Jun. 7—Just a few days after returning from an appearance in the NCAA Division 3 tournament, the Salem State University baseball program is looking for a new head coach.
Al Donovan, who has led the Vikings since 2016 and guided them to the 2021 MASCAC title, was informed his contract won't be renewed late last week.
"I was told they want to go in a different direction, with a different sort of philosophy," said Donovan. "I'm not entirely sure what that means. I was surprised, for sure."
Athletic director Nicolle Wood was up front about her decision, Donovan said. The next Vikings head coach will only be the program's fifth in the last 30 years, with Ken Perrone (1983-2012), Mike Ward (2013-16) and Donovan steering one of New England's more stable and competitive Division 3 college baseball programs over the years.
"We appreciate Coach Donovan's contributions to our baseball teams during the past five seasons and wish him well in his future pursuits," Salem State spokesperson Corey Cronin said.
Now 56 years old and living in Nahant, Donovan is proud to have overseen several Vikings play professionally. Pitchers Andrew MacLaughlin, Steve Leavitt and Stave Keskinides played independent ball after their Viking careers; Brock Riley played in the Cape Cod League and is still playing professionally with the Great Falls Voyagers; and Donovan helped Traverse Briana win the national batting title in 2019.
He cared deeply to see his players succeed after college, both in the classroom and their career paths, and in baseball, his players say.
"He is more than a baseball coach," said Matt Enos, a Beverly High product who was a senior this past season. "He's someone you know you can rely on for anything and will do his best to help you out. He cared so much about the program and the players, we all thank him for his commitment and dedication to us."
The support he's gotten from Salem State players, alumni and their families over the last few years has been overwhelming, Donovan said. Whether it was fundraising for the team's annual Arizona spring training trip or to help with recruiting trips, or just offering congratulations after wins or encouragement after losses, the Vikings always felt like a family.
"I've always said it's a family and it is," Donovan said. "I'm thankful for the memories, from the bottom of my heart, and I wouldn't trade them for anything. I couldn't have asked for a better group of players or coaches."
Promoted from pitching coach to head man in the summer of 2016, Donovan had a 76-69 career record in five seasons, the last two being shortened due to the ongoing pandemic. This past season's team started the year slowly but won eight of its last ten games before the NCAA playoffs. That included a spotless run through the MASCAC playoffs that delivered an automatic spot in the national tournament.
"This past year was a very special team," said Donovan. "We went through a lot of adversity with injuries and COVID. We gelled late in the year and we played some great baseball."
In the NCAA regionals in Wisconsin, Salem lost both games but fell to No. 7 ranked Adrian by a 2-0 margin. Playing well against some one of the top team's in the country was a point of pride.
"We took the seventh ranked team in the country deep into the game. We could've beaten them," Donovan said. "I'm so proud of the way we competed. Their coach said, 'You've got a good team here, you'll be back in the tournament next year.' That makes you think you're doing things right."
Donovan also considers it a point of pride that he expanded Salem State's recruiting base, with players from Georgia and Florida on the roster in addition to those from New England. Though he'd like to have continued with this group, he remains grateful for the chance he had to lead the team.
"Peggy Carl was the AD and I thank her immense for giving me the opportunity. At the time, she said, 'You recruited a lot of these players and they're vocal about wanting you to take over.' That meant a lot to me," he said. "There's an expectation of winning championships in this program and I'm proud that we lived up to that."