Since there was so much to process this weekend, I took a couple of days and tried to jot some of my thoughts on Section 1’s two state champions down…
• I tweeted this the other night, but it bears repeating. When I first took over the #lohudbaseball beat late in 2011, Tuckahoe was coming off of a state title in Class C while schools like Mamaroneck and Valhalla had also won championships in recent years. But 2012 was my first full year on the beat, and while I’ve seen a few teams come close (in particular, Rye and Rye Neck last year) since then, I had yet to cover a team that won it all. Well, that all changed on Saturday. I honestly wasn’t sure if we had a state championship-caliber team coming into this season, especially with some of the parity that we saw during the regular season. I knew that Mamaroneck and Byram Hills could be good — I had the Tigers ranked No. 3 in AA to start the season and the Bobcats were No. 2 in A — but I think it’s fair to say that both teams ended up being better than any of us imagined they’d be. But both teams have great leaders in Mamaroneck coach Mike Chiapparelli and Byram coach Scott Saunders, both have lots of talent, and most importantly, both clicked the perfect time. It was a proud weekend for Section 1 baseball, which you could make a case for as the most successful section in the state this year.
• We’ll start with Class AA, where Mamaroneck came back to beat Connetquot in the semis before having its way with Saratoga Springs in the final. As everyone knows, pitching is the biggest X-factor in a one-and-done playoff format, but the need to have two quality starters is amplified when you need to win two games in one day. Twice during the sectional and regional playoffs, we saw Chiapparelli save ace Kumar Nambiar when he was fully rested and show confidence in No. 2 Bill Flatow. But at states, Chiapparelli decided to go with Nambiar in Game 1, which continued his run of wise decision-making. There were a couple of reasons that it made sense to use Nambiar in the semis. First of all, as Chappy told me during the week leading up to states, the Long Island champ — in this case, Connetquot — usually enters the tournament as the favorite, so he was figuring that could be the Tigers’ toughest game. And, it’s a good bet that most teams will throw their No. 1 in the first game of the day, which Connetquot did with 13-game winner Travis Bruinsma. It simply makes more sense to match up your No. 1 with your opponent’s, knowing that whoever you face in the next round will likely be throwing their No. 2. Once again, Chappy pushed the right buttons, and Nambiar delivered with a three-hit, no-walks, seven-strikeout outing. “Once he got going,” senior catcher Andy Karlan said of Nambiar, “there was no stopping him.”
• That put a ton of pressure on Flatow to perform in the state championship game. Let’s not forget, this is a kid who wasn’t even sure if he’d be in the rotation to begin the season. There had to be some nerves going into the game, but the junior right-hander didn’t show it. He has a very calm demeanor on the mound and he pitched as if he had been there before. “You have to be focused in the game – try to act like it’s a normal game and not get rattled too much,” Flatow said. “You have to stay calm. Keep your teammates calm and everyone will play well.”
• Flatow doesn’t throw as hard as Nambiar, but like Kumar, he does throw a ton of strikes. And we’ve also seen Flatow develop the curveball into a swing-and-miss pitch. We had Nambiar’s fastball sitting around 86-87 mph on the gun late in the game (it was 83-84 in the early innings), while Flatow’s heater was more like 78-80. But I also noticed that while some of his breaking balls were sharper and clocked out at 67-68, he was throwing a slower, loopier version that sat near 57-58. Being able to hit his spots with three pitches that each differed by about 10 mph really kept the Saratoga hitters off balance. “We kind of developed a new curveball – a slow curveball – that we finally tried out today. And it worked,” Flatow said. “We wanted to change the speed for the batters.”
• While the pitching was phenomenal, it was pretty remarkable to see how so many Mamaroneck players contributed on Saturday. Karlan really transformed himself for the good of the team, going from a middle-of-the-order hitter who had the tendency to swing out of his shoes to a leadoff guy who did the little things to keep the ball rolling. “In the beginning of the season, I was trying to do way too much,” he said. He had three hits — all singles — and three walks in eight plate appearances on Saturday, leading the team with four runs. Saratoga clearly didn’t want to give him many pitches to hit, but everyone behind him stepped up. Andrew Sommer laid down some beautiful bunts in the two-hole throughout the playoffs, Peter Matt seemed to get hot at the perfect time and Anthony Pecora — the Tigers’ previous leadoff hitter — drove in five runs in the state final. You can look at the box scores throughout the playoffs, and up-and-down the lineup, everyone had their moments. “It’s great team play,” Pecora said. “Our team chemistry was unlike any other team that I’ve played for before.”
• It’s also worth noting that Mamaroneck had tremendous senior leadership. Of the Tigers’ nine starters, six were seniors — Nambiar, Karlan, Sommer, Pecora, Andy Gross and Thomas Orgielewicz. Those will be some huge shoes to fill next year, as they represent six of Mamaroneck’s top seven in the batting order. “I gave a big talk before we started,” Karlan said. “I said, ‘For a lot of us, this is the last game you’ll ever play, so let’s make it worth it. And let’s have some fun.’ ”
• Let’s get to Byram, which was certainly even more of a surprise around the state than Mamaroneck. I predicted that they would win the section because I felt that they had a great blend of talent and experience, but I really couldn’t have told you that I saw a state championship coming. It’s been written about several times at this point, but the Bobcats weren’t a very relevant program until just a few years ago. They started to earn respect when they reached the Class A section title game in 2012 and it’s been a steady build-up to this moment ever since. But Saunders, who took over as head coach during the 2008 season, said that he felt the turning point came at the end of the 2011 season. “We felt it really started at the end of 2011,” he said. “We had won the first playoff game for the program since 1970, and it kind of put the taste in our mouth. We wound up losing a 2-1 game to Kennedy in the next round, but we knew at that point in time that Kennedy was one of the best around. We felt, ‘Hey, we competed with them. We’re on the cusp here. We can compete with anybody.’ Something really changed that offseason. The guys dedicated themselves to getting in for the offseason and doing all of the workouts. There was an air of confidence that we could go out and play with the big dogs, and certainly the success of 2012 helped spring things forward for every group after them. Not only did we get to the finals that year, but now every single group that came after them felt that, ‘We could surpass that.’ It started with a culture change. We were able to get guys like Ted Huffman and his son Mike on board to help us coach, and those are guys who both have a lot of experience. Ted took the Dobbs Ferry program to the state final in 2009, and when we were able to get them on board, we let good people do what they do. They’re great baseball guys and they’ve helped us get better.”
• We’ve had plenty of opportunities to see how good Frankie Vesuvio is in the last few weeks, but like Flatow with Mamaroneck, the emergence of Matt Gertz as a really good No. 2 was critical to Byram’s success. When the Bobcats went into extras against Division in the semis, they reluctantly had to go to Gertz in relief, whom they had hoped to start fresh in the final. The senior right-hander recorded the final two outs to help Byram hold on until Jacob Stuckelman‘s walk-off in the 10th, and then Gertz came back and gave them a gutsy performance in the final, tossing 6.1 strong innings to earn his second win of the day. “If I had to pick an MVP on Saturday, I would have picked Gertz,” Saunders said. “In between games, he was like, ‘I’m pitching, right? That was basically like a warm-up for me. I want to pitch us into history.’ ”
• Gertz was taken out in the seventh inning of the state title game, which is when things really got crazy. Junior left-hander John DiMarco was used in relief, hitting a Queensbury batter on a 2-1 pitch with the bases-loaded and Byram clinging to a 3-2 lead. It could have brought in the tying run, but the umpires ruled that the batter did not try to avoid the pitch, calling it a ball and extending the at-bat. Saunders admitted that he was surprised by the call simply because of the magnitude of the situation, but he also said that it was “the right call” because the batter clearly leaned into the pitch. “Both games took years off my life, but it was worth it,” Saunders said. “It was definitely nerve-wrecking, edge of your seat stuff, but John hadn’t allowed an earned run all year. He doesn’t have a ton of innings, but he doesn’t walk a lot of guys, so we were hoping he had another one in him.”
• Later in the at-bat, a liner was hit fairly deep to center field, where Vesuvio roams for Byram when he’s not pitching. If you watch the video, you see that Vesuvio initially takes a few false steps forward and nearly lets the ball get over his head. But he somehow recovered to make a game-saving, title-clinching catch which will live on in Byram lore. “Any other kid, if they misread it like that – he took a couple of steps in – they’re in trouble,” Saunders said. “But because he’s such a good athlete and has such good hips, he was able to retreat and make the play.”
• While each team has its stars, what we’ve seen from Byram and Mamaroneck is that it takes much more than one or two studs to win a state title. Vesuvio and senior shortstop Kellen Hatheway are clear standouts for the Bobcats, and both had their moments throughout the year, but Byram really seemed to have a different guy stepping up every game. Whether it was Gertz’s pitching, Stuckelman’s walk-off or Nick Contillo‘s six RBI in the regional final, the Bobcats displayed enviable depth. “It’s not just two players who make the team. We play a big part (Hatheway and Vesuvio), but it’s the rest of the guys who can get on base, score runs and hit RBI to help the team,” Hatheway said. “I’ve always had confidence in the depth of our lineup. It’s been one of the strongest parts of our team. If one guy messes up, there’s another guy behind him who could still step up and make the play that we need to drive in the run.”
• While Byram will also lose some big-time senior leadership — namely guys like Hatheway, Gertz, Stuckelman, Contillo, Tommy Gagliardi and Michael Aberman — they still should enter next season as one of the front-runners in the state. Vesuvio will be back as arguably the best all-around player in Section 1 and last year’s ace Anthony Russo should be fully healthy and ready to go. That will give the Bobcats perhaps the most formidable one-two punch in the section. “Our junior class might be the most talented to ever come through (Byram) with guys like Frankie and (Kevin) Wietsma and Russo,” Saunders said.
• I’ll have more on this later in the week when we start posting our polls, but I’m going to have a very difficult decision this year for Westchester/Putnam player of the year. It probably has to come down to Vesuvio or Nambiar, but how do you pick between the two? Both did so much for their teams. Nambiar is probably a bit more polished as a pitcher at this point, but Vesuvio is the more feared hitter. Decisions, decisions…
• Congrats and best wishes to all of the players attending the All-Section dinner tonight. I’ll have the full All-Section teams posted soon after all of the announcements are made. I also have a lot more coming for you, including polls for our all-star teams and a final set of #lohudbaseball rankings. The coverage doesn’t stop just because the season is over!
Photos by Jeff Miller/For The Journal News