In recent weeks here, the East Hampton Middle School baseball team enjoyed an undefeated season, at 10-0, a season in which the team’s coach, Nick Taylor, said his players never trailed, the youth lacrosse program headed by Ricky Smith continued to have success, and, in Little League play, two no-hitters, one by Ryan Balnis in baseball and one by Dylan Centalonza in softball, were pitched — not to mention a one-hitter thrown by Ryan’s first cousin, Declan Balnis.
Taylor, who made no cuts, kept 21 on the middle school team’s roster, and played all of them in every game. During tryouts the special education inclusion teacher suggested that his charges, who agreed that the best players should start, might consider that Mariano Rivera “never touched a baseball until he was 15, well older than you guys.”
He asked, then, whom should be cut. “The unanimous response was that no one should be cut,” Taylor said in an email, “that everyone should get a chance to develop their skills.”
“I didn’t teach them to be successful,” said Taylor, who is in his fourth year of coaching. “I taught them how to respond when they failed 70 percent of the time — for baseball, where a 30-percent success rate gets you into the Hall of Fame, is a game of failures. . . . The best part of baseball is that we get to reinvent ourselves with every single pitch.”
“Each athlete was able to contribute to the larger team at any given point,” he continued. “Each of these young men faced and overcame his individual challenges and perceived limitations, and not only on the ball field: grades improved in school, behavior matured, and accountability increased.”
Those who had a certain amount of experience helped those with less experience, “and all of them sought to expand their skills during their own time — practicing at home or at Hub 44 on weekends and days off. Their growth was evident without any need for prompting, which inspired me. . . . What impressed me the most is the way the boys carried themselves. They didn’t boast or brag — they treated everyone, opposing players, coaches, parents, and umpires, with respect, the most important aspect of the game.”
Jackson Carney, Tiger Brew, Baeke Peterson, and Owen Grisch, who “exemplified the team’s character,” were chosen as the team’s leaders by their peers. “They were chosen through a democratic process — I made no suggestions,” the coach said.
Perhaps most important, said Taylor, was that in helping one another overcome obstacles and build skills, his young players had made lifelong friends.
As for youth lacrosse, whose season, designed not to interfere with Little League, recently ended, Smith said during a recent conversation at The Star that the program, begun two years ago, was “in a really good place, thanks not just to the kids, but also to their parents. Credit goes to them when it comes to the quality of their kids. . . . We’re building a community through lacrosse.”
Though introducing the game to boys and girls at a young age was a plus, “we believe kids should play multiple sports . . . basketball, baseball, football, soccer. . . . That was the philosophy of Dom Starsia, who coached at the University of Virginia, where I went. He didn’t want one-trick ponies — he believed lacrosse I.Q. was strengthened by playing other sports.”
Smith, with the help of Rich Perello, Jeff Ziglar, J.T. Wirth, Jason Keyes, Neil Falkenhan, Kristin MacPherson, and Jess Zay, oversees four youth squads — a fifth-and-sixth-grade team that played in the Police Athletic League’s sixth-grade division, a third-and-fourth-grade team that played in the Police Athletic League’s fourth-grade division, a first-and-second-grade team that played in the P.A.L.’s second-grade division, and a second-through-fifth-grade girls team that played in Suffolk’s girls lacrosse league.
The third-and-fourth-grade boys team, which went winless in P.A.L. play — only one fourth grader was on the team — recently won, said Smith, the War on the Shore tournament in Seaford, defeating the host team 14-0 and defeating Farmingdale 6-1 along the way.
Hunter Hotis, who volunteered to tend goal when the season began, provided a good example, Smith said, of the third-and-fourth-grade team’s grit: “A brick wall by the end of the season,” Hotis “won the tournament’s Goalie Wars, outshooting the tournament’s other goaltenders.”