UNION COUNTY, NJ — The success of baseball at Rutgers University and Seton Hall University will be highlighted when head coaches Steve Owens of Rutgers and Rob Sheppard of Seton Hall lead the second Garden State Baseball Coaches Clinic.
Once again, the event scheduled for Friday, December 9 from 9:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. will be held at the Gamers Baseball and Softball Academy, 295 N. Michigan Ave., Kenilworth.
Also in attendance are Ryan Brownlee, associate executive director of the American Baseball Coaches Association, and Mike Stawski, head baseball coach at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton, Texas.
“I look forward to delving into excellence and habit building for coaches and players,” said Brownlee, a former head baseball coach at Western Illinois University.
Focus, pay attention, listen
What do coaches keep telling their players?
Well, it was coaches from across New Jersey who focused on some of the best college coaches and listened and listened and listened to what they were offering at last year’s Garden State Baseball Coaches Clinic, the first ever.
The first three speakers were Chad Caillet, hitting coach and recruiting coordinator at the University of South Carolina; Kevin Vance, pitching coach and recruiting coordinator at Boston College; and Steve Trimper, head coach at Stetson University. All three schools are Division I.
“I like to hear how they treat players,” said new Westfield head coach Jay Cook. “I want to hear what they say about my boys playing at the next level and what kind of relationship they would have with them.”
Gamers Baseball and Softball Academy is managed by co-owners Hasani Whitfield and Jonathan Lewis, and general manager Mike Kolesar. Whitfield is also the head coach at Caldwell University and Kolesar is his assistant base running/infield coach.
Whitfield, Governor Livingston High School head coach Chris Roof and Millburn High School head coach Brian Chapman teamed up to build the clinic.
“Chris was great. We’ve been friends for three to four years now and he came here and saw what we’re really trying to do,” said Whitfield, who has been Caldwell’s head coach for three years. “Together with Brian Chapman it was a match made in heaven.
“We wanted to do something local, with some really good coaches that have been around for a while,” Whitfield said. “We have the place and we used all our connections to get the buses here so we were able to piece that day together.”
Other speakers included Jim Martin, Associate Head Coach at Division I Stony Brook University, and Darren Fenster, a 1996 graduate of Middletown South High School who played and coached at Rutgers University.
“These trainers can pass their knowledge on to all the trainers that are here,” Whitfield said. “Your knowledge is just enormous. It’s passed down to coaches who train kids in high schools, middle schools, and minor leagues.”
Last year, Caillet spoke of an “offensive plan to keep the rhythm going”. This included questions to ask yourself before entering the batter’s box such as: What is the situation?
His “attacking rhythm defensive play” consisted of fast innings, fast-working pitchers, throwing shots, routine plays, double plays, and big plays.
Vance had coaches who filled notebooks with his extensive knowledge of pitching and discussed many topics in detail. He talked about catch play, bullpens and more.
Vance showed a video titled “Welcome to the Home of Birdball.” He spoke about basic mechanics jargons that “speak the same language”. That consisted of terms like “gather” or peak leg lift; “start” or where to latch; “descending” or moving down the hill; and “release”.
Vance also talked about catching plays from 45ft to 90ft and up. The goal should be for the ball to bounce effortlessly out of your hand. The exercises should be performed sequentially. The arm just goes with it.
“Here at the facility, we learn from these coaches,” Whitfield said. “We discussed many topics with them. We want to find ways to help all players that come through our doors.
“We hope this is just the beginning to having this clinic for many years to come.”
Training, development, schooling
For gamers, Whitfield says the focus is on training, development and education.
“We play our games and we have our teams, but our focus is on the training and development of the individual player,” Whitfield said.
Gamers first got behind the efforts of many in 2011, notably Whitfield, Lewis and Kolesar, all 2001 high school graduates who played at various New York City high schools.
Whitfield, who now lives in Rahway, acted at Archbishop Molloy High School. Lewis, who lives in Throggs Neck, NY, acted at Francis Lewis High School. Kolesar, who married a New Jersey native and now resides in Bridgewater, attended Clarkstown North High School in New City, NY Archbishop Molloy and Francis Lewis High Schools are both located in Queens, NY
Whitfield and Kolesar both played at Caldwell. Lewis played for Stony Brook and was drafted by the Florida Marlins in the 16th round of the 2005 MLB Draft. He played rookie ball and A-ball in the Marlins’ organization.
“Jon and I built this in 2011,” Whitfield said. “We wanted to open a facility geared towards training players – a place where you can come inside and train.
“I went to Caldwell and ended up out here. Jon wanted a place in New York. Out here in New Jersey we had some friends that were training and training, so I told Jon to come over to Jersey and do it out here.
“We came here alone in 2011 and opened this big place. We had many of our core friends helping us. It’s designed for baseball and softball.”
“At some point, people started believing in us and trusting us,” Lewis said. “Over time it grew and grew.
“We got the kids working out and having fun. It wasn’t political. We just wanted to finish.”
From adjusting to high school to taking the next big step from high school to college, there’s something for youngsters.
“We train kids from age 7 through college,” Whitfield said. “Our travel teams start at age 9 and go through seniors in high school. We align our program to develop them to the next level.
“We’re trying to give them a chance to meet coaches like that, so they have a chance to play in college and do it for as long as possible.”
Whitfield said Gamers is open year-round, with the only down month being the holiday season in August.
“The first 10 years were great, just great,” Whitfield said. “What really helped is that Jon and I have known each other since we were 15. A lot of the guys here are friends from when we were younger. Kids we coached at Union County College are now here with us as coaches and friends.
“I think our product takes care of the kids and focuses on setup and training – not winning tournaments. Our customers, our parents really got into it.
“We have 275 players who play for us year-round, 200 baseball players and 75 softball girls. That’s how we got to where we are today.”
Photo by JR Parachini