During its inaugural season in 2010, the BWL baseball team won one game. The next year, they put together two wins. In 2012, they went 8-3; this year, they went 13-3-1 and made it into the second round of the New York State Association of Independent Schools (NYSAIS) state tournament. “We kind of put ourselves on the map in baseball,” says coach and BWL Athletic Director Todd DiVittorio.
Back in early February, months before any green grass emerged from a stubborn winter, and earlier than they ever had, the team began practicing at Uptown Sports in the Bronx. As soon as the snow and mud cleared, they began traveling two or three times a week to practice at SUNY Purchase. But the sting of a cold line drive was no match for their collective hunger: “The kids didn’t like the fact that we finished one game short of competing in the state tournament last year,” says Mr. DiVittorio. “To their credit, their goal was to win the league and get into the state tourney.”
With eight of the nine starting players on traveling teams outside of school, and with senior tri-captains maturing into strong leaders, this would certainly be the most experienced team BWL had fielded. “The seniors anchored down the team from the beginning of the year. Those guys really had a pulse on the team,” says Mr. DiVittorio.
A big reason the squad evolved from 2-9 in 2011 to 8-3 last season is Pearce Wright ‘13, who came into the school as a junior. “When he came in last year, it really kind of turned the program around. He’s very focused and serious,” Mr. DiVittorio says, adding that Wright complemented the more laid-back personalities of his fellow tri-captains, David Mosler ’13 and David Neiger ’13.
Of course, the Lions’ turnaround also owes to the team’s learned coaching. Mr. DiVittorio, it could be said, made history as the first American to play professionally for the Wembley baseball club in Perth, Australia. For five seasons, he played in the Western Australia Baseball League. With baseball the second fastest-growing sport in the world (behind only basketball), the Australian Baseball League, as it is now called, has six pro teams, many Americans, and several players who have matriculated into Major League Baseball. And, coaches from down under actively use the book Mr. DiVittorio co-authored, Training Manual for Under 13’s Coaches, published by the country’s Baseball Development Foundation.
“A great part of our success,” Mr. DiVittorio is quick to add, “comes from our assistant coach, Erick Robins,” who also coaches varsity volleyball and varsity girls’ basketball. “He was a hard worker who stressed the fundamentals of the game to our players. I look forward to having him back as my assistant next year.”
In early spring, Mosler suffered from a torn labrum and pitcher Daniel Weiss ’15 was hampered by arm problems. DiVittorio admits, “Early on, things didn’t look really rosy.” But essential ingredients of any successful team are grit and pride. As Weiss puts it, “I learned just how important every single player was on our team. When we lost a couple players to injuries, our team nearly collapsed, but we stuck together and won the games we had to.”
Ironically, the squad’s “turning point,” as Mr. DiVittorio puts it, came just three games into the season, against the Hackley School, in Tarrytown. More than twice the size of BWL and with a sprawling campus full of practice space, Hackley would be a “good test” for the boys. “They went into that game so nervous and so tight … and they held their own,” says the coach. They scored two runs in the first inning and “were in the game until the 5th inning. After that, they believed they could win.”
And they did. Playing a tougher schedule against bigger schools outside their Independent School Athletic League, the team piled victories against Browning, Dwight, Columbia Prep, and Churchill. The Lions were sparked by offensive performances from center fielder Patrick Trabulsi ’15, who batted .443 and was a constant base-stealing threat; Neiger (.378 average); second baseman Spencer Katz ’16 (.365) and Weiss (.346). Neiger and Weiss also took care of things on the mound. The senior tri-captain threw twice as many innings as any other teammate, fanning 43 batters with his nasty curve and keeping a stingy 2.63 earned run average (ERA). The lanky sophomore, known as “The Big Unit” by his teammates, worked his changeup and 80 mph fastball to average one strike out per inning and stymie his opponents with a 3.15 ERA.
After a win and a tie (called on account of time) against Churchill – the very team that knocked them out of post-season play last year – the Lions faced them a third time for the league championships. Neiger had a shutout going into the last inning, the 7th, when Churchill tied it, 1-1 and forced extra innings. Then, as team manager Charley Novack ’16 puts it, “In the bottom of the 8th inning, with the bases loaded, Henry Brafman ’16 (left fielder) drove in the championship run, giving BWL its first championship and the team stormed him on first base.”
This was their ticket into “states,” or the NYSAIS tournament. BWL, the #9 seed, matched up against #8 seed, Columbia Prep, and jumped out to a 6-0 lead by the fourth inning. Then came the leaky fifth inning, which saw the Lions give all but one of those runs back. Fortunately, recalls Novack, the bullpen was able to clamp down, and Argenys Morban ’15 ended matters when “he struck out Columbia Prep’s number two batter.”
Then things got bigger. Not only would BWL move on to play the tourney’s #1 seed, Berkeley Carroll, they would face them in MCU Park, home of the Mets-affiliated Brooklyn Cyclones, with a seating capacity of nearly 10,000. If any player knew how good Berkeley Carroll was – they had beaten Hackley 12-1 earlier in the season, for instance – he didn’t let it on. “We were in the game the whole time,” says Mr. DiVittorio. A pair of critical errors and a base running blunder tarnished an otherwise strong performance that saw the Lions bow 3-0 to their foes, who would go on to lose 1-0 to Poly Prep in the finals. As Coach DiVittorio learned, Berkeley Carroll had sent a scout to check out his team. “They did not take us lightly.”
“It was a well played baseball game. If there’s anything such as a gratifying loss, it was a gratifying loss,” he says. Afterwards, several coaches complimented DiVittorio on the team’s impressive turnaround and hoped to schedule games with BWL next season. “To be honest, I really thought that after playing [Berkeley Carroll] and looking at the rest of the tournament, we could have played with anybody.”
Tri-captain Wright comments, “It took a lot of work and time to finally make the tweak we needed to actually finish well and win the respect and championship we deserved.” Considering the loss of his leadership, Mosler’s bat, and Neiger’s arm, DiVittorio acknowledges, “It’s going to be difficult to repeat.”
But with a strong core of rising juniors and the surge of confidence they all experienced this season, he also knows the machine he will continue to craft next year will come well oiled. “The kids bought into our program; it’s a great building block for our school. It’s a good story. Moving forward, I think things are only going to get better.”