you didn’t learn anything.”
“We can’t have any control over the weather,” Parkinson said of the loss of their home games. “We have to come out and do the job ourselves. The bus ride helps bring us together, though.”
One thing that has always consistently been with the Generals since Rathbun accepted the head coaching job at Herkimer: a relaxed atmosphere. Anyone who has seen the Herkimer dugout during a home game knows that the players make it feel very much like home. This year is no different, and to an incoming new player like Parkinson, it’s a welcome environment.
“We get our work in where it’s needed, then we play loose and have fun,” Parkinson said. “If you look at Whitesboro, and look at [Herkimer], the only difference is we’re having fun. Every athlete does better when he has fun. To me, winning is the measure of success…we just have to go out there and get it done.”
When the snow clears, however, the Generals and their loose play will turn into all business, as they will start their long-awaited Mountain Valley conference play against Schenectady next week. Despite all of that, the long wait to restart play doesn’t bother Rathbun.
“I think it helps us because of our depth…you just have to be prepared to play and that moment will come. It’s always good to be able to play and not be in the gym. We just have to lead from the top.”