It was more or less the eleventh hour and Peabody native Ben Irvine hadn’t quite made up his mind as far as where he wanted to play baseball next year.
After having two great seasons in the junior college ranks at Northern Essex Community College, Irvine knew it was time to take the next stop playing for an NCAA program. He just wasn’t sure which one would have him.
That’s when the University of Maryland came through with a last minute offer for a Division 1 roster spot, scooping up the talented and speedy outfielder who has two years of eligibility left to play for the Terps.
“Honestly it came out of no where. I was leaning towards a Division 2 school and I was in the middle of a workout when coach (Jeff Mejia) called and said Maryland was an option,” Irvine recalled.
“Within seconds of hearing the word Maryland I knew I wanted to go there. It’s too good an opportunity to pass up, definitely a dream school.”
Maryland plays in the competitive Big Ten. Irvine will join the program after helping Northern Essex, which is in Haverhill, reach the Junior College World Series this spring. He was named a second-team All-American, leading New England in runs scored (55) and ranked second in the country with 40 steals while only being thrown out three times.
Coming out of Peabody High two years ago, Irvine was a Salem News all-star and All-Northeastern Conference player who hit .386 with 23 RBI and played a great defensive center field. Looking to improve his grades before college, Irvine’s connection with Mejia, who he’d known since youth baseball, made it an easy decision to take the JUCO route.
“Coach Mejia has been my coach since I was 11 and I’ve learned so much over the years. He’s pretty much watched me grow up as a person on and off the field. He’s been a huge influence on everything for me,” said Irvine. “(Junior college) is a great opportunity for players to come in and play immediately and get two years experience before heading to a four-year school. That’s the big picture for the majority of the team and it’s an advantage going to school after two years here.”
In 2017, Irvine hit .338 with 28 RBI for a Northern Essex squad that won its region. He followed that up with an explosive sophomore season highlighted by a .342 average, 32 RBI, eight doubles, two homers and the incredible 40 thefts.
“I felt like I learned a lot from the older guys my first year. They taught me how to do things the right way,” said Irvine. “I improved my baseball skills and also got stronger. Getting the experience of playing right away was a big help and I was also able to improve in the classroom.”
With seven JUCO World Series appearances under its belt, Northern Essex has become something of a powerhouse in New England. Fellow Peabody native Ryan Collins earned a spot on the American Baseball Coaches Association/Rawlings Gold Glove All-America team after his sophomore season that saw him make eight errors in 144 chances for a .944 fielding percentage at shortstop.
A year ahead of Irvine at Peabody High, Collins went to NECC after one year at Southern New Hampshire. In his second NECC season, Collins hit .404 with 21 extra-base hits and a .629 slugging percentage and 31 RBI.
Next year, he’ll be heading to Lincoln Memorial, a Division 2 power house located in Tennessee.
“It was awesome playing with Collins for another two years,” said Irvine. “I played with a bunch of the guys on the team before NECC and it was a great thing being able to play with guys you already know.”
Also among NECC’s successful alums are Ryan McAuliffe, who played at North Reading High and signed with the New York Mets last spring, as well as fellow North Reading alum Colby Maiola, who went on to star at UMass Lowell (Mejia’s son Jeff is also a River Hawk).
The train doesn’t appear to be stopping. Beverly’s Spencer Brown, the co-MVP of the Northeastern Conference this spring, is headed to NECC next year. Hamilton-Wenham slugger Hunter Wilichoski is as well.
If they’re looking for a success story to follow, they don’t need to look very far. Irvine’s hard work off the field and performance on the diamond delivered on his Division 1 dream.
“It feels great. It’s always been a set goal of mine and was a huge reason that I attended NECC,” Irvine said. “This is something everyone works and hopes for and it feels great to make it a reality.”