By Chuck Slater
There is no doubt that the area’s best volleyball player is Panas’ senior hitter Yvette Burcescu, chosen the state Player of the Year as a junior last January. And Diane Swertfager, the tremendously successful Hen Hud volleyball coach, is equally certain the second best is her own senior hitter, Zoe Staats. “She’s definitely second best,” the coach who has won three state championships said. “And she’s my captain. And she jumps. Boy, does she jump. She has that God-given ability in her vertical jump,” Swertfager said. “Combine that with her speed and she plays like she is 6 feet, 5 inches — not 5 feet, 11 inches. She even started for me as a freshman. It’s rare for a freshman to make the Hen Hud varsity, much less start.”
Zoe Staats plays her sport year-round. (PHOTO COURTESY OF DENISE STAATS)
And a young freshman. Now as a senior, Staats does not turn 17 until late September. After Staats suffered a late-season leg injury last year, Hen Hud lost to Panas in the sectional semifinals. Now she is fully healthy again and better than ever after an eventful summer of volleyball success.
Staats played at the GEVA (Garden Empire Volleyball Association) camp this summer then helped win a national title on the GEVA all-star team. In the competition in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Staats’ squad upset a favored Florida group in the semifinals then whipped a Pennsylvania team in the final. “I played a lot of right side but also all around,” she reports. The right side is just right for her — “Because I’m left-handed.” And she got one more thing over the summer: A new serve, even though her old one was pretty devastating. “It’s a topspin serve,” she said. “They insisted I use it and it was very, very effective.”
According to her dad Otto, his daughter was an all-around athlete when young — then she met volleyball. “She’s always got a volleyball in her hands,” said her mother, Denise Staats. “It’s what she loves.” “For me it’s volleyball all year round,” Staats agrees.
Staats was seven when she was introduced to the sport at one of the Swertfager’s clinics. Soon, her mom signed her up and she was playing club volleyball for the Downstate Juniors in Peekskill; playing it and loving it. “I like everything about it; I like all the skills,” said Staats. “Passing, serving, retrieving, hitting.” She masters them so well she already has a volleyball scholarship to Rhode Island to continue playing in college.
As part of her year-round volleyball dedication, Statts also plays for the Downstate club. One of her teammates: Yvette Burcescu. Wow!
August 16, 2017 | admin
By Chuck Slater
It came as a shock to Corey Baker, the New City native, Clarkstown South and University of Pittsburgh pitching standout who had been throwing in the St. Louis Cardinals farm system since 2011. He was having a strong season in relief for the Springfield Cardinals of the Class AA Texas League, sporting a fine 2.48 earned run average, and was tied for the club lead in saves. He had even spent part of the previous season in triple-A baseball. It was his first season totally in relief after being a starter-reliever “swing man” in the Cardinals system, where he was drafted in 2011. So when he was called into the manager’s office, he was hardly prepared to hear that the organization was releasing him.
“I was surprised,” the right-hander said. An outside newspaper account called the release “confounding.” “You know how the game works,” Baker said. “I thought I was O.K. I thought I was pitching the ball well. So I was surprised.” The manager did not say the parent club thought his career was over. “We had three players come off the DL (disabled list) at the same time,” he said. So someone had to go. “I talked to the Cardinals’ farm director,” Baker said. “He wished me luck.” Which means finding a new professional team if one can. “My agent is looking,” Baker said.
He is only 27. “I’m throwing and staying in shape,” continued the pitcher who now lives in Chicago. “I’m ready for any call.” I’m definitely proud of what I’ve done. Hopefully, my career isn’t over.”
He has already accomplished a lot. Pitching for the crack amateur Bayside Yankees while in high school, he went 20-1. His 24 wins overall are still a record at Pitt, where he made All-East. He was a Midwest League all-star with the Peoria Chiefs as a pro and last season while with Springfield was a Texas League player of the week.
Baker still has the effective fastball-slider-change he has always used—his heater—and he boasts a unique accomplishment perhaps no one else in professional baseball has. He won a game for Team Israel in the recent World Baseball Classic and was 3-0 for it in warm-up games.
Baker pitched shutout baseball against Chinese Taipei for 4 and 2/3 innings to get his victory in his lone outing, but the really hard part was getting on the team. He had to prove he was Jewish, not just looking for a team for which he could play. So his parents sent Team Israel his Bar Mitzvah certificate and movies of his chanting Hebrew at the Bar Mitzvah.
And so, he got to excel for Israel. Unfortunately, one can’t reach the big leagues from Israeli baseball.
August 9, 2017 | admin
By Chuck Slater
“Lots of guys in their thirties make it to the big leagues,” says pitcher Bobby Blevins. It is a dream the now 32-year-old lifetime Briarcliff resident is still pursuing. Still pursuing in his 11th pro-season. Still pursuing after 1,600-plus professional innings without an injury. Still pursuing with undiminished dedication albeit a slightly diminished fastball.
Bobby Blevins took the off-season off this time. (PHOTO COURTESY OF BOBBY BLEVINS)
Nowadays, the heater no longer tops out at 93 miles per hour. “Right now I’m pitching 89-91, maybe 92,” Blevins reports. Many big-league pitchers are in the same range.
The right-hander is pitching for the perennially strong Sugar Land Skeeters from Sugar Land, Texas, in the Atlantic League of professional baseball. He is in the regular rotation and was 4-4 at the all-star break with a 4.00 earned run average and an ERA in the top 10 among starters in a hitter-friendly league.
“I still have the drive and passion,” Blevins says. “And if you’re not playing, you don’t get the chance. We’re the best team in the league with a beautiful first-class stadium and the best manager I’ve had in a long time, Gary Gaetti.” Gaetti, an 11-year major leaguer, “brings in players with the same passion I have.”
During his marathon 2016 season, Blevins and his wife Jen traveled halfway round the world for pitching assignments, logging an awesome 310 innings deep into the traditional off-season. While still teaching private lessons to aspiring pitchers, he has done things differently this time around.
His arm (“Never missed any time, knock on wood.”) seems to have responded as he awaits a hoped-for response from a big-league club needing reliable pitching. “This winter I rested,” the Briarcliff resident said. “I recovered this off-season, gave myself time off. Gave myself a full chance.”
Blevins won 36 games for Briarcliff High School, then was a Little All American at Le Moyne College. Drafted by the Dodgers organization, he finished 2007 as the most valuable player for the Ogden Raptors in a Class A Rookie League. He spent the next two seasons pitching high A ball for the L.A. farm system and in 2010 he pitched single-A, double-A and triple-A as a starter and reliever. With Albuquerque of the stepping-stone AAA Pacific Coast League, he was a short step from the majors.
So, when in the following spring training, the Dodgers wanted to drop Blevins to A ball, he balked and got his release. “I’m here to make the major leagues somehow, some way,” he said, then signed with the new Rockland Boulders of the strong independent Canadian American League. He spent three seasons as the team’s local favorite, also helping the Long Island Ducks of the Atlantic League win two post-season championships before losing to Sugar Land last season.
And now? “I’m pitching well,” says Bobby Blevins. “He still enjoys it,” said Robert Blevins, the former high-school catcher who helped coach his pitcher/son.
“It’s been a very interesting journey,” said the son. With hopefully one more interesting journey in the future.
August 2, 2017 | admin
By Chuck Slater
What was recent Rye graduate Amanda Hartzell’s early impression of playing lacrosse? After all, it was her father’s game. “I didn’t love it,” she says. Yet now the All-Section, All-County, All-League, Academic All America midfielder is preparing to leave for Yale (as befits a 99.69 unweighted GPA) in late August and is “so excited about” playing Division 1 college lacrosse.
Amanda Hartzell somes from a lacrosse-playing family. (PHOTO COURTESY OF AMANDA HARTZELL)
At Rye as a senior, Hartzell starred for and captained a lacrosse squad that heartbreakingly lost the state quarterfinals in sudden-death double overtime after winning the Class C state championship. She also was on the Garnets’ section-champ basketball team and the varsity soccer side. But in college it will be, she avers, “just lacrosse,” the sport she didn’t cotton to at first.
“I love all three sports and pride myself on sticking to them all through middle school and high school,” Hartzell said. “But I believe lacrosse is my best sport athletically. I really got into it at RYL (Rye Youth League) where my dad was the coach (competitively, dad had been an attack) and I had another coach. I loved the RYL team and all the girls on my team and that’s what I believe really made me love the sport. My whole family is sports oriented and lacrosse oriented. My cousins and older sister played lacrosse so I picked up a stick and ended up absolutely loving it.”
That was in the third grade. Success followed quickly. Hartzell started all Rye’s lacrosse games for four years. She had 55 goals and 18 assists as a senior as well as being one of the area’s top defenders. Besides three varsity sports, she played lacrosse for CT Grizzlies.
For Rye, Hartzell had over 200 points and over 150 goals in her career and was all-league all four years. The last two, though not an attack, she led the Garnets in scoring. She was the school’s female athlete of the year as a senior.
Hartzell has taken AP and college-level courses, tutors other students, loves orthopedics and does myriad community service projects including an internship with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. She mentions economics and finance as Yale plans, and while this editor shuns personal involvement with a subject, we broke the rule for Amanda Hartzell. Bet on her ending up pre-med.
July 26, 2017 | admin
by Chuck Slater
Through his expertise and his dedication, including his vaunted youth program, Bill Swertfager has carved an enviable record as the wrestling coach at John Jay Cross River. His athletes have produced myriad individual and team titles, including the overall Section 1 Division 1 crown for a second straight year this past season.
But he has never had an individual state champion. He came the closest he ever has recently when senior Bim Gecaj came in third in the top (285-pound) category at States. And next year, he figures, could be the breakthrough. The Indians’ 220-pounder, Halil Gecaj finished sixth at the State tournament — “And,” Swertfager notes, “the five wrestlers ahead of him have all graduated.”
Halil Gecaj (left) and Bim Gecaj (right) have been wresting for 10 years. (PHOTO COURTESY OF HALIL GECAJ)
The same last name is no coincidence. The Gecajs are first cousins. “They are great kids,” the coach said. “Wholesome, great kids.” Bim was 43-4 this past season, facing the heaviest of high school grapplers. His year-younger cousin was 44-4 at 220 pounds. As large, strong, athletic young men, they also played varsity football for the Indians and both were all-league and all-conference. But wrestling is where the youngsters of Albanian decent truly made their mark.
“My confidence level jumped this season,” said Bim Gecaj, who took over 8th place in the John Jay lifetime record with 121 career victories. “I love the sport,” said Halil, who turned 17 in February and might fill his cousin’s 285-pound slot next season. “It’s individual. You can’t blame anyone else. It’s all on you, and the training you put in.”
Bim’s two older brothers are also wrestlers and the Gecaj boys often try their holds on each other. “We started wrestling all together close to 10 years ago,” Halil said, “at the (John Jay) youth program.” But when it comes to the cousins’ approach, here the similarity ends, much to Swertfager’s amusement. “The temperament is so different,” the veteran coach and former Olympic-hopeful wrestler said. “Bim is Mr. Cool. A lot of kids let their emotions get to them. Bim does not. Win or lose, easy or difficult, he’s the same. Halil is the exact opposite. He’s very emotional for a match, very excited getting into it.”
Either approach invariably ends with a Gecaj victory.
July 19, 2017 | admin
By Chuck Slater
As she prepares to enter Cornell University in mid-August, Bronxville graduate Ellie Walsh can look back on a high school sports career in which she captained varsities in lacrosse, field hockey and basketball.
Ellie Walsh at JBFC Girl’s Home in Tanzania talking to and making friendship bracelets with a resident. (PHOTO COURTESY OF ELLIE WALSH)
Twice an All-American midfielder in lacrosse, she led her team to an 18-2 record and the state finals as a senior while being named to the NY Hudson Valley Tournament team. In field hockey, the 5-foot, 5-inch athlete won all-section and all-league designation and was named to the all-state tournament team on a squad which achieved the state semifinals. In basketball, she is a defensive standout.
But perhaps what she looks back on most fondly came the summer before her three-sport stardom. From her school, she was a student ambassador to the JBFC Orphanage in Tanzania. She calls it, “A point in my life I will never forget.”
As with many countries where funds are not plentiful — and the African nation falls into that category — orphanages, where they exist, concentrate on boys. But a local Tanzanian man formed the girls-only JBFC Orphanage. It has grown into a home for 50 girls.
“It’s an amazing place,” said Walsh, who is unable to return this summer because of her college needs. “It’s amazing to have had the experience. It’s an experience I cherish and I hope to go back. JBFC is really unlike anywhere I’ve been before.
The girls, an impressed Walsh said, dream of being doctors and teachers, having lives well beyond that in which they grew up. “The people that live there are probably the happiest people I’ve ever met, even though they don’t have nearly as much as us,” related Walsh. “You can be happy with so little, even after a rough patch in your life.”
Walsh worked with a fellow student on the lacrosse team to raise money for JBFC during the season through an art show — including selling pieces she created — and photography. “We raised more than six thousand dollars!” she said proudly. “We even had a bingo night for elementary school students.” Some of the funds went to tile bathroom floors at the orphanage, she reported.
But soon she will report to college, enrolled in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She expects to be a one-sport performer at the next level. “Just lacrosse,” Ellie Walsh said of the sport in which she was a two-time All American. “I have four older athletic brothers and lacrosse is probably the biggest sport in my family.”
July 12, 2017 | admin
By Chuck Slater
“I really like running,” says North Rockland freshman Katelyn Tuohy. “As soon as she could walk,” recalls her mother, Denise, “my mother would tell me she was running all over the house all the time.”
Katelyn Tuohy ran regularly with her entire family. (PHOTO COURTESY OF DENISE TUOHY)
And now Katelyn Tuohy is the fastest high school distance runner in the country. As a freshman! Early last month she ran away from the field in the 1,500-meter run at the New York State Track and Field Championships at Union-Endicott High School with a 4:18.51 clocking. That was almost seven seconds under her previous best and, yes, it was under what any other distaff schoolgirl had done this high school season.
She then finished her season in late June by winning the girls’ mile at the New Balance Outdoor Nationals in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 4:45.95, a New York State record for a freshman, despite sticky 88-degree weather.
Last fall, Tuohy was All American in cross-country — again, as a freshman — and has also spun some otherworldly times already: 2:47.86 for 1,000 meters, 9:30.18 for 3,000 and 16:55 for the 3 mile. Former Bronxville prodigy Mary Cain is considered the area’s best runner ever and Tuohy has eclipsed a few of her records already, including that mile mark in Greensboro.
“I’m not really surprised at what I’m doing now,” Tuohy said. “I started varsity in the 7th grade, so I knew I was pretty good.” “Katie never quits,” says outdoor track coach Kyle Murphy. “When you go into coaching, you dream of getting an athlete like her.”
“I’ve been running since I can remember,” the freshman phenom said. “Ever since I was little, we (mother, father, two brothers) would go to the track as a family.” Older brother Patrick went to States in the 1,600.
But perhaps most indicative of her devotion to and need for running is what happened after cross-country season. To give runners a break, coaches mandate two weeks off between cross-country and indoor track. But Tuohy so pestered them, they relented and let her start running after one week.
“Running makes you feel good. It is definitely a stress reliever at times,” she said. But it is her opponents who are under stress. “She always wants to run,” Murphy said. “Practice is her favorite part of the day. And she’s remarkably intelligent.” That she is modest about her success is an indication. “Staying humble is a big key in the running world,” the freshman said. “If someone brags, no one likes them.”
And now that Nationals is over, what will Katelyn Tuohy do for her summer? “I’ll train for cross-country,” she said. Meaning she will spend it running.
July 5, 2017 | admin