Before this past spring, I hadn't written a sports story in a few years. The newspaper company I worked for had hired a team of sports reporters to cover mainly high school sports. I missed covering that beat because I love sports and always enjoy writing about baseball and especially football.
So when I got the opportunity in April to do some freelance writing for Ultimate Athlete Magazine, a publication that covers high school sports across Long Island, I jumped at it. The following are stories I wrote about two Levittown baseball teams. You can also read them in PDF format online by clicking on the link above. The first story starts on page 52; the other on page 60. And if you go there, you'll see the magazine does a great job with its photography, graphics and layout.
Island Trees: Roller Coasters to Playoffs
By Joseph Kellard
Before this baseball season’s first pitch, Island Trees coaches handed their players custom-made red shirts to wear under their uniforms, which read “Finish It.” The words serve as an inspiring anthem for them to rally around after a narrow, heartbreaking loss to Clarke in last year’s County championships.
“We just have to go out there and put everything on the line,” said senior Bryan Verbitsky when asked what it will take for his team to finish as champions this season. “We have the talent this year to go do it, so hopefully we can.”
The Nassau County Player of the Year in 2009, Verbitsky is among the talented players on a team that has nonetheless navigated something of a roller coaster ride of wins and losses while guaranteed a playoff spot in Conference A-1. But Verbitsky, a pitcher and centerfielder, and his teammates cited their 4-3 comeback over Division on May 5 as a pivotal game, especially after falling to that cross-town rival 15-4 the week before.
“There was a lot of adrenaline going there,” Verbitsky said after he struck out the final two batters with the bases loaded. “Division beat us when I was in 10th grade in the semi finals, and just whipped us pretty bad last week, so this was a big one for us. We needed to go out there and get it done.”
Verbitsky, who smacked a two-run homer in the game, came in for relief after starter Brandon Garcia relinquished four hits and three runs over six innings. “Today was the biggest game all year,” said Garcia, who earned All Conference Player in 2009. “Yesterday, we had a tough game, losing 2-1 to Clarke. But today, after bouncing back from a loss, and how we came out and fought for the lead, we came out awesome today. Best I’ve seen this team all year.”
Against Division, Verbitsky and Garcia were making their return after suffering injuries earlier in the season. Head Coach Joe D’Auria regards their absence, as well as injuries to other players, as a factor playing into their up-and-down season in which they’ve won or lost by two runs or less in eight games.
“There’s been a lot of bumps and bruises, more so than any year I can remember,” said D’Auria, Island Tree’s head coach for the past six years.
Another factor has been ability grouping, in which teams of equal status are pitting against one another throughout their schedules. “We beat the hell out of each other and every game is a grind,” D’Aura said. “They’re all playoff games.”
After winning a county championship in 2007 and coming close to another title last year, Island Trees lost some of its offensive power this season but retained all of their main arms. “The strength of our team is going to be our pitching,” D’Auria said.
Behind Verbitsky and Garcia in the rotation is Dan Bartlett, who also said his team’s defeat of Division was a defining game that could help propel the team back to the county championship series. “This was a big win we just had,” Bartlett said. “After this win, I think we’re going to be alright the rest of the season. We have a lot of momentum going into the rest of the season.”
The game after Division, on May 6, Island Trees defeated South Side 12-6, with Verbitsky batting 3-for-5 with a homer, a double and two RBIs, as winning pitcher Matt Bowen allowed one earned run, to brining their record to 9-5.
But since every team in their conference makes the playoffs, what counts is not so much your record but rather how you play each game, particularly at the end of the season.
“You have [to] take it game by game and you have to forget about what happens in your losses and look ahead,” said Mike Manganiello, a junior third baseman and pitcher.
Manganiello watched as his brother [helped] Island Trees to their country championship in 2007, and he got a taste of what it’s like to play in title series last year.
“Unfortunately we lost but it’s beautiful, being in that atmosphere and being involved is good,” Manganiello said. “Some guys say when they look back that you want to win the counties, but you have to realize what you have done and what you can do and look toward the future.”
Verbitsky knows what winning a county championship taste like and he savors another taste.
“It was incredible that year, it was one of the best years of my life,” Verbitsky said about winning the counties. “This year’s getting there though. We’re just trying to get on a roll … Hopefully this one will get us back on a roll like we had in 2007.”
MacArthur: Pitching Powerhouse
By Joseph Kellard
For a perennial baseball powerhouse, finding defining distinctions between each team from one season to the next can be a tall task. Once again, MacArthur entered the season a top-seed that fields talented, hard-working players who are expected to earn a playoff berth.
But Coach Steve Costello is quick to note that the strength of this season’s squad is the quality and depth of its arms. Through its first 11 games, MacArthur went 9-2 with pitchers throwing four shutouts and in three other victories surrendering a mere four runs.
“Maybe our pitching is a little deeper,” Costello said when asked what distinguishes his team. “We’ve always had good pitching, but we have a lot of guys that throw really well.”
Leading the rotation are seniors Frankie Vanderka and Josh Barry. The All-County League MVP and an All-State player last year, Vanderka started the season with a 3-0 record, allowing just one run over three games.
“After the first two starts, I know I didn’t have my all today,” Vanderka said after his third win, 8-0 against Freeport on April 28. “I went out, trying to hit spots. They’re a good-hitting team. Can’t take anything away from them. The other pitcher, Alejandro Marine, threw great. But I just had to go out there and keep battling.”
Also at 3-0 through the end of April, Barry tossed a 12-stikeout complete game shutout over Baldwin, winning 5-0 on April 15, struck out 10 over six innings in an 11-3 rout in Oceanside on April 29, and has been solid in relief. “He’s pitched really, really well for us,” Costello said.
But when asked to pick a highlight this season, Barry cited his team’s 10-inning battle against Bellmore-JFK on April 12, when Vanderka dueled with pitcher Kevin Archibold, whom Barry called possibly the two best pitchers in the state.
In a 1-1 tie, Vanderka went nine innings, struck out 10 batters while allowing three hits and two walks. “We stuck it out, we got a big win,” Barry said about the 5-1 victory. “It’s games like that, which go into late innings, that can turn a season, and instead of a loss it’s a momentum booster.”
While Vanderka and Barry, who have accepted scholarships to play at Stony Brook next season, have been standouts, other key MacArthur players are shortstop Nick McQuail, who batted 3-for-3 with two runs in the Oceanside game, centerfielder Mike Scrow, and third baseman Sal Sanquini, who has pitched well at the back of the rotation.
“A lot of guys have been contributing,” said Costello, who has coached [in] MacArthur’s baseball program since 1993 and earned two Nassau County and Long Island championships and one state title.
Last year, MacArthur showed all signs that they could cruise to another championship, going 19-0-2 on the regular season, but come playoff time the team was thrown an unexpected curveball. Their high school was closed for a week due to a swine flu scare, but the playoffs continued without them.
“We just got backlogged, had to make it up and we just got caught,” Costello explained. “Our bats slowed up and we got knocked off in the semifinal round. It was a huge disappointment.”
Although several seniors departed last year, MacArthur remains a senior-heavy squad, and perhaps the discouragement over letting a possible undefeated season and championship slip away is what ultimately distinguishes this team.
“We just have a desire, you know,” Barry said when asked to compare the two teams. “We’re always top ranked, and we want it a lot this year. A lot of the seniors have gone on, but we still have a pretty filled senior lineup this year, and we really want it this year.”
Barry said that one important lesson he and his teammates have learned is to enjoy themselves more while they’re out on the diamond casing down balls and running the bases. “We just don’t want to be tense, we want to stay relaxed and have a good mentality when we’re out there,” he said. “Think, but also don’t think at the same time. You want to be loose and you want to love the game. If you have a bad at bat, you wanna come back and say ‘I’ll get ‘em next time.”
Next up for MacArthur are games against Oceanside, Massapequa, East Meadow and Mepham, some of the best teams in the county, a schedule that is a consequence of ability grouping, in which similarly-talented teams are pitting against one another.
“It’s like the old Doors’ lyrics, “no one hear gets out alive,” Costello said about the remaining schedule. “You don’t highlight any one game because you highlight them all. Any team can beat you because they’ve set it up that the good teams beat the hell out of each other. We have Oceanside, East Meadow, Mepham and Massapequa and they’re all good. They’re no gimmes on the schedule. That’s the way it’s designed.”