WEYMOUTH, Mass. (November 15, 2023) 一 Headlining the announcement of the Futures League’s annual awards, the Norwich Sea Unicorns have been named the 2023 Organization of the Year for the first time in franchise history, while Vermont Lake Monsters Senior Vice President CJ Knudsen earned William J. Terlecky Executive of the Year honors.
Commissioner Joe Paolucci presented the awards during the Futures League’s Fall Organizational Meeting, which was held last month in conjunction with the Adam Keenan Legacy Golf Tournament at Cyprian Keyes Golf Club in West Boylston, Mass.
ORGANIZATION OF THE YEAR
Norwich Sea Unicorns
Led by General Manager Lee Walter Jr., Assistant General Manager Heather Bartlett, and Futures League Manager of the Year Kevin Murphy, Norwich picked up the Organization of the Year award to cap a championship season both on and off the field at Dodd Stadium. The 2023 season marked just Norwich’s third in the Futures League since making its move official in April of 2021.
Not only did the Sea Unicorns win 39 games en route to their first-ever Futures League regular-season and postseason championships in August, but they finished the summer increasing attendance by about 21 percent from 2022, which had seen a 53 percent rise from 2021. The 52,739 fans that attended regular-season games in Norwich were the second-most in the league and put them in the top 25 percent of all summer collegiate teams nationwide.
“Norwich did an outstanding job this year both on and off the field,” Paolucci said. “The way they have transitioned from pro ball to summer collegiate ball without losing any of their dedicated fan base has been really impressive. The leadership of Lee Walter Jr. and Kevin Murphy was second to none, and it brought them their first FCBL championship. I was just really impressed how they ran that organization from start to finish this year.”
The 2023 season in Norwich was punctuated by three postseason games played before lively crowds at Dodd. The Sea Unicorns bested the in-state rival New Britain Bees in a best-of-three semifinal series before capturing the title with a 2-1 victory in an epic winner-take-all game against second-seeded Vermont.
On the field, 10 Sea Unicorns were selected as Futures League All-Stars, including third baseman Dean Ferrara (Fairfield), 一 the Futures League’s Most Valuable Player whose .422 batting average set a new single-season best in league history 一 and eventual Postseason MVP Johnny Knox (Nichols).
“When we joined the league just before the 2021 season, we knew we had a tough road ahead of us,” Walter said. “Upon being named General Manager in early 2022, I had a three-year plan in mind to grow the fan base back, as well as create a culture that was enjoyable for the team and allowed them to improve as players and people so that we could send them back to their respective colleges healthy and prepared for the following season.
“I expected 2024 to be the year that we were ready to compete on the field and have the fan base there to support a top organization both on and off the field. We were able to beat that timeline by a year thanks to the hard work of our front office staff and Kevin Murphy as our first-year manager,” Walter added. “This award is further proof of that, and we are grateful to Commissioner Paolucci for honoring our organization with this great award!”
Walter and Bartlett completed their second seasons in their current role in 2023. Other front office staff include Kevin Smith, Reade Kirby, and Mike Neville.
WILLIAM J. TERLECKY EXECUTIVE OF THE YEAR
CJ Knudsen, Vermont Lake Monsters
The Executive of the Year honor is Knudsen’s second in three years, as he also won the award in 2021 following the Lake Monsters’ championship-winning inaugural season. Though his title is as Senior VP, he has essentially acted as a general manager following the departure of Dave Schermerhorn, who took a position with the Los Angeles Dodgers organization last November.
“It’s truly an honor to be named the William J. Terlecky Executive of the Year. This award is a total team effort and I really want to thank our outstanding staff and our truly dedicated fans and sponsors. Even despite the rainy season, fans came out to cheer on the Monsters and our amazing staff welcomed them with a smile,” Knudsen said. “We would also like to thank The Futures League, Commissioner Paolucci, and the other teams and owners within the league; for allowing us to be part of something special and for developing future leaders, on and off the field.”
With Knudsen’s leadership, the Vermont franchise welcomed a Futures League-high 83,310 fans (2,540 on average) to Burlington’s Centennial Field, marking its most successful season at the gates since 2012. The team hosted over 4,000 fans for two regular-season games and played in 10 games that were televised on WYCI or NESN, bringing games into the homes of fans throughout New England and northern New York.
Knudsen and his team executed a memorable two-day Futures League All-Star experience on July 24-25, which marked the first such event held in Burlington since 1986. The event included a separate Home Run Derby and an on-field concert the night before the game. The game itself was played before an All-Star league-record crowd of 4,415, which was treated to player autograph sessions and ceremonies and awed by a Vermont Air National Guard flyover prior to the first pitch.
Knudsen was also at the forefront of another full year of team charitable efforts within the community, which included raising $20,000 for manager Pete Wilk’s battle against cancer.
“This is the toughest award to give out every year because we have so many hard-working and talented executives in this league. However, once again CJ Knudsen separated himself from the rest,” Paolucci said. “The planning and the effort that went into the 2023 All-Star Game was certainly special. This was a first-class event that had fans, players, coaches, and administrators all feeling like we were in the major leagues. CJ is a proven leader, not just with Vermont but throughout the entire Futures League as well.”
When Vermont joined the Futures League in 2021, it marked a homecoming for Knudsen who was previously Vermont’s Assistant GM from 1997-99 and GM from 2000-09. He spent 10 years with the Connecticut Tigers (now Norwich Sea Unicorns) before returning to Burlington. A graduate of South Burlington’s Rice Memorial High School and Keene State College, Knudsen also earned New York-Penn League Executive of the Year honors in 2003 and received the Robert Julian Community & Baseball Service Award in 2006.
The Executive of the Year Award is named for Bill Terlecky, the former North Shore Navigators GM who lost his courageous battle with cancer in October of 2020. Knudsen joins the Worcester Bravehearts’ Dave Peterson and Terlecky himself as the only executives to win the award more than once.
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