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A breakout sophomore campaign brought with it high hopes for the future of Clarkstown South’s John Kukura, but that all changed in an instant early in his junior season.
“It happened down in Jersey for a tournament in April (2012),” Kukura said. “I was at first and went to steal. The pitcher took a step back, and I as I turned and dove back to the bag, I felt it.”
Just like that, the course of Kukura’s high school career was altered. He had torn his hamstring, and despite his efforts to make it back before the playoffs, it was clear that Kukura was a different player.
“After that, I couldn’t run,” he said. “I just wasn’t the same.”
With the hamstring not fully healed, Kukura hit only .260 in limited at-bats as a junior. A three-sport athlete, he would need to make sacrifices to get back to 100 percent.
“I played the playoff games, and after the playoffs were over, I took a month off,” he said. “During soccer season, I tore it again. I went for the MRI and kept on playing through it. I went for another opinion, and the doctor told me I had to take three months off. He said if I wanted to play baseball, I couldn’t do track.”
As soon as the baseball preseason rolled around, there were glimpses that the old Kukura was not only back, but on his way to earning The Journal News Rockland Player of the Year honors.
“He’s the kind of player that the ball jumps off the bat differently. It’s a different sound than most high school kids,” Clarkstown South coach Vinny Michello said. “You don’t realize how much the lower half affects your swing, but I knew he was healthy when I saw the way the ball was coming off his bat.”
With the Vikings having a void at third base, Kukura willingly moved over from his natural shortstop position. And while his selflessness helped shore up South’s defense, it was his bat that stayed hot all year and often carried the team.
“From early on in the season when we had our first scrimmages, I was seeing the ball well. It looked like a beach ball,” Kukura said. “My swing the entire season was there. I didn’t have to make many adjustments.”
Kukura went on to have a record-breaking season. He broke the Vikings’ single-season batting-average record by hitting .538 while slugging an impressive .962. He scored 29 runs, drove in 26 and had 17 extra-base hits — seven of which were home runs.
He became the most feared hitter in the county.
“He was 7 for his first 7 against us,” North Rockland coach Joe Sottile said. “He was the toughest out for us to get. You hoped that you didn’t have any runners on when he came up. Even when we were feeding him off-speed pitches, he never seemed to get fooled.”
With opposing coaches being especially careful with Kukura, Michello decided to move him into the leadoff spot. And while it may have taken away some run-producing opportunities, it maximized the number of at-bats his star was able to get.
“It would have been like 40 RBI,” Michello said of Kukura’s potential total had he hit third or fourth. “My thought was if I could get him up one more time, that may be the difference between winning and losing.”
Even after his injury-shortened junior season, Kukura was on the radar for many colleges. His fantastic senior season earned him a scholarship to play at Pace University. With his hamstring issues now in the rear-view mirror, the best may be yet to come.
“My focus was just to come back and try to put together a good season,” he said. “I never thought I was going to break any records or anything.”
The rest of The Journal News all-county first-team:
Catcher — Matt Scherf, Tappan Zee: While offense was a question mark heading into the season, the senior catcher stepped up to lead the Dutchmen in RBI with 25. He also hit .377 with a .623 slugging percentage to help Tappan Zee earn the top seed in Class A and make a run to the semifinals.
Infield — Jared DaCosta, Suffern: On a team that struggled to put up runs, the all-section junior hit .423 with a .500 on-base percentage and 17 runs scored. He made a seamless transition from the outfield to shortstop early in the season.
Infield — John Doherty, Pearl River: The senior did it all for the Pirates, hitting .294 with 18 RBI while also going 4-3 on the mound with a 2.29 ERA and 38 strikeouts in 49 innings.
Infield — Matt Flannery, Nanuet: The all-section third baseman hit .455 with 19 runs scored and 21 RBI to lead the Golden Knights’ offense. The junior already has orally committed to Iona.
Outfield — Chris Beers, Pearl River: The senior right fielder led the Pirates with a .406 average and .474 on-base percentage. He also scored 17 runs, drove in 18 and stole 13 bases.
Outfield — Josh Forman, Clarkstown North: The all-section right fielder led the Rams in several offensive categories, including runs (23), extra-base hits (10), homers (three) and RBI (22). The senior also contributed in relief, finishing with a 2.40 ERA.
Outfield — Tom Morales, Tappan Zee: Along with Scherf, the all-section left fielder filled out the middle of the Dutchmen’s batting order and was very productive. The junior led the team with a .468 batting average and .565 on-base percentage, and was named player of the year in League IV-B.
Utility — Robert Donnelly, Clarkstown North: The junior stepped up as a big-game pitcher to lead the team with a 1.43 ERA, going 4-1 with a 1.12 WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched). He also hit .373 with 12 RBI.
Utility — Chuck Olsen, Nyack: The all-section junior led the Indians to a resurgent season, hitting .385 with 18 runs scored, 16 RBI and 12 extra-base hits. The catcher also threw out more than 50 percent of would-be base stealers.
Pitcher — Eric Casey, Tappan Zee: The senior right-hander went 4-1 with a 1.87 ERA to help lead one of the better pitching staffs in Section 1. He also played first base and had 17 RBI.
Pitcher — Al Conti, Clarkstown South: The senior right-hander was the ace of the Vikings’ staff, going 6-1 with a 1.89 ERA and 31 strikeouts in 44 1/3 innings. He displayed great command, walking just five batters all season.
Pitcher — Danny Demetrops, North Rockland: Pitching was the key for the Red Raiders this season, and the most important player for the best team in Rockland was the all-state left-hander. The senior led the team with a 1.21 ERA and went 7-1, including a two-hitter against Mamaroneck in the Class AA sectional quarterfinals.
Pitcher — Kevin Hylas, North Rockland: The all-section junior may have been the Red Raiders’ most complete player. He went 7-0 with a 2.08 ERA and 33 strikeouts in 43 2/3 innings, playing center field on the days he didn’t pitch and hitting .359 with 17 runs scored and 17 RBI.
Pitcher — Owen Lorenz, Albertus Magnus: The all-section left-hander proved to be a complete player in his sophomore season, emerging as the staff ace while also putting up solid offensive numbers. Lorenz had a 1.47 ERA with 23 strikeouts in 28 2/3 innings, hitting .375 with 15 RBI.
Coach of the Year — Joe Sottile, North Rockland: The first-year coach took over the varsity after just one season with the JV and found success quickly. Despite graduating some critical players from the 2012 team, Sottile led the Red Raiders to the top seed in Class AA and a League IV-A title by going 8-0 in league play. The son of former North Rockland coach John Sottile, who won three consecutive state titles in the early ‘90s, Joe is quickly carving out his own legacy.
Catcher — Tanner Morales, Sr., North Rockland
Infield — Jeremy Dobbs, Jr., Tappan Zee
Infield — Luke Kern, Jr., Albertus Magnus
Infield — Kevin Kolasar, Sr., Clarkstown North
Infield — Nick O’Connor, Jr., Nanuet
Outfield — Joe Caruso, Sr., Clarkstown South
Outfield — Rich Masley, Sr., Pearl River
Outfield — Brandon Strathy, Sr., Nanuet
Utility — Austin Cavazzi, Sr., Nyack
Utility — Jake Salesky, Sr., Clarkstown North
Pitcher — Joe Anselmi, Sr., North Rockland
Pitcher — Chris DeCicco, Jr., Tappan Zee
Pitcher — Jeffrey Parra, Fr., Ramapo
Pitcher — John Saviano, Jr., Suffern
Pitcher — Andrew Schweitzer, Sr., Albertus Magnus
Honorable mention: Jariel Burgos, Sr., North Rockland; Nick Connell, Sr., North Rockland; Tim Cuozzi, Sr., Nyack; Matt Dale, Sr., Albertus Magnus; Matt Dillon, Sr., Nanuet; Tim Ehardt, Sr., Tappan Zee; Cody Fitzgerald, Sr., Nanuet; Chris Flood, Jr., Pearl River; David Juechter, Sr., Nyack; Luke Laclair, Jr., Clarkstown South; Shane Ocasal, Sr., Pearl River; Rob Ottavino, Soph., Albertus Magnus; Josh Sharon, Sr., Clarkstown North; Anthony Vinelli, Jr., Suffern.
Photos by Matthew Brown/The Journal News