Smithtown baseball star making presence felt in NCAA at SBU

Smithtown baseball star making presence felt in NCAA at SBU

Stony Brook University baseball player Nick Grande slides into third. Photo from SBU Athletics

By Desirée Keegan

Nick Grande was home for a few weeks during winter break, and while his mother joked he could get a job during his extended stay, the shortstop had a different idea.

“No, mom,” he said in response. “As soon as the new year starts that’s it, you won’t see me again. I’ll be at Stony Brook every day.”

The Stony Brook University sophomore was a standout for Smithtown West’s baseball team, helping the Bulls claim two league titles during the three years he was team captain. He was named second team All-State as a senior after posting a .529 batting average, which also earned him the Suffolk County Silver Slugger Award. He also captained the league title-winning basketball team in his senior season. But while there are always adjustments to be made making the jump from high school to Division I college ball, his freshman season didn’t go as smoothly as he’d hoped.

Stony Brook University baseball player Nick Grande turns two. Photo from SBU Athletics

As a freshman at SBU, he played in 35 games, collecting multiple hits in seven of those contests. He notched his first collegiate hit and home run in the same game at Presbyterian College, and went 3-for-3 as the designated hitter in a win against Sacred Heart University. But he wanted to become more consistent, so he got up every morning during winter break at 8 a.m. to work on improving his game, and he did.

Grande batted .377 for the 32-25 Seawolves this past season. His 78 hits were the sixth most in a single season in Stony Brook history; his 32 stolen bases are the second most in a season only behind MLB-draftee Travis Jankowski’s 36 in 2012; he had 22 multi-hit games, including eight in a row; and reached base safely a team-best 22 straight games. Grande batted .418 in America East conference play and had five of his six home runs in conference.

“There’s a reason why people are talented,” said Nick Grande Sr., who was the head baseball coach and now principal at Island Trees High School. He recalled bringing his son to the field every day after school since he was 3 years old. “It’s all about the time they put into perfecting their craft … his desire, his determination. He hates to lose more than he loves to win, and that’s been since he was 3 years old.”

Although the elder Grande said his son has a fear of failure, he doesn’t show it. Grande Jr. said he’s picked up a philosophy of positivity along the way, from his time spent on the diamond at the age of 7 with his dad at the end of the day from his father’s Island Trees coaching job, to his new head coach Matt Senk, and everyone else he met along the way.

“You have to go into a game expecting to be successful — that’s the only way it’s going to work out of you, I think,” he said. “Even if you’re cold or having a tough day you have to step into the box knowing that you’re going to get a hit. I tried to have a positive mindset out there.”

“He hates to lose more than he loves to win, and that’s been since he was 3 years old.”

— Nick Grande Sr.

The starting shortstop earned back-to-back America East Player of the Week honors March 27 and April 3. He went 6-for-11 with a homer and three RBIs in a home series against the University of Massachusetts Lowell and went 6-for-6 with three doubles and a pair of RBIs in a win against Binghamton University. One of the nation’s top base stealers in 2018, he swiped three in a game twice. He went on to be named second-team ABCA/Rawlings Northeast All-Region, an America East spring scholar-athlete, a first-team Google Cloud Academic All-American and a first-team All-American by Collegiate Baseball.

“It was nice to be able to produce and contribute to help the team win games,” Grande said, adding it helped having role models like recent MLB draftees pitcher Aaron Pinto and infielder Bobby Honeyman and Coram outfielder Andruw Gazzola. “Being in a great lineup where top to bottom guys are having great at-bats didn’t hurt either.”

Despite his strong showing on the offensive side of the ball, Grande said he has a defense-first mentality.

“He’d rather catch a ground ball than get a base hit, and when he makes an error I hear about it for days,” Grande’s father said, laughing. “That’s because we’ve hit thousands of ground balls. He doesn’t stop, he doesn’t quit, and that’s because he wants to be as close to perfect as you can be.”

Senk said though that Grande wanted to be more of a consistent hitter to balance his game. He said he pointed out to his shortstop he had an inside-out swing that didn’t allow him to hit the ball as hard as he could, so he started pulling the ball more. Grande also practiced using his backhand to get to more ground balls.

Stony Brook University baseball player Nick Grande digs into the box. Photo from SBU Athletics

“He has such a tremendous work ethic — that was never an issue,” the SBU coach said. “He worked hardest in the toughest part of the game. He takes well to coaching, he kept working at it and working at it and ended up really clicking in a big way. I knew it when we were playing the defending national champs, University of Florida, and he hit a home run off first-round draft pick Brady Singer. From there his season took off. I think that was because of his dedication, athleticism and intelligence.”

But there’s more to the ballplayer than his devotion and talent. Smithtown West head coach Al Nucci said what he does in the classroom, and the kind of teammate he is makes him exemplary in every which way.

“He stood out from the day he started,” Nucci said of seeing Grande during a Booster Club practice as a youngster. “As crazy as it sounds as a young boy he had an incredible work ethic, he loved the game, he was always looking to improve, he smiled, he was super polite — as a 6-year-old on 60-foot diamond completely and totally standing out from his peers.”

He was pulled up to varsity as an eighth-grader to get more of a challenge, and ended up starting the second half of the season and into the playoffs after an injury sidelined one of his teammates. His coach joked that he might be the only Bulls player in history to hit a home run in his first at-bat and sacrifice bunt his next, showing his team-first mentality.

“He’s probably a better person and a better student than he is an athlete,” Nucci said. “He’s the first on the field and the last one off it, and he backs up his leadership skills and his work ethic with results on the field. And Nick didn’t need to speak — he spoke with his mitt, with his arm, with his bat, with his baseball intellect and with his attitude. Nick is the type of kid that takes a little something from everyone and uses it to his advantage. I hope my son ends up like Nick one day, I’ll tell you that.”

“He takes well to coaching, he kept working at it and working at it and ended up really clicking in a big way.”

— Matt Senk

Grande’s father said although it can be nerve-racking, it’s been nice to take off the coaching uniform and sit back and watch his son play.

“Your stomach is turning, you’re a nervous wreck, your hands are sweating, but there’s not a better place in the world to be than watching your kids play sports,” he said. “The sport to me always had such a positive effect on my life, and from an early age he seemed to be following in the same footsteps, that the game was going to be meaningful for him, too.”

Baseball is a game of highs and lows, and it’s those who turn the lows into highs that tend to become successful. Nick Grande is the epitome of that according to those who know him best.

“When you get a text from your son that says, ‘Dad, I was just chosen as first-team All-American,’ after you pick yourself up off the floor, you take a deep breath and say, ‘Wow, all of his hard work, all of his dedication really paid off for him,’” Grande Sr. said. “People that work hard deserve to be rewarded in life, and in his case he has.”

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