Prep preview: Toffey building Winchendon into NEPSAC powerhouse
(Reprinted here with permission from New England Baseball Journal)
By John McGuirk
John Toffey has led Winchendon to a 20-6 record over two seasons. (Courtesy photo)
WINCHENDON, Mass. — When John Toffey first stepped foot on the Winchendon School campus at the beginning of last year, he was given the task of revitalizing the baseball program by transforming it into a full-fledged varsity unit. Prior to his arrival, Winchendon operated more like a club team, playing a limited number of games, mostly against junior varsity opponents.
Toffey, who also serves as Director of Admissions here, has built himself quite a coaching resume throughout his time at Salisbury School, Cheshire Academy and now here at Winchendon. He came to the Central Mass. institution on the advice of his colleague and friend Scott Pottbecker, who was Assistant Head of School at Cheshire before accepting a similar position at Winchendon. Once Toffey landed at Winchendon, he immediately instilled his coaching wisdom and philosophies to his new team. The results of which have certainly proven to be over the top. Last spring, Winchendon won the NEPSAC Small School Prep title, finishing with a record of 20-6.
“As last season developed, and by spending more time with the kids, you could see the potential was certainly there because of how much they enjoyed being around one another and how hard they all worked,” said Toffey, who holds a remarkable career prep won-loss record of 155-15. “They would work with our strength and conditioning coach before class at 6 a.m. and then go back again after school. They always wanted more in terms of extra practice time, extra batting practice and extra fielding practice. It was wonderful to see.”
Last season initially began as a sort of start-from-scratch scenario. It was the first time the team had ever taken a southern preseason trip or played a schedule consisting of more than 20 varsity games. It was equally important to take on an identity and stick with it throughout the season.
“Having a sense of team culture was important to us,” Toffey said. “Last year, the team was able to create a culture of what needed to be done. Going into this year, we have some returning players who know how things should be done. So we plan on continuing with that culture. They understand the things they did last year made them successful. I believe what our student-athletes did here last year will only help us as the program moves forward. I really think last year’s team set the bar very high.”
Winchendon graduated a solid class that contributed mightily to last season’s rise and prominence. Gone are pitchers Nate Espelin (Dayton), who was a 35th-round selection by the New York Yankees in the MLB draft, Jake Gigliotti (Northeastern), Howell Eglin (Colby) along with catcher Max Walker (UMass-Lowell) and second baseman Philip Bernstein (Hamilton). Key players coming back include senior pitchers Jackson Bright, Griffin Tomaszycki, a St. Anselm commit, and senior shortstop Nate Nickerson.
During the off-season, Toffey was able to bring in a solid group of newcomers who are expected to make their presence felt right away. Among them are post-grads Patrick Casserly (INF, Holy Cross), Keegan O’Connor (C, Quinnipiac), Bobby Alcock (P, Gardner-Webb), Cory Bright (INF/OF) as well as junior pitchers Ross Dexter, Nick Remy, Andrew Steinhubel, Aidan Vining and Andrew Chevarie.
“We look for kids who have a strong passion for things and are fun to be around,” explained Toffey. “You look for them to be overachievers and goal-oriented, not just in baseball but in school also. We want kids who are selfless, empathetic and want to be involved in our community.”
Toffey’s coaching style has not wavered all that much over the years. While the personnel on the diamond may change from year to year, he continues to stay loyal to a certain group of core values. Toffey exhorts the importance of being consistent, versatile, prepared and maintaining a team-first mentality. All of which are building blocks towards achievement.
“We are focused on the process and what necessary steps we need to take to give ourselves the outcome that we want in order to be successful,” he said. “I think these kids realize that by having team success, and not worrying about individual statistics, it will only help them with their own personal goals.They know with the team having success, they are going to then create some great opportunities for themselves.”
A Barnstable, Mass., native, Toffey spent his high school years at St. Sebastian’s, where he played baseball and hockey. Toffey first attended Ohio State, where he played hockey, before transferring to UMass-Amherst. Toffey was a two-sport standout with the Minutemen. He was drafted by the Colorado Rockies in 2001 and the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2002. He spent three seasons in the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL), playing for the Johnstown Chiefs and Trenton Devils.
The valuable experiences and lessons gained from those moments have allowed Toffey the opportunity to pass them along to his players over the years.
Winchendon is considered one of the smaller prep schools in New England, maintaining a student population of just under 290. Founded in 1926, the school takes special pride in having a modest student-to-teacher ratio which translates into more individualized learning.
“We have a real personalized approach here,” Toffey said. “We realize every student is different in a way that every student learns differently. For our teachers to have the ability to work with each student individually I think is adventitious for us. I think that same approach carries over to our baseball program. We have five coaches working with 22-24 players. We have a great staff here that is able to offer that same kind of personalized approach. All of the independent prep schools decide how they want to invest their resources. For us, we want to create a great experience for students and, more specifically, we want to have a baseball program that is important to our school. I think the word is getting out about us. Our admissions pipeline continues to be very strong.”