Freshman pitcher Sam DiLella did not know much about the Burlington Sock Puppets prior to this season. But when Elon baseball head coach Mike Kennedy informed him of his selection to play for the organization this summer, he did his research and became intrigued by the chance to play for the team. 

“It’s going to be a good opportunity,” DiLella said. “The competition level and talent is pretty solid. We’re really excited.” 

The Sock Puppets became a summer collegiate baseball team in 2021 and is a member of the Appalachian League, a minor league that offers college players from around the country a chance to play organized baseball in the summer. The league has a Player Identification Committee composed of USA Baseball staff members and college coaches that select college players to play for the league’s 10 teams. 

DiLella is one of three Elon players that will play for the Sock Puppets this summer, along with freshman pitcher Shea Sprague and freshman outfielder Vince DiLeonardo. The committee takes players’ geographic ties into consideration when assigning players, and this is the second consecutive year where at least one Elon player has been assigned to the team, as sophomore Cole Reynolds was on the team’s roster last season. 

For Sock Puppets general manager Anderson Rathbun, having Elon baseball players helps the organization build connections with local fans who may have watched them play their spring college season.  

“We're really, really excited for all three of them,” Rathbun said. “Having that Elon tie and being a pipeline to develop Elon baseball players is something that we're really, really proud of.” 

Freshman success

None of the three players have started a game for Elon this season, but Rathbun said playing for the Sock Puppets will help them improve before they return to Elon in the fall. 

“I don't know how much time they’re going to get in the spring, but they're gonna see a lot of playing time this summer and we're really excited to see them develop,” Rathbun said. 

DiLella has appeared in seven games out of the bullpen this season for Elon and has thrown five strikeouts in just over seven innings pitched. After starting all throughout his high school career, DiLella said coming out of the bullpen has been an adjustment but he is happy to be seeing playing time this early in his career. 

“Having the opportunity to play as a freshman has been great,” DiLella said. “We've been playing some really good competition and just getting that exposure at this level is awesome.”

Sprague, who has also appeared in seven games, said he has learned a lot from Elon’s upperclassmen pitchers and hopes to continue making contributions from the bullpen throughout this season. 

“Any guy we run out there, you have the most confidence in whether it's me, Sam or anybody else,” Sprague said. “It's just fun being part of and contributing to a really good pitching staff.”

Looking forward to the summer

The Appalachian League will feature players from conferences all across the country this season, including the Power Five leagues. The Sock Puppets roster will have 35 players this summer, including 27 from Division I schools and 11 from Power Five teams, both up from last season. 

Sprague said the competition will help him gauge where his game is and force him to be focused on delivering strong performances.

“The better competition you play, the sharper you have to be, and when you're playing good competition every day in the summer, you're going to have to be sharp every time you step on the mound,” Sprague said. “It's just going to get us so much better.”

While Sprague is excited to meet and interact with new players this summer, he said he is glad to have two Elon teammates on the team with him. 

“We're going to be able to get better and hold each other accountable, but also just hang out. It's nice to have a couple familiar faces with you in summer ball,” Sprague said. 

The Sock Puppets’ season begins June 2 —  five days after the final game of the Colonial Athletic Association Baseball Championship — and will play their home opener on June 6. The team’s final regular season game is scheduled for Aug. 6.