High School Beat: Thrice as Nice
Maldari pitches Blue Devils to third straight state title
Poly Prep varsity baseball coach Matt Roventini believed in Phil Maldari.
And his senior right-hander affirmed that belief Wednesday afternoon at Manhattanville College, tossing a three-hitter to lift the dynastic Blue Devils to an unprecedented third consecutive New York State Independent School Championship with a 1-0 victory over Ivy League rival Fieldston.
“Typical fashion of how we won this year,” Roventini told the Eagle on Thursday afternoon. “We pitched and found a way to score a run when we needed it.”
Maldari, who dealt with a painful hamstring injury for a good portion of his final campaign at the Bay Ridge Country Day School, got the ball for the championship game after watching staff ace Andrew Zapata tame previously unbeaten Berkeley Carroll, 2-0, in Tuesday’s epic NYSAISS semifinal at Columbia University.
After junior southpaw Morgan Gray tossed a no-hitter in Monday’s first-round contest against Rye and Zapata yielded only one hit to Park Slope’s top-seeded Lions, it was up to Maldari to bring the Blue Devils home.
“Phil’s a senior. He’s done it for us a lot. Now, it’s his turn,” Roventini had told the Eagle on Tuesday.
Overshadowed a bit by the dominance of the UConn-bound Zapata in Poly’s previous two state title runs, Maldari took full advantage of the opportunity to have center stage all to himself against No. 2 Fieldston, the team the Blue Devils edged for the Ivy League crown during an at-time trying regular season.
He struck out six, walked one, hit three batters and battled his way through the first six frames in a scoreless deadlock until freshman shortstop Anthony Prato delivered the game-winning hit with an RBI single in the top of the seventh.
Maldari returned to the mound for the bottom of the final frame, and worked out of a jam after hitting two batsmen to secure Poly’s “Three-Peat” and fifth state championships in seven years.
“I felt he was 100 percent heart out there,” Roventini said. “Physically, he was not 100 percent. He never complained. He fought through it and he wasn’t going to let us take the ball from him. Sometimes Andrew takes all the headlines, and he deserves those, but you need Phil Maldari and the other guys that compliment them to win a championship.”
The seven-time defending Ivy League champs were more than a bit motivated by the No. 4 seed they received in this year’s tournament despite their previous NYSAISS dominance. But the game is played on the field, not according to the league’s rankings system.
“I think we had a challenging road, playing the best teams,” Roventini said. “We beat the other three best teams behind us in the tournament.”
With Fieldston’s Max Kassan matching Maldari frame for frame until the seventh, the pressure of keeping Poly even didn’t daunt the fourth-year hurler, who got the final out on a pop up to catcher Rob Calabrese with the tying run on third, setting off yet another celebration for the perennial champs.
“It was the way I wanted to go out. I wanted to be a winner. I don’t lose,” Maldari told MSGVarsity.com following the victory.
The three victories in the NYSAISS Tournament this week secured a special place for Poly in the pantheon of great high school teams from our fair borough, as well as the entire state.
Zapata, Gray and Maldari combined to allow one run and four hits over 21 brilliant innings against Rye, BCS and Fieldston.
For the second straight year, the Blue Devils raised some doubts regarding their dominance during at-times spotty regular season performances, only to come up big when it mattered most in the season-ending tournament.
Roventini, who graduated from Poly in 1992, has been at the helm of this ultra-successful program for nearly a decade now.
Though he insists on deflecting most of the attention for Poly’s ongoing dynasty to his players, it’s hard to dispute that his baseball acumen and motivational skills have been the one constant during the Blue Devils’ run to greatness.
With Zapata and Maldari leaving the rotation as three-time state champs, Gray will likely be Poly’s undisputed ace entering the 2014 campaign as Roventini’s squad takes its shot at a fourth consecutive NYSAISS title next spring. The left-hander made a game-saving catch during Tuesday’s semifinal win over BCS, and is already drawing attention from Division I recruiters throughout the nation.
“It starts with Morgan next year. It will be a defining year for him,” Roventini noted. “From there we have some options, two guys who can come back in Weber Lawrence and Matt Zapata, Andrew’s little brother.”
Not a bad set of building blocks to have in place for Poly’s next lofty goal. We’ll call it Title IV.
“[Winning the state title is] our goal every year, and it’s realistic every year,” the coach insisted. “It’s not lip service. Do I think we have a shot every year? Absolutely. We’ve lost great players in the past, but we still persevered and won five of the last seven state championships.”
Another local baseball squad looking to pick up some championship hardware this weekend is the LIU-Brooklyn squad, which is headed to Lakewood, N.J., to take part in the four-team, double-elimination Northeast Conference Tournament.
The Blackbirds will first take on top-seeded Bryant on Thursday before facing either No. 2 Sacred Heart or No. 3 Monmouth.
LIU finished the regular season with a 20-31-1 overall record, including 16-14-1 in NEC play.
The Blackbirds clinched the final spot in the playoffs last Saturday with a 4-3 win over Monmouth, earning their first tournament appearance since 2011. LIU is making its eighth appearance in the NEC Tournament. The Blackbirds’ lone NEC title came in 1990 before the conference used a tournament format to decide its champion.
The Blackbirds are led offensively by junior shortstop John Ziznewski, who is batting .354, with a team-high 68 hits and 41 runs scored. Junior Pete Leonello is not far behind, averaging .328 at the plate, while junior Kevin Needham (.313) has driven in 33 runs.
Junior Justin Topa leads LIU on the mound after compiling a 7-6 record this season. He has thrown 91 innings, striking out 75 batters.
LIU-Brooklyn shortstop Lauren Morizi was named to the Capital One Academic All-America Division I Softball First Team, as announced by the College Sports Information Directors of America on Thursday.
Morizi is the seventh player in the storied history of LIU softball to be named an Academic All-American, and the third to earn first-team honors.
A senior health science major with a 3.93 GPA, Morizi returned to action this season after missing each of the last two year’s due to injury. The left-handed hitter hit a robust .397, the eighth-highest single season batting average in school history. She also had 71 hits, the second-most in program history, and helped the Blackbirds to their 15th trip to the Northeast Conference Tournament in 16 seasons.
Read next week’s Eagle for a recap of LIU’s results in the NEC Tournament.
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