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Cardinals in Bader’s Near Future

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By Chuck Slater

 

 

By the time you read this, Bronxville’s Harrison Bader may be playing baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals. Bader, whose brilliant season helped the Memphis Redbirds win the Pacific Coast League Southern Division championship, has already spent a week (July 25-July 31) with the parent Cardinals, replacing an injured outfielder, and in that short time won over St. Louis fans with his speed, hitting and fielding.

The Pacific Coast loop is a triple-A league—one step from the majors—and the 6-foot, 195-pound athlete had lifted his season average toward .300 by hitting .317 in June and .314 in July to prompt his brief call-up. And now, at only 23, he is all but certain to be summoned by the Cardinals when big-league rosters expand on September 1.

He may not play every day as the Cardinals desperately bid for a wild-card playoff spot, but his speed assures he will be a late-inning pinch runner and/or defensive replacement. He is primarily a center fielder, the outfield spot most dependent on speed.

And Bader acquitted himself well in that end-of-July cameo with the Cardinals. He batted .286 in six games (6 for 21) with two doubles and impressed with his quickness. He is considered one of the Cardinals’ top prospects by Baseball America and one of the better ones in all of baseball. One thing he is working on is his strikeout totals; he had 9 with the Cardinals. “I feel like I belong,” he says of the major leagues. “Did I deserve that (first) call-up? Absolutely. I earned it.”

He has been earning his way at every baseball stop. After starring for Horace Mann High School and the University of Florida, Bader was signed by the Cardinals in June 2015 and did well in A ball. In 2016, he was a Class AA Texas League all-star with Springfield then jumped to AAA Memphis, where he hit .298. He also hit over .300 in fall ball, then returned to Memphis for a strong 2017 season.

The Cardinals noticed. “It really comes down to always playing your best,” Harrison Bader says. “They (the Cardinals system) kinda stress that.” And so does Bader. “You’re always thinking about the bigs,” he said. “How? By keeping my head straight.”

The September 1 call-up is pretty much expected. The late-July summons was not. “I was in the middle of waking up (when told of the promotion),” he said. “I got a little cold.”

Let’s hope he gets a little hot in September.

 

 

 

August 30, 2017 |

New Challenges for Kissner

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By Chuck Slater

 

 

Adam Kissner was Tennis Number 1 for five seasons at Hen Hud. (PHOTO COURTESY OF BRAD FREDMAN)

Adam Kissner was Number 1 on the Hen Hud boys tennis team for an impressive five straight years, during which he went 97-21 including 17-1 as a senior. He was team captain the last two years and three times all-sectional in doubles. “He’s irreplaceable,” said coach Brad Fredman, who must now replace him on varsity.

But Kissner, who also won his conference doubles championship with Jonathan Chung, will almost definitely never play varsity tennis again. Kissner, who speaks fluent French, has accepted a strong academic scholarship to the formidable McGill University in Montreal. McGill offers the left-hander a strong chemical engineering program but it has no varsity tennis team. “They have one of the top club teams in the country,” Kissner said. “Last year they were fourth in the national competition, including varsity teams. And this year, just recently they were in the finals, upsetting the top-ranked team in the semifinals.”

Kissner, a cerebral sort (94 GPA), speaks of his love of the “mental challenge” of his sport. “It’s the only sport it’s only you,” Kissner said. “You never want to beat yourself. You’ve got to be a quick study, assess your opponent’s game and exercise a game plan against it. That’s the most challenging part of tennis.” Almost as challenging was to make it as a ball boy for the U.S. Open despite heavy competition.

The lefthander who is spending the summer as a tennis pro has grown up with the sport.   “We’re a tennis family,” he explains. “My dad plays tennis, my mom plays tennis, my sister plays tennis and we still go out to the courts together.   We’d go to the U.S. Open every year. A great building experience for everyone.”

Kissner has an additional goal at McGill. He’d like to initiate a tennis program for autistic youngsters. He is the founder of the Adaptive Tennis Program here for autistic elementary school students. Fredman, who specialized in aiding autistic children, introduced his star to the ABC program at Hen Hud for autistic kids as a freshman. “I fell in love with these kids,” Kissner said. “ It’s so fun to teach them tennis. I started an after-school tennis program with the ABC kids. We’d run clinics. It was a blast, such a rewarding experience. I hope to bring it to McGill.”

“He’s a great leader,” Fredman said of Kissner. “I introduced him to these special kids and Adam really got it, he got it right away. I’ll miss him in so many ways.”

August 23, 2017 |

Volleyball is Staats’ Love

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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 |

Baker Dealing With a Surprise

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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 |

Blevins Still Thinking Big (League)

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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 |

Hartzell Takes Her Smarts and Stick to Yale

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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 |

Big Cousins are Big Winners

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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 |
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