The Joy of Baseball Returns As Mariners Take Wood Bat Title

The Southampton and Pierson High School baseball teams faced off against each other in Moriches on Monday. DANA SHAW

Four months ago, when COVID-19 canceled the high school baseball season, James Malone thought his career as a Mariner was over. Flash forward to Monday afternoon in Moriches, and Malone was the winning pitcher in a 2-0 victory over Pierson that capped a perfect 5-0 “season” for Southampton.

As players laughed, coaches smiled and fans cheered with every crack of the bat, the joys of baseball, at least for this moment in time, had returned.

“I didn’t expect any of this, so any baseball was good,” Malone, now a Southampton graduate bound for Loyola in Maryland this fall, said as he and his Southampton teammates emptied out of the Moriches Sports Complex on Monday. “It was a lot of fun.”

The Town of Brookhaven sponsors a league every summer for players aged 8 to 18, but this was clearly not just another year. Following the cancellation of spring sports, officials with the town organized the 2020 Varsity Wood Bat Tournament to provide a baseball experience for the kids whose season was canceled before it even began. The result was undeniably a success.

“It was nice, especially for the seniors to be able to play and get a little competition this year,” said Zach Epley, who, following the retirement of longtime Southampton coach Scott Johnson, had begun his rookie season as the Mariners’ head coach when schools closed in mid-March. “It was kind of bittersweet, because we realized we had a good group and we did beat everyone in this tournament to go undefeated. It’s kind of a ‘What if?’”

A total of 36 teams competed in the tournament, which enforced strict safety and social distancing guidelines as Suffolk County continues to recover from the COVID-19 health crisis.

Along with Southampton and Pierson, other teams from the East End included East Hampton and Hampton Bays. Just like the regular high school baseball season, teams were grouped together according to the size of their school. Southampton won the small school championship, while Commack (Class AA) and Miller Place (Class A) won the titles in their respective divisions. All three championship games were played simultaneously on adjacent fields on Monday in Moriches, where the excitement was palpable.

The 2020 Pierson baseball team. GAVIN MENU

Many of the teams that competed in the five-day tournament had high hopes for the 2020 season, after all, including Pierson and Southampton. The Whalers were coming off an appearance in the New York State Class C semifinals, and had seven seniors in their lineup, including ace pitcher Matt Hall, who went the distance on Monday, giving up two runs in the bottom of the fourth inning, and otherwise tossed another gem to cap a stellar career at Pierson.

“Our season was taken away from us, it was unexpected, so to get that text that we might be able to play in the summer, it was really exiting,” said the Xavier University-bound Hall as he bid a final farewell to competitive baseball at Pierson. “It’s been the same group of guys all the way through, and we had a really good team built with a lot of seniors. I thought this was going to be the year.”

Standout players Nick Egbert and Harry Cowen played their final games with Pierson on Monday, and Southampton also had a solid group of seniors, led by Malone and Sam Schneider, who started Monday’s game and pitched two scoreless innings. He also scored the first run of the game in the bottom of the fourth inning, followed by catcher Drew Smith, who had a monster tournament highlighted by two homeruns in a late-inning win over Babylon.

The Mariners will welcome back a solid core of players led by Steven Kryzewski, Ethan Walker and Paul Guillo next season.

Pierson coach Jonathan Schwartz said most of his players have summer jobs, so it was challenging to bring them all together for the tournament. Seniors Henry Brooks and Pierce Summers did not compete, and most of the games were played at night to accommodate the players’ work schedules. The Whalers pulled out dramatic wins over Mattituck and Babylon, with Tucker Schiavoni, a rising senior, providing some fireworks with a three-run double in the sixth inning to beat Babylon.

“It was a fun time,” Schwartz said. “We had some moments these kids will never forget.”