UNION COUNTY, NJ — The success of Rutgers University and Seton Hall University baseball will be highlighted when head coaches Steve Owens of Rutgers and Rob Sheppard of Seton Hall headline the second ever Garden State Baseball Coaches Clinic.
Once again, the event, scheduled for Friday, Dec. 9, from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., will take place at Gamers Baseball and Softball Academy, 295 N. Michigan Ave., Kenilworth.
Also set to attend is Ryan Brownlee, the assistant executive director of the American Baseball Coaches Association, and Mike Stawski, the head baseball coach at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton, Texas.
“I’m looking forward to diving in on peak performance and habit building for coaches and players,” said Brownlee, who was formerly the head baseball coach at Western Illinois University.
Focus, pay attention, listen
What are coaches constantly telling their players to do?
Well, it was coaches from throughout New Jersey who were focusing, paying attention and listening to some of the top college coaches and the instruction they offered 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 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 listen to how they deal with players,” said new Westfield head coach Jay Cook. “I want to hear what they say about my guys playing at the next level and the kind of relationships they would have with them.”
Gamers Baseball and Softball Academy is run 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 coach for base-running/infield.
Whitfield, Governor Livingston High School head coach Chris Roof and Millburn High School head coach Brian Chapman joined forces to put the clinic together.
“Chris has been tremendous. We’ve been friends for three to four years now, and he came in here and bought into what we’re really trying to do,” said Whitfield, who has been the head coach at Caldwell for three years. “Along with Brian Chapman, it was a match made in heaven.
“We wanted to do something local, with some really good coaches who have been around awhile,” Whitfield said. “We have the place, and we used all of our connections to get the coaches to come here, so we were able to put this day together.”
Other speakers included Jim Martin, associate head coach at Division I Stony Brook University, and 1996 Middletown South High School graduate Darren Fenster, who played and coached at Rutgers University.
“These coaches are able to pass their knowledge down to all the coaches that are here,” Whitfield said. “Their knowledge is just tremendous. It gets passed on down to coaches who train kids at high schools, middle schools and little leagues.”
Caillet talked last year about an “offensive plan to sustain rhythm.” That included questions to ask yourself prior to stepping into the batter’s box, such as, What is the situation?
His “offensive rhythm defensive play” consisted of quick innings, pitchers working fast, throwing strikes, making routine plays, double plays and big plays.
Vance had coaches filling notebooks with his vast 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 talked about basic mechanics lingo, which was “speaking the same language.” That consisted of terms such as the “gather,” or peak leg lift; “launch,” or where to engage down; “descent,” or moving down on the mound; and “release.”
Vance also talked about catch play from 45 to 90 feet and more. The goal should be that the ball jumps out of your hand effortlessly. Drills should be done in sequence. The arm is just going along for the ride.
“Here at the facility, we learn from these coaches,” Whitfield said. “We discussed many topics with them. We want to figure out ways to help all the players that come through our doors.
“We hope this is just the beginning of having this clinic for many years to come.”
Training, development, instruction
At Gamers, the focus is training, development and instruction, according to Whitfield.
“We play our games and we have our teams, but our focus is on the training and the development of the individual player,” Whitfield said.
Gamers first came to be in 2011, behind the efforts of many, in particular Whitfield, Lewis and Kolesar, all 2001 high school graduates who played at different New York high schools.
Whitfield, now a Rahway resident, played at Archbishop Molloy High School. Lewis, who lives in Throggs Neck, N.Y., played at Francis Lewis High School. Kolesar, who married a New Jersey native and now lives in Bridgewater, attended Clarkstown North High School in New City, N.Y. Archbishop Molloy and Francis Lewis high schools are both located in Queens, N.Y.
Whitfield and Kolesar both played at Caldwell. Lewis played at 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 up in 2011,” Whitfield said. “We wanted to open up a facility that was geared around training players — a place to come indoors and train.
“I went to Caldwell and ended up being out here. Jon wanted a place in New York. Out here in New Jersey, we had some friends who were coaching and training, so I said to Jon to come out to Jersey and let’s do it out here.
“We came here in 2011 by ourselves and opened up this big place. We had a lot of our core friends help us. It’s set up for baseball and softball.”
“Eventually, people started believing in us, trusting us,” Lewis said. “As time went on, it just kept growing and growing.
“We got the kids to train and have fun. It wasn’t political. We just wanted to get it done.”
There’s something for youngsters, from the time they get acclimated to grammar school to the time they are making that next big step from high school to college.
“We train kids from 7 years old up through college,” Whitfield said. “Our travel teams, we start at 9 years old and go up to seniors in high school. We gear our program toward developing them for the next level.
“We try to give them opportunities to meet coaches like this in order for them to have a chance at playing in college and for as long as they possibly can.”
Whitfield said Gamers is open all year, with the only down month being vacation time in August.
“The first 10 years have been awesome, just great,” Whitfield said. “What’s really helped is that Jon and I have known each other since we’re 15. A lot of guys here are friends from playing travel ball when we were younger. Kids we coached at Union County College are here now with us as coaches and friends.
“I think our product cares about the kids and keeping the focus on the facility and training — not on winning tournaments. Our customers, our parents really bought into that.
“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