Pictured: RCP head coach Paul Francis, left, was more than excited for pitcher Ryan Robb after a victory over Wallingford in the American Legion regional tournament in July. (Photo by Paul Augeri)
By Paul Augeri
Letting go hasn’t been easy for Paul Francis, who announced in early August that he would not be back as head coach of the Rocky Hill/Cromwell/Portland 19U American Legion baseball team.
Francis, who will contribute to the fall team’s staff before stepping away from the program entirely, grew up on Cromwell’s baseball diamonds and was a part of the RCP program for the last decade, the last three years as head coach. He played for the high school’s Panthers and for Post 105 before taking the logical next step into coaching.
Breaking up is a hard thing to do.
“It’s hard to put into words how grateful I am for the whole experience,” he said, “and just how lucky I am to have grown up in a town like Cromwell and experience the things I did like the Legion World Series and playing in a high school championship game. I just was so fortunate to be around and be a part of all that. It’s been a hell of a ride and I’m probably the luckiest person of all time.”
When his attempt to play college ball didn’t pan out, Francis accepted an opportunity at 18 to coach the high school’s junior varsity team. When the Panthers’ season ended, he moved right into a role with the Legion program.
That was 10 years ago. Francis is approaching the end of his 20s and wants to experience life away from his regular job – RCP’s coaches are volunteers — without being tied down to coaching.
“I’m 28 and I see a lot of my friends experiencing different things and doing different things – things I want to be a part of that I don’t want to miss while still being at a young age,” Francis said. “Who knows what opportunities there are for me down the road, but I’m at a crossroads and I don’t want to miss life.
“I’ve preached that to the kids as well all these years. That’s why I’m at a crossroads.”
Former RCP head coach Jay Hickey, who remains involved in oversight of the program, said Francis’ replacement will be named in October.
“Paul’s been involved with us as a player, coach, assistant coach and head coach. Time flies,” Hickey said. “This is a big commitment. Really big. Who knows, maybe in a few years he comes back? But right now I totally understand his desire to step away.”
Francis’ father, Kevin, who was a regular presence at games as RCP’s general manager, also won’t be returning.
“My father was a big part of this and I also didn’t want to do it without him, and him without me,” Paul Francis said.
Francis was a player’s coach and a gatekeeper of RCP’s tradition and tenets of its success – pitching and defense, intensity and swagger.
“What can I not say about Coach Francis? He has been an incredible coach and friend for the past two years I have played,” said pitcher Ryan Robb, who played high school ball at Rocky Hill and never lost a game in his two summers with RCP.
“The main thing I loved about playing for him is the passion and fun and winning attitude he brought every day to the game. It was a staple and it rubbed off on us,” said Robb. “I’ve had coaches who are really hardcore and strict with everything that goes on. Paul is not that. He’s a very loose guy who loves being there, and we loved playing for him.”
Francis played for Lew Pappariella at Cromwell High and was on the 2010 team that won 22 games and reached the Class S championship game against Northwest Catholic – the first of three appearances in four years for Cromwell in the final. A year later, Francis was the JV coach under Pappariella.
“Lew Papp was a big factor in everything I’ve done, probably the biggest thing,” he said. “Obviously I was a really young guy coming into the season and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Those kids helped me grow as a person, helped me figure out who I was and what I wanted to do. That’s the part I appreciate most out of all of this. Just being a part of something that felt different. It felt like I was home.”
With RCP, Francis was an assistant on Hickey’s staff when Post 105 advanced to the Legion World Series in 2014 and on TJ Grande’s staff in 2015 when the club made it two straight trips to the Series in Shelby, North Carolina.
Francis’ first season as head coach saw RCP win the Zone 3 title after spending several years in Zone 7. RCP won the de facto state championship last summer – because of the pandemic, Connecticut’s Legion organization did not formally sponsor baseball.
RCP won the Zone 3 title this year with a 16-3 record before petering out in both the regional and state tournaments. The team was not at full strength because several players went on family vacations – with Francis’ encouragement.
“His leadership rubbed off on us,” said Robb, who is about to begin his second year at Division III Husson University in Bangor, Maine. “Another thing he did that made an amazing impression on us was creating a family atmosphere and bringing us all close together. That started from him, the guys on the team and the coaches. Anything I need in my baseball career, Paul will be my first call.”