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Hank Aaron. Photo from the Baseball Hall of Fame

By Rich Acritelli

Hank Aaron: “I tell young people — including my granddaughter — there is no shortcut in life. You have to take it one step at a time and work hard. And you have to give back.” 

These were the words of one of the most prolific baseball players ever to hit against opposing pitchers. Aaron had staggering numbers that saw him compile 755 home runs, 3,771 hits, 2,297 runs that were driven in, and he held a career batting average of .305. 

On Jan. 22, this noted giant within “America’s Pastime” died at 87 years old.  Always armed with a big smile and a can-do attitude, Aaron was a true ambassador to baseball that saw him reach some of the highest personal achievements that any person has ever gained in this game.

Surpassing Babe Ruth was an endeavor that Aaron worked on during the length of over 20 years in baseball. After the 1973 season, he hit 713 home runs and had to wait the following season to surpass this record. At 9:07 p.m. on April 8, 1974, in front of over 53,000 fans, Aaron stepped up to the plate, with light bulbs going off, and reporters were eager to write about the two-run home run swing that surpassed Ruth. 

Since he left baseball in the late 1970s, Frank Tepedino worked at Port Jefferson Sporting Goods, where he was a fixture behind the counter. For decades, he screened T-shirts, uniforms and he provided professional advice for local families to help them pick out baseball equipment. 

This Brooklyn native and resident of St. James was a talented hitter who was on the rosters of the New York Yankees, Milwaukee Brewers and the Atlanta Braves. He was later a 9/11 firefighter who threw out the first pitch in the New York Yankees playoff game against Oakland Athletics, only weeks after the nation was attacked by terrorists. 

During his career, Tepedino played next to the historic baseball figures of Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Thurman Munson, Bobby Murcer and Aaron. Tepedino opposed baseball legends of Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, Willie Mays, Mike Schmidt and Bridgehampton local farm boy Karl Yastrzemski. 

Frank Tepedino, a resident of St. James, retired from the baseball scene decades ago, but the memories of playing alongside Hank Aaron, who passed away last month, in the 70s are memories he could never forget. Photo courtesy of Frank Tepedino

Tepedino recalled that it was an amazing experience to compete against the best players ever to put on a uniform. According to him, “Players like Aaron changed the entire atmosphere of the game, the stadiums and their own teams. They were a different caliber of talent and playing with Aaron, you always appreciated his work ethic toward the game. You always wanted to do your best within his presence. If you appreciated baseball greatness, Aaron was one of the top five ever to take the field.” 

When looking at the newsreels and pictures of Aaron hitting the pitch from Los Angeles Dodgers’ Al Downing over the left field wall, Tepedino can be seen welcoming him after he rounded the bases. On an electric night, the look of Aaron running around the bases and being patted on the back by two fans was one of the greatest sports scenes ever recorded. With his sideburns and blue Braves jacket, Tepedino along with his teammates and coaches, greeted Aaron at home plate. 

During this chase to surpass this record, Tepedino recalled, “Everyone was wondering when Aaron was going to hit enough home runs — except Aaron. As a power hitter, he was fully confident that he would eventually catch Ruth.” 

The game resumed with Aaron staying in the game for one more at bat, but he was physically and mentally exhausted from this daunting experience, and Tepedino replaced him in the lineup.  

It was a wonderful night for baseball, but there were many concerns over the personal safety of Aaron.  Even in 1974, 20 years after the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling that ended the “separate but equal” conditions within public schools, poor conditions for Black Americans were still present.  Tepedino remembered that these ballplayers had to face difficult segregation conditions within hotels, restaurants and traveling accommodations. 

Long after President Harry Truman (D) desegregated the armed forces, Jackie Robinson broke the baseball color barrier and President Lyndon Johnson (D) signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, African Americans were still battling for equality. During his own career, Tepedino met Robinson and as he played for the Yankees, he was trained by Olympic hero Jesse Owens. Tepedino looked back “in awe” of these athletes that accepted an immense responsibility to fight for an entire race of people in America.

In 1948, a younger Aaron cut class in Mobile, Alabama, to see Robinson speak at a local drugstore. After seeing this extraordinary player and activist speak, Aaron was determined to be a professional ballplayer who later faced similar hatred problems that Robinson had to endure with the Brooklyn Dodgers. 

At an early age, Aaron was continually warned by his parents to stay clear of the Ku Klux Klan that marched near his home and widely displayed burning crosses. In 1952, Aaron signed his first professional contract with The Negro Leagues team of the Indianapolis Clowns, where early scouts determined that he was an “all-around hitter.”  

Tepedino identified the racial complexities of this time, noting that “the Black ballplayer in the South still had limited rights, compared to when we played games in Chicago, where you would see leaders like Jesse Jackson visit our teammates in the locker room.”  

For Aaron, it was an amazing chase to overcome Ruth’s record, but at a dangerous personal cost.  Starting in 1973, the Atlanta Braves had a security presence for him during home and road games.  Eventually the Federal Bureau of Investigation sent agents on the field to protect him from the numerous death threats that he received.  

Every day, Aaron read hate mail that threatened the kidnapping of his children if he attempted to break Ruth’s record. Aaron later stated on CNN, “I’ve always felt like once I put the uniform on and once I got out onto the playing field, I could separate the two from, say, an evil letter I got the day before or event 20 minutes before. God gave me the separation, gave me the ability to separate the two of them.”

Hank Aaron. Photo from the Baseball Hall of Fame

In 1973, for most of the season the Braves were contenders to make the playoffs. At 39 years old, Aaron was at the cusp of passing this record by hitting 40 home runs. Tepedino remembered that the enhanced scrutiny and media hype never impacted Aaron’s performance on the field. Tepedino also described the positive support that his manager Eddie Mathews had toward his former longtime teammate in Aaron.  Both Mathews and Aaron terrorized opposing pitchers within the heart of the Braves lineup by hitting between them 863 home runs. Next to Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth, this was one of the most feared tandems ever to consistently oppose pitching for many years.

Unlike daily media scrutiny of today, Aaron during most of his pursuit, only had the Braves beat writers covering the team. It was not until he was within reach of Ruth that there were over 50 reporters following his every movement until April 8, 1974.  

Tepedino enjoyed playing with Aaron and remembered him to be a “soft-spoken man, that never bragged, was approachable, that always flashed a big smile. During this stressful time, the team realized that he was under immense pressure, and we all gave him his space.”  

With a full house of fans, and Gov. Jimmy Carter (D) in attendance, Aaron’s home run was hit beyond the left field reach of Dodger Bill Buckner. With his family around him, Aaron later held onto the ball that was retrieved from the fans. After the game, he spoke with President Richard Nixon (R) who congratulated him on this endeavor. Later after Aaron crossed home plate with this record in his name and surviving through this immense pressure, the prolific hitter said to the media, “I just thank God it’s all over.”

The last time that Tepedino saw Aaron was five years ago at a major dinner in New York City to support Baseball Assistance Team. They were with many other former ballplayers helping to raise money for some of their peers who had fallen upon hard economic times.  

While Tepedino was pleased to see Aaron and to say hello to this legendary figure, these former players were once again together to share a special “comradery and fraternity” of former athletes who were reminiscing about their days in the sun. 

Through the passing of an absolute gentlemen in Aaron, who was a special player and a citizen to fight for enhanced rights for African Americans, Tepedino surely has witnessed major American memories within local and national history.  Through his own immense baseball talent, Tepedino shared the field with athletic figures who will never fade away from “America’s Pastime.”

Sean Hamilton of the Rocky Point High School History Honor Society contributed to this article.

Ben Fero throws off the bullpen mound as pitching coach Tyler Kavanaugh monitors his session on Monday. Photo from SBU Athletics

Spring was in the air on Jan. 18 as the Stony Brook baseball team’s pitchers and catchers held their first official workout in preparation for the regular season.

And with temperatures in the mid-40s, the Seawolves were able to hold their workout outdoors at Joe Nathan Field rather than at one of the program’s indoor facilities.

Position players are due to begin formal practices Feb. 1.

It’s been 313 days since the Seawolves’ last game — a 4-2 victory against Merrimack last March 11. Stony Brook had been slated to begin America East play three days later with a doubleheader against Hartford.

“We felt like we were peaking at the right time heading into conference play,” coach Matt Senk said. “So we’re excited. We were the defending champs. So we’re looking forward to defending our championship and can’t wait to get started.”

Stony Brook did get in a relatively normal workout schedule this past fall, albeit without games against other teams.

And with the bulk of the seniors having returned for the 2020-21 academic year after gaining an extra year of eligibility — coupled with a new freshman class that was touted by Collegiate Baseball as among the best in the nation — the Seawolves figure to again make noise in 2021.

Stony Brook produced a .673 winning percentage in America East play during the decade of the 2010s (159-77-1).

In game-situation matchups in the fall, upperclassmen Brian MorriseyBrian HerrmannJared MilchAdam Erickson and Sam Turcotte combined to produce a 2.65 ERA with 52 strikeouts, 12 walks and a .198 opponent batting average in 51 innings.

Herrmann returns as a redshirt senior this season after missing last spring due to injury, while Morrisey and Milch are seniors and Erickson and Turcotte now are graduate students.

“Certainly what we bring back on the mound, I think, is going to be impactful,” Senk said. “… Those guys were strike-throwers, pounding the zone, and were really displaying some plus stuff — fastballs, breaking balls — and really challenging our hitters. All those things will lead to success for the team in the future.”

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By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

Here we are, July 23 and it’s time to Play Ball!

The Yankees and the defending World Series champion Washington Nationals are returning to the field. The old familiar rules are still in place, with a few COVID-19 related exceptions, including air fists and air elbows.

So, as professional athletes prepared to return this week to some of America’s favorite activities, I conducted a non-scientific poll, reaching out to a range of people to ask a few sports questions.

Before I get to the responses, it occurs to me to make a suggestion to the many teams preparing to fill empty stadiums with cardboard cutouts. Why not reach out to young, budding artists to get them to send cutouts that the teams could put in the seats? In a baseball game, if a cutout gets hit with a foul ball, the stadium crew could sanitize the ball, put it in a case and ship it to the lucky fan whose cutout was hit.

Anyway, here are the survey results.

For starters, Marie will “probably watch more sports. Not because I want to. But because my husband and children will be clamoring for any available TVs in the house. I hear them say that they would watch chess if it was televised,” she explained in an email.

She suspects watching the game may not be as much fun without fans in the stands.

Although she’s been told she’s a “negative Nelly,” Marie doesn’t think either the seasons or the school year will finish.

Jane, who is more of a sports fan, says she and her family are “so starved for competition and sports on TV and in person” that they’ll likely “binge watch sports” and, when they can attend, will go as much as possible.
They are college sports fans, so they’ve discussed the possibility of football Saturdays without football. She anticipates numerous shortened seasons.

Paula, a good friend whose passion for the Yankees is as deep as her husband’s dedication to the Red Sox, expects the household to have as much sports as before, which means they will have a game on every night whenever anyone is playing. Their sports enthusiasm connects them with their college-aged son. They have been watching exhibition baseball games. They expect baseball may get through the season, particularly with large enough rosters. She isn’t optimistic about hockey, basketball or football.

A New England fan, Luke will probably watch more of the Patriots and Tampa Bay football teams, because of his interest in Tom Brady and Cam Newton. His daughters are more concerned about their own leagues than the pros. He thinks the NBA might make it 20 games and the NFL about 10.

Robert calls his Phillies’ watching a “family ritual,” and he looks forward to spending time together cheering on the team. Last year, his family splurged for expensive seats near the infield for the first time and were looking forward to repeating that this summer. They also love watching the Olympics, which will have to wait until next year.

His family hasn’t discussed the return of sports, which may reflect a phase of “acceptance given all the suffering going on in the world.” Still he anticipates “huddling together on the family room couch” to watch the Phillies. With strong testing programs and without fans or crowds, he anticipates that the shortened season will conclude, even if case numbers rise.

Finally, Jenn, who doesn’t watch any sports, caught a few moments of the Yankees-Mets game at Citi Field, which she continues to refer to as Shea. She observed that there is “something so viscerally communal about sports it seems so sad and empty without the community” of fans. Some of those fans, however, will be coming together in person and at a distance, to cheer on their teams.

The Miller Place Panthers thought they would never play an inning of baseball when the COVID-19 -pandemic cancelled the spring season. That is, until the Town of Brookhaven hosted the Wood Bat Tournament July 8 through 12. The Panthers shook off the cobwebs, got down to business and never looked back.

They defeated Half Hollow Hills West 3-1 in the first round of pool play, picked off Westhampton 6-1 in the second round and edged East Hampton in a 1-0 shutout Saturday. Because of inclement weather on Friday all teams payed doubleheaders and the Panther’s blew out Sayville 12-1 later in the day and qualified for the championship round against Hauppauge. Despite falling behind early, the Panther offense came to life to erase the deficit winning the game 4-3 and with it, the Class A Championship crown.

Ward Melville third baseman Brady Doran rips one deep. Baseball could be coming back this summer. Photo by Bill Landon

Beginning July 6, certain youth sports will be allowed to restart in regions of the state that are in Phase 3 of reopening. Long Island entered Phase 3 June 24. 

Baseball, softball, gymnastics, field hockey, cross country, soccer, noncontact lacrosse, doubles tennis, rafting, paintball, water polo and swimming will be allowed to begin games and competitions. 

Locally, a number of sports leagues have plans to resume play next month. Town of Brookhaven baseball is tentatively set to begin its summer season on July 13. 

“We are excited to announce that we are planning on beginning our summer season the week of July 13. The plan would include an abbreviated season, ending approximately Aug. 23 (including playoffs),” a statement on the town’s website reads. “We are extremely thrilled and fortunate to have the opportunity of having a summer season for the kids. Please understand that there will have to be some accommodations and sacrifices made by teams in order to get a legitimate summer season played.”

In addition, the 2020 Varsity Wood Bat Tournament in Brookhaven will run through July 8-12 at Moriches Complex. High school baseball teams from the North Shore will be participating in the competition including the Newfield Wolverines and Centereach Cougars (Middle Country), Northport Tigers, Ward Melville Patriots, Kings Park Kingsmen, Port Jefferson Royals, Miller Place Panthers and the Shoreham-Wading River Wildcats.  

Social distancing will be enforced at all sporting events, and the state mandates the events limit spectators to two individuals per athlete.

The level of risk for each sport has been determined by the New York State Department of Health’s interim guidance for sports and recreation during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“These guidelines apply to nonprofessional and noncollegiate sports and recreation activities (e.g. youth sports), inclusive of indoor and outdoor sports and recreation, as well as organized and nonorganized sports and recreation,” the document stated.

Sports that are deemed “high risk” will not be allowed to resume games July 6. Those include football, wrestling, ice hockey, rugby, basketball, contact lacrosse, volleyball, also competitive cheer and dance.

“Participants in higher risk sports and recreation activities may only partake in individual or distanced group training and organized no/low-contact group training,” according to the state’s guidelines.

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Even as Suffolk County prepares for the second phase of the economic reopening to begin next Wednesday, which could include outdoor dining, officials are discussing the possibility of bringing graduations and minor league baseball back.

The Long Island Ducks, a minor league team, have come up with a safety plan with protocols in place that the county plans to submit to New York State.

“The plan is incredibly thorough and has all sorts of different protocols in place to keep people safe,” County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said on his daily conference call with reporters.

If the county is able to reach the fourth phase of reopening in the middle of July, the Ducks could conceivably return to the diamond in front of a crowd of 25 percent of the normal capacity, which would enable attendees to be socially distanced in the park.

At safe distances, people could remove face coverings, the way they do when they go to beaches or are in the water. When walking around or going to the restroom, guests would need to wear face masks or coverings to protect themselves and their fellow baseball fans.

“We’re looking forward to getting this to the state,” Bellone said. “This is something that can happen.”

Additionally, while the Empire State has only permitted virtual and drive-through graduations, officials have left open the possibility of that they would review the possibility of a limited-seating graduation in July.

“I do believe we will be in a position to do this safely,” Bellone said.

The county has also worked with the Suffolk County Superintendents Association to develop a plan to create a safe, life graduation.

“I’m hopeful that will be able to happen later this summer,” Bellone said.

Viral Numbers

The viral figures continue to move in a favorable direction. Over the last day, an additional two people died from complications related to COVID-19, bringing the total to 1,918. This follows a day when one person died, so the pace of deaths, which have cast a pall over a county that was at the epicenter of the pandemic, has dramatically slowed.

Each death extinguishes a life and creates an irretrievable loss for each family, which is why the county and executive like Bellone are hoping that number soon falls to zero.

The number of people infected with the virus was 86. The total number of people who have contracted the virus is now 40,239, which is more than Singapore and Colombia, but is 2,700 less than Sweden, according to figures from Johns Hopkins University.

The infections don’t include antibody testing. A total of 15,080 people have tested positive for antibodies.

Bellone urged residents to provide information if contact tracers reach out to them. When people limit the possible transmission of the deadly virus, as they did during the economically painful and costly New York Pause, they will save lives.

“We are still in this,” Bellone reminded residents. “We need everybody to continue to follow the health guidance and do the right thing here, so we can recovery as a community and get our small businesses back open.”

Hospitalizations, meanwhile, continue to drop. Through the 24 hour period ending on Wednesday, the number of people with COVID-19 in hospitals declined another 12, to 213.

The number of residents in the Intensive Care Unit fell by two to 54.

An additional 24 people left the hospital over the last day.

Small businesses that are struggling to meet the new supply demands for face coverings and sanitizer can submit a request starting on Monday through the suffolkcountyny.gov web site. Interested businesses should go to the Department of Labor section and submit a request. The first 1,000 people will received two reusable face cloths and a gallon jug of New York State Clean.

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The Strovink family, including, from left to right, youngest son Kyle, dad Eric and oldest son Brennan. Photo by Christine Strovink

By Rich Acritelli

“As a major league scout for over 38 years and the last 18 for the New York Mets, the Strovink family is without a doubt the finest players and people that I ever scouted.”

Eric Strovink playing baseball with his two children at a young age. Photo by Christine Strovink

So said longtime baseball scout Larry Izzo, who watched some of the best talent to emerge from Long Island to play in the major leagues. Izzo wrote the earliest scouting reports on Houston Astros Hall of Famer Craig Biggio from Kings Park, career hitter and Smithtown native Frank Catalanotto and over the last couple of years Ward Melville talent and pitcher Stephen Matz of the New York Mets. Izzo repeated several times how wonderful his relationship was with the Strovink family from Rocky Point over the last several decades. Armed with the ability to hit the ball over many different fences and a trademark smile, Eric Strovink and his two boys, Brennan and Kyle, always present a natural passion and respect for this game.

As a kid growing up in the 1980’s, it was likely that when you read the local papers and Newsday about the prominent players in Suffolk County, Eric’s name was a constant presense. During his first season playing the game, he only made contact once and it seemed as if baseball might not be the sport for Eric, but through the guidance of his father who coached his earlier teams and a strong determination, Eric began hitting the ball consistently and became a feared player on the local fields and teams of Wading River. His talent was noted when Eric as a fifth grader hit a homerun 325 feet in a game.

His father was not originally tied to the game, but he went to work at an early age, was an ROTC army officer after he graduated from college and was a noted photographer and film maker that worked on projects for Brookhaven National Laboratory and Grumman. But his father loved the game and believed in the importance of analyzing baseball statistics. It was this aspect of the game which allowed Eric to identify his own strengths and weaknesses and for him to closely watch the opposing pitchers. He also learned about the unique way of harnessing “visualization” from his dad, who taught his son how to properly concentrate about future playing situations.  Eric always credited the devotion of his father for helping prepare him for the most stressful games.

Always smiling, this 50-year-old physical education teacher from Mount Sinai School District vividly recalled his earliest moments of success on the diamond as if it just happened. After his varsity game was over, it was observed by his coach, mentor and friend Sal Mignano during an at-bat junior varsity game in Easthampton the explosive potential that Eric held. He was amazed at the past ability of the then-13-year-old to hit a homerun that completely surprised the older members of the varsity team. Mignano marveled at the strength of his former player and the extensive knowledge and motivation that Eric held in his early years. 

As a junior, Eric’s batting average was .465, where he drove in 45 runs and batted in and hit another nine homeruns. During his senior year, his average climbed to .516, and while pitchers attempted to throw around him, he was continually on base. He was a three-time all league, two-time all-county, featured as a Daily News all-star and was an all-state player. Along the way, he guided his team to many winning seasons in league, county, and capped it by achieving a New York State Championship title in 1987. Eric recalled the benefits of the visualization that his father taught to him and the lessons his good friend Keith Osik taught him about where they saw themselves in pressure game time situations. Izzo recalled Eric’s father and believed that “he was one of the kindest and sincerest parents that was extremely supportive, and he could always be seen taking pictures at the games with a high-powered camera.”

Eric Strovink was a renaissance man of sorts, playing Tybolt in Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Photo from Strovink family

Always with a genuine manner, Eric laughed that he was not even the best player within his own household. For a time, Osik lived with his family and he is considered a brother to Erik and an uncle to the Strovink kids. Osik was a phenomenal athlete and a dominant pitcher that was recognized as the best baseball player in Suffolk County through the Yastrzemski Award winner, while Eric was the runner up. These players were a dynamic hitting duo that saw Osik constantly reach base and Strovink drive him home numerous times during a game. Osik played at Louisiana State University and was later a professional ball player for several years with the Pittsburg Pirates, Milwaukee Brewers, and Baltimore Orioles. Both Osik and Eric’s hitting skills tormented the best pitchers in state.

Eric also demonstrated his athletic presence as a feared Suffolk County Wrestling Champion at 215 pounds. Although he did not wrestle until the sixth grade, Eric held his own against all-state and national wrestlers like that of Adam Mariano from Comsewogue High School. And when he was not playing sports, Eric was a devoted thespian within his school’s drama program. He performed in an arousing performance as Tybolt in Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” 

Eric was motivated to further his baseball career in college where he garnered interest from the powerhouses of Clemson, Georgia Southern, Nebraska and North Carolina State. When a scout from Louisiana State University watched Osik during a high school game, Erik showed his own skills by hitting three homeruns. In 1988, this powerful tandem left the to play baseball within the deep south in Louisiana.

At college, Eric was amazed about the vast amount of instruction that was given to each player through every part of this game. Always a student of this game, Eric always absorbed the intricacies of baseball information from this college and when he was an instructor for Mignano’s clinics and camps. For years as a coach, he constantly presented tidbits of wisdom to his players. 

“You can learn more baseball tips in one practice from Eric, compared to what others learn in a season,” Said Rocky Point’s athletic director Charlie Delargy.    

At LSU, he became good friends with pitchers Ben McDonald who played seven years for the Baltimore Orioles, and Russ Springer, a pitcher for 18 years who played for 13 different teams that included the New York Yankees.  

As Eric enjoyed attending LSU, he had to leave school and play closer to home. It was a hard time for him, as his mother was diagnosed with cancer and he wanted to be near his family.  While he was dealing with this sickness, he played for a junior college in New Jersey and eventually made it to C.W. Post in Brookville. This was a bittersweet moment for him, as he dealt with the sickness of his beloved mother, Eric once again excelled in front of local fans by hitting 17 homeruns and driving in 50 runs to help his team win their conference.

This was a painful time for Eric, while he played well, his mother passed away after a battle with cancer. While he dealt with this heavy loss, it was Izzo that wrote the scouting report on Eric that allowed him to be signed by the Texas Rangers to a free agent contract. Leaving CW Post and Wading River, Eric was sent to Port Charlotte, Florida. He earned $850 a month, lived with several different teammates and was a “starving” rookie within this league. Eric was on the field with ball players that were just drafted and were rehabbing from injuries. His time with this organization came to an end after the following spring training, after it was explained to Eric that while he was a solid player, he might not have the chance to reach the major leagues.  With baseball behind him, he returned home to finish his college education, to coach wrestling at Shoreham-Wading River and to work for his father. By May 29, 1994, he married his high school sweetheart Christine and they looked to start a family of their own.

Resembling his father, Brennen Strovink was also a dynamic figure within the Rocky Point High School baseball and wrestling teams. Always armed with a big smile and a can-do attitude, this 2014 graduate of Rocky Point was a three-year starter on the varsity team. Brennan immediately made his mark as a sophomore who attained a .370 average and led the county with six homeruns. As a senior, Brennen was a finalist for the Yastrzemski Award, and he was named most valuable player for his league. Many teachers and coaches enjoyed having Brennen in their classes, club’s and teams. 

These warm thoughts were echoed by his former baseball coach Andrew Aschettino, who said he was a “larger than life personality and incredible role model. My kids simply look up to him and I can’t think of someone better in that role.”

Like his father, he was an aggressive wrestler who enjoyed the competitiveness of this sport.  During his junior year, he took first place as a heavy weight in his league and was the runner-up as a sophomore.  He wrestled extremely well through the difficult Eastern States Tournament where he placed sixth in the contest. While he established himself as one of the premier heavy weights, Brennan was unable to reach his goal of possibly being a county champion because of a necessary back surgery.

Brennan Strovink rounds a base during his time on the Rocky Point Varsity baseball team. Photo from Strovink family

As an all-state baseball player, Brennan received a scholarship from Division I Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas. He was excited to hit against some of the best college pitchers in the nation, but after a year, Brennan suffered another back injury that led to a second surgery. Brennan had to stop playing baseball and for a brief time he came home and attended Suffolk Community College. At this moment, his grandfather believed that his lefthanded hitting grandson had the chance to change his luck by hitting righty. In an amazing accomplishment, Brennen resurrected his college career by learning how to hit from the right side of the plate.

With his best friend Joseph Zabbara who was a college baseball player who was recovering from a serious arm injury, both young men had the opportunity to suit up for Hudson Valley Community College. With a positive mindset that enabled him to become a switch hitter, that old feeling of consistently making contact returned to Brennan as he attained an over .300 batting average. In a short period of time, his confidence returned, and he again faced pitching from the left side. When this happened, Brennan in his first eleven hitting lefty, he was on base with eight hits. Once this rejuvenation occurred, both Brennan and Joseph hit the road again as they enrolled into Limestone College in Gaffney, South Carolina.  

During his first at-bat for this school, he hit a homerun and was a fixture in the lineup as a first baseman and a designated hitter. Although he was in a different atmosphere, Brennan was nagged by reoccurring back injuries that made him make the permanent decision to stop playing.  Always with a positive demeanor, Brennan was pleased with his time at Limestone where he was able to become a first base coach and attain a degree in physical education.  

Finally, Kyle is the youngest Strovink to continue the family tradition of playing this game hard and doing it with a smile. Like his dad and brother, Kyle was a dominant varsity player during the extent of his high school years. As a capable catcher, Izzo stated Kyle has a “major league arm” to quickly prevent base runners from stealing bases.  

With grit and determination, he handled the pitchers and challenges of this strenuous position.  Like the two elder Strovink’s, he was a fierce competitor that opposing pitchers struggled to get out. As a sophomore, Kyle hit .392 with two homeruns. As a junior, his average climbed to .429 with four homeruns and eight doubles, and while he batted .349 as a senior, he was playing with a broken hand. Kyle was Rocky Point’s first All-American and one of his proudest moments was playing in front of a thousand local fans in the semi-finals set against Shoreham-Wading River.

During the winter months, Kyle, like his brother and father, was a tough wrestler. Unlike the other males in his household, Kyle wrestled only for one full year and still he placed second in his league at 195 pounds. Though he had limited experience, Kyle pinned two all-county wrestlers during his senior year.  Longtime assistant wrestling coach and a state champion Billy Coggins was always pleased with the progress. 

Kyle Strovink during his time on the Rocky Point Varsity baseball team. Photo from Strovink family

“Kyle was a rare athlete that you could plug into any sport and he would find a way to succeed.  He was an important factor that helped our team secure a county championship,” Coggins said. 

Always with a big smile, Kyle was the President of the Rocky Point Varsity Club where he made two speeches for the 9/11 and Veterans Day programs. This genuine young man shook the hands of the rescue workers, veterans and alumni and thanked them for their service to our nation.

Like his brother, Kyle had the plans to play at Lamar University, but he decided to play at a junior college in Douglas, Arizona near the Mexican border. Kyle played in excessive, dry heat of 110 degrees — vastly different from the conditions at Rocky Point. At Cochise College, Kyle was 2,500 miles from home, and he wanted to transfer to play at the east coast school of the University of South Carolina at Lancaster. Right away, he enjoyed his head coach that still calls Kyle during special moments and holidays. After playing extremely well, Kyle was offered a scholarship to play ball at Limestone, where he was reunited with his older brother Brennan.  Again, Kyle demonstrated his ability to hit with a commanding .308 average and he eventually became the clean-up hitter for this team through a shortened season due to the COVID-19 virus.

At Limestone, Kyle continued to demonstrate his catching prowess in throwing out opposing runners through his impressive arm strength. During a pro-day scouting program, it was estimated that Kyle had an extremely quick release from home plate to second base that was only 1.8 seconds. Izzo was not surprised about this catcher’s abilities and he believes that Kyle is a “special player.” While Kyle has lost part of his season, he is pleased to be spending time with his family. Looking at the Strovink’s, it is easy to see why people are always drawn to their good will. Every year Kristine Strovink organizes a team community service trip to a soup kitchen, she helps run the Live Like Susie fundraiser baseball game against Mount Sinai and serves the team an annual breakfast. While this family is led by these likable big men, Eric credits the devoted role that his wife and daughter Katie play in running their household.  

Retired social studies teacher Brooke Bonomi loved to joke with the boys and talk sports with them on a regular basis. As the teacher that created the Live Like Susie Kindness Award Night, Bonomi enjoyedStrovink’s participation to help honor the character of Rocky Point High School students through the outstanding memory of Susie Facini.  Bonomi glowingly stated that the “spirit of happiness runs deep in each Strovink. Their good cheer always inspires others to become better people.” Similar feelings towards this North Shore family has also been described the by the decades of respect that Izzo holds within these local ball players. This long-time major scout sums up the make-up of this family whom he considers to be the absolute best, saying “the way you play the game, is the way you’ll live life.”

Rich Acritelli is a social studies teacher at Rocky Point High School and an adjunct professor of American history at Suffolk County Community College.

Junior attack Xavier Arline drives to the cage for the Wildcats in the Suffolk Class C county final against Mount Sinai last year. With spring season cancelled, there will be no chance for a rematch. File photo by Bill Landon

High School seniors are normally under a lot of pressure come their last year of classes. It’s a time where students have to be thinking about where they want to go after graduation, what they want to do, all mixed in with a sense of finality to their grade school careers. For students involved in sports, it means the last season and the last chance they will have to take their team to county championships or maybe even states. 

Ward Melville second baseman Matt Maurer makes the scoop in a League I matchup against Central Islip last year. The team was hoping for even better this year, before the spring season was cancelled. File photo by Bill Landon

Then on April 22, Section XI made the announcement cancelling the spring sports season.

“After much discussion and consideration, the Athletic Council of Suffolk County has voted unanimously to cancel the spring sports season for 2020 at all levels,” Tom Combs, the Section XI executive director wrote in a statement. “The decision was not an easy one to make, however in what the world is experiencing at this time, it is the most prudent decision to make.”

With the cancellation of the spring sports season due to the ongoing pandemic, those same students now see any hopes of making it to playoffs dashed. Some teams, like the Ward Melville baseball team, might have been looking at their best season yet after making it to Suffolk County championships last year.

“Though we lost in the Suffolk County championship, the juniors were a big reason why they got there in the first place,” said Ward Melville baseball coach Lou Petrucci. “When we heard the news I talked to all the captains, and we talked to the seniors and juniors. They’re upset, but the spin we have to put on it is every time you play a baseball team you have to play it like it’s your last.”

Scott Reh, the Mount Sinai director of athletics, echoed the sentiment that the decision is going to most impact seniors, who he said the decision was “totally out of their control.” Though he and other athletic directors understood why it was done.

“At the end of the day, it’s very important because people are losing their lives, their jobs and the list goes on and on, “ Reh said. 

Mount Sinai girls lacrosse head coach Al Bertolone said his team has been “training every day since school closed,” and that he hosts video meetings with the team and individual groups daily. 

Though the news was hard, Bertolone said they had already participated in a car parade that ran past Mather and St Charles hospitals, which included the entire varsity team, parents, a fire truck, local police and some alumni as well.

“As far as we are concerned the games might have been canceled but our team is still going strong,” he said.

They are planning another car parade for Senior Day, May 14. 

Charles Delargey, the director of PE, health and athletics at the Rocky Point school district, said the girls lacrosse team hosted a senior parade for their 10 seniors last Saturday, and the boys lacrosse has plans to do something similar this weekend. 

Mount Sinai sophomore, then freshman Mackenzie Celauro slides home in game last year. File photo by Bill Landon

At 8:20 (20:20 military time) on Friday, May 1, districts will be turning on the lights and score board of their school football fields. The event is supposed to celebrate the sports teams in their 2020 season, with several schools planning live streams including comments from coaches.

In addition to several videos that coaches and students have put together, homes throughout the Shoreham-Wading River Central School District are displaying ‘Home of a Wildcat Senior 2020’ lawn signs to share in the school spirit. The district is also promoting the NYSPHSAA Mental Health Awareness Week from May 4-8 with social media messages. Plans are also in progress to honor all athletes at the annual athletic awards event which will be held virtually in the coming weeks. 

“Our coaches are in contact with our athletes to help to maintain optimistic attitudes and keep physically active during this time,” said SWR Director of Physical Education, Health, Athletics and Nurses Mark Passamonte.

School sports directors have been doing their best to keep spirits high. Adam Sherrard, the Port Jefferson School District athletic director, shared a video to his Twitter showcasing baseball players practicing, intercutting the video so it seemed the players were tossing the ball to each other.

Port Jeff is planning to host its regular sports ceremonies, including pictures of seniors in their uniforms in May and the signing ceremonies in June, but this time having to bring up each player individually for photos.

Indeed, practicing at home has become the new norm. Players have taken videos and pictures of themselves in their workouts and practices and posted such things to their coaches and teammates in phone messages and online.

Still, many students mourn the loss of their lost season — for some their last. As the bearer of bad news, coaches have done their best to offer consolation and hope for the future.

Matt DeVincenzo, the athletic director at Comsewogue School District, helped craft a video that was released Friday, April 24, on the district’s Facebook going through all the spring sports teams and specifically mentioning the graduating players, thanking them for all their hard work.

“Everyone’s pretty devastated,” DeVincenzo said. “Everyone saw the writing on the wall, and all the kids are affected, but our hearts really go out to the senior class. Unfortunately, they were robbed of last season in high school.” 

Port Jefferson senior Aidan Kaminski, then a junior, looks for an open lane last year during the Class D county final. He will not be able to finish his final senior season. File photo by Bill Landon

The unanimous decision from the Section XI board was a tough one, DeVincenzo said, but all acknowledged the impossibility of hosting sports during the ongoing pandemic.

But beyond the spring season, many still question what will happen in the summer, fall and winter.  All agree it’s still too early to tell.

For students participating in college sports, the National College Athletic Association said students graduating in spring will be eligible for collegiate scholarships as long as they still meet the course number requirements and show a 2.3 or higher GPA in those courses. The NCAA’s evaluations will not look at separate reviews of spring or summer distance learning during COVID-19 closures.

The question whether the coronavirus will impact sports in summer and fall is still up in the air, but with coaches not even aware if students will be back in school by the end of May, that question is leaning heavy on the minds of school athletics. Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) said April 24 he would later be announcing whether schools would remain closed, but as of press time has not yet made the decision. 

Delargey said when the news arrived last week, students were of course disappointed. On the other end, it was also a showcase of how students can show compassion.

“On a call with the softball team where the coach broke the news, after everyone spoke, one of our youngest kids on the team said to the seniors, ‘just want to let you know what an inspiration you’ve been to me.’” he said. “For a young kid to do that that’s amazing says what sports is all about.”

Former Yankees professional Dana Cavalea came to the Barnes & Noble in Lake Grove to promote his book to a full crowd. The Mount Sinai native has had a long career in both professional baseball and in books. Photo by David Luces

Dana Cavalea, Mount Sinai native, is passionate about coaching. For 12 years he spent time as the New York Yankees strength and conditioning coach, and along the way got to pick the brains of some all-time
great athletes.  

Former Yankees professional Dana Cavalea came to the Barnes & Noble in Lake Grove to promote his book to a full crowd. The Mount Sinai native has had a long career in both professional baseball and in books. Photo by David Luces

He didn’t think he would eventually become an author, but he views his book, “Habits of a Champion: Nobody Becomes a Champion by Accident,” as an extension of coaching. 

“I never had the intention of writing a book, but I was reading these self-help books and I felt there was a gap from what I was reading and what I was seeing on the baseball field working with these athletes,” he said. “That’s what drove me toward writing this book, I wanted to write a handbook, that people can use as a utility as they navigate life.”

Interactions with Yankees fans also inspired him. 

“It also came about being at the stadium and fans coming up to me asking me questions about their own lives, about how they could improve their performance in a certain area,” Cavalea said. “I’d give them an answer, and then they would come back to another game during the season and they would ask another question.”

The Mount Sinai native pointed to a family friend, coach Billy King as a big reason why he chose to pursue his career path and started his training journey. 

“He was a big influence on me, when I learned what he was doing, he was in the gym training, watching what he eats, and I was like wow that’s pretty cool,” he said. 

Cavalea was 19 years old attending the University of South Florida and working as a strength and conditioning intern for the school’s football team when he was offered an unexpected opportunity. 

A professor at the university told him that the Yankees, who were in the midst of spring training at nearby Legends Field in Tampa, were looking for an intern to help out. 

Cavalea, who just so happened to have visited the ballpark as a fan the previous day, drove over the next day and was put into Yankee gear and was on the same field stretching with pitchers Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte. The Mount Sinai native worked as an intern for three years, then became an assistant, before becoming a coach at 23 years old. 

“The Bronx is only about 60 to 70 miles away from here but I had to go 1,800 miles away in order to get there,” he said.  

The performance coach said he took those experiences and wanted to write something in his own style, so people could tell it was written by him and it was authentic. 

“[Coach Billy King] was a big influence on me, when I learned what he was doing, he was in the gym training, watching what he eats, and I was like wow that’s pretty cool.”

— Dana Cavalea

“Habits of a Champion” is split into 15 lessons designed to help the reader succeed in different aspects of life. Cavalea shared some of those lessons at a Feb. 8 book-signing event at the Smithaven Mall in Lake Grove. 

Those included: “If someone doesn’t respect your time, they don’t respect you,” something Yankees Hall of Famer Derek Jeter would say, stressing the importance of being on time. Another was “never get too high and never get too low.” Cavalea mentioned that a person’s attitude or mood can determine their daily success. 

“It all comes down to how you control your own emotions,” he said. “Whether you are an Olympic athlete or a high schooler that has a big test or presentation.”  

In addition to writing books, Cavalea now works as a life coach and motivational speaker. Some of the clients he coaches are business executives, athletes and CEOs of companies. He has been asked to speak at a number of big corporations, nonprofit organizations and schools. 

“The messages and lessons are very universal,” he said. “When you’re a coach you are trying to learn as much as you can, and how you can maximize human potential.”

Despite the busy schedule, Cavalea said he enjoys writing books and has plans to release a children’s book sometime in April. He has already written two children’s books: “Champion Kids: Johnny ‘The Jet’ Saves the Day” and “Girls on the Run: Starring
Mighty Melina.” 

“It’s fun for me, It’s great being able to share these lessons with others,” he said. “If the best of the best need help, so does everyone else.” 

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Max Nielsen at the pitcher’s mound June 4. Photo by John Dielman

The Ward Melville Patriots, the No. 1 seed in their league this year, completed a successful season in 2019.

The team made it to the Suffolk County finals but lost in game 3 to Connetquot. Coach Lou Petrucci said it was the third time the team went up against Connetquot in the finals.

Brady Doran heads to home base April 15. Photo by Bill Landon

For the spring 2019 season, Petrucci said it was difficult to name just one favorite game or play.

“Anytime a kid plays a high school baseball game on his home field, it’s a memorable game,” he said, adding it’s more about what the players take from the game.

It was a season where Max Nielsen, the only five-year player in Ward Melville history, struck out 18 batters in the Suffolk County semifinals. The stats are a Patriots record, according to Petrucci.

Among the accolades he garnered this year, the left-handed pitcher won the Suffolk County Baseball Coaches Association’s 52nd annual Carl Yastrzemski Award for Suffolk County’s top player. He is the third Patriots baseball player to win the coveted award in the last 12 years. Petrucci said, in the past, AJ Nunziato and current Mets pitcher Steven Matz have been among the winners. Nielsen was also named a member of Axcess Baseball’s All Decade Team 2010-2019 second team, and the SCBCA awarded him Suffolk County League 1 Most Valuable Player and All-County Selection, too.

Nielsen, who is already taking two classes at the University of Connecticut this summer, is modest about the awards.

“It’s an honor to receive them,” he said. “It’s all because of my teammates.”

Nielsen said the May 25 Suffolk Class AA elimination game against Commack stands out as a favorite for him. The pitcher, just back from an oblique injury, witnessed his teammate Matthew Franco hit a three-run home run in the bottom of the 6th with two outs and two strikes. The Patriots went on to win the game, 8-6.

If it weren’t for Petrucci, Nielsen said he wouldn’t be playing at his present level. He also credits his fellow teammates Brady Doran, Ethan Farino and Matthew Maurer for their hard work.

Ethan Farino takes a lead off first April 15. Photo by Bill Landon

“Without them, I don’t think we’d be in the position we were in this year,” Nielsen said.

The pitcher said the thing he will miss most about Ward Melville baseball is “playing with the kids I’ve been playing with since [ages] 8, 9, 10.”

Other Patriots racked in SCBCA awards including Farino for All-County, Doran and Maurer for All-League and Ryan Hynes for Academic All-League. Petrucci was the winner of League 1 Varsity Coach of the Year.

Petrucci said in addition to Nielsen playing for UConn, a few of the Patriots are moving on to play college baseball. Doran will play at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire; Farino at Marist College in Poughkeepsie; Maurer at Post University in Waterbury, Connecticut; Bryan Radzinsky at Immaculata University in Immaculata, Pennsylvania; and Patrick Schriffen at College of Old Westbury.

The coach said he thinks the players enjoyed playing baseball at Ward Melville.

“The kids gave their classmates, their parents and many people in the Three Village baseball community exciting baseball memories,” he said.