by Tom Pedulla
They have grown from hitters who struggled to make contact or poke the ball past the infield into sluggers able to find gaps or unload fence-clearing drives.
They have gone from unsure fielders who booted grounders and botched fly balls into slick defensive players who gobble up infield smashes and track outfield blasts with seeming ease.
They have grown from boys to young men.
They are catcher Matt Bischof, third baseman Alec Bjorkland, right-hander Nathan Gargano, middle infielder Sean McCarthy and right-hander Gavin Ryan. Together, they formed a nucleus of talent that has meant everything to Sleepy Hollow’s travel baseball program through the years.
They defeated Somers for the 13-and-under title and earned another championship last year, when they downed Putnam Valley at the 16-and-under level in the Westchester-Putnam Baseball Association. Even in their non-championship years, they contended and posted winning records.
“It’s been amazing. I couldn’t ask for a better team,” said Gargano. “It’s not even the winning. It’s the camaraderie and the chemistry. I think it’s something special that not a lot of teams have.”
Ryan described the experience the same way. “It’s actually pretty amazing to take a step back and look at how far we have come,” he said.
McCarthy, who will be a senior at Sleepy Hollow High School, gazed at the school’s baseball field before a recent batting practice.
“This is where we all started,” he said. “We are on the same team, still playing, still competing. It’s a great feeling, knowing that when school is over, we are spending our days on the diamond.”
They often work part-time jobs in the morning to allow them to meet the demands of their playing schedule later in the day. It is not uncommon to see them grooming the Sleepy Hollow infield beneath the mid-day sun.
Robert Bischof, the coach who doubles as Matt’s father, viewed it as a significant advantage to be able to return the same group year after year.
“You know how to deal with each one of them,” the coach said, “and they’re all a little different.”
Their bonds extend beyond baseball. If they are not playing video games, they are texting or enjoying other activities.
“We hang out probably half the week, even when we are not playing baseball,” Gargano said. He and Bischof took time last summer to be part of a mission to Haiti undertaken by the Reformed Church of the Tarrytowns.
Some major league teams can only wish for such camaraderie.
“It brings a sense of trust,” said Bischof, who enters his final year at Sleepy Hollow. “You’ve been playing with them so long, you know what they can do.”
They learned over time how to push each other to maximize their talents. “You always have to pick each other up,” McCarthy said. “Because in the end, you win as a team and lose as a team.”
Playful barbs and practical jokes help to keep the mood light. “We always have a few laughs here or there,” McCarthy said. “But when it comes time to play, we come to play.”
The mood was not always so light this summer as they began to take on new responsibilities and leave their carefree days behind. Ryan, after pursuing an accelerated academic schedule, pitches for Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y. He will be a sophomore. Bjorkland and Gargano are bound for college, with Bjorkland headed to James Madison and Gargano to Rensselaer. Both intend to try out for their respective teams.
“We’ll see how that goes,” said Bjorkland, understanding what a stiff challenge it will be to walk on.
As the players near the end of one chapter in their young lives, they know it is one they will always treasure, one that can never be duplicated.