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Monday, July 22, 2019

It was their year.

Yechiel Keiser pitched a complete game, battery-mate Sammy Greenberg had two hits and two RBI and the TABC Storm defeated the Ramaz Rams 5-1, last Monday night, June 17, to take home the school’s first baseball league championship.

What began as an overcast, rainy Monday at Overpeck Park later became a perfect setting for a championship game. By the time the players took their places along the first, and third, base lines to be introduced to the crowd, the clouds had parted, bathing the field and its red, white and blue bunting in warm sunshine. It was a beautiful day for a ballgame, mere hours after the league nearly postponed the game based on the grim weather forecast.

This was the second meeting of these teams this year. During the regular season, TABC stormed to a 10-0 victory over the Rams at McKay Park in Englewood, in a game that almost wasn’t played when the lights failed to turn on. The Rams arrived at Overpeck on Monday night determined to avenge that loss, and their determination showed. Ramaz SP Ryan Leibowitz was in control for the first three innings, stifling TABC and allowing only two hits while walking one and striking out five Storm batters. P Michael Olenik relieved Leibowitz in the fourth and remained in control of the game over the next two innings. Not to be outdone, TABC’s Keiser continued his absolute dominance over MYHSAL hitters, taking a perfect game into the sixth inning. Keiser finished with six strikeouts and one walk over seven innings, allowing only a single unearned run in the last inning.

Ramaz finally applied some pressure in the top of the sixth. Rams CF Alex Berman reached as the first Ramaz baserunner on an errant throw by Storm SS Ben Antosofsky. Matthew Guerwitch then followed with a perfectly placed bunt single down the third base line, leaving 3B Aharon Weiden, who had a strong game on defense, with no play other than to watch and hope the ball rolled foul. It didn’t. Berman and Guerwitch then executed a double-steal, putting runners on second and third. Keiser struck out Michael Perl for the first out, bringing up Rams leadoff batter Sammy Henkin. On the second pitch of the at-bat, Henkin squared and Berman took off from third base toward home. The suicide squeeze was on.

But Henkin bunted the ball in the air. Anticipating the bunt, Greenberg leapt out from behind the plate and dove forward, making a spectacular catch just before the ball hit the grass. Greenberg then sat up and fired the ball to third base, doubling off Berman and ending the Ramaz threat. Greenberg’s teammates and the healthy TABC crowd in attendance roared, and Greenberg roared back: “Let’s go! We’re winning this game NOW!”

He was right. With one out in the bottom of the sixth, Storm RF Ben Englander drew a walk. Olenik then jammed Keiser on an inside pitch, but Keiser managed to loft the ball just over Olenik’s head and onto the grass in front of second base, where the Rams were unable to make a play. Slugging Storm EH Shlomo Pasternak then drew another walk, bringing Greenberg up to the plate with the bases loaded, and drawing the Rams’ infield in, looking for a play at the plate.

There would be no play. On the third pitch he saw, Greenberg smacked a ground ball past the outstretched glove of the diving Rams 2B and into right-centerfield, driving home the first two runs of the game as the stands and the bench, led by manager Matthew Ganchrow, erupted. Storm LF Josh Goldman then squeezed home pinch runner Tzvi Naor and then 1B Akiva Hain legged out an infield single to drive home Avraham Gellman, running for Greenberg. Antosofsky then capped off the inning with a towering drive down the left field line that fell a few feet short of the fence for an RBI double, stretching the Storm’s lead to 5-0.

Ramaz mounted a final threat in the top of the seventh, with back-to-back one-out singles from Liebowitz and Jack Osstensasser. But after Liebowitz scored on a two-out single, Keiser struck out Alex Berman on a wicked curveball in the dirt. Greenberg applied the tag and the new champions and their fans charged onto the field to celebrate in a dog pile behind the mound.

The championship win capped a tremendous season for TABC. During the post-game awards, head coach Norman Blumenthal reminded his players that they had completed the mission on which they had set out way back in the fall.

“From day one, our first practice, we said this was our year,” Blumenthal reminded his players before the championship trophies were handed out. “You should be proud of yourselves. This was a tough game.”

***

“Our year” was indeed the rallying cry for the 2019 Storm, and right out of the gate, they knew they had something special. The team overcame MTA ace Daniel Landa on opening night, winning 5-0, and then marched on to consecutive wins against JEC, Ramaz and Flatbush, with TABC pitchers Keiser, Weiden, Hain and Yoni Stewart not allowing a single run through their first four games. The team faced its first major challenge when it squared off against Heschel School ace Benji Weinstein at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Naimoli Field in May. The Storm rose to that challenge as well, with Keiser taking command of the game and tossing seven shutout innings, while hitters Hain, Greenberg, Goldman and Pasternak mustered enough offense to build four runs—three more than they would ultimately need that day.

Not all was smooth sailing, of course. TABC squared off against longtime rival The Frisch School in mid-May, and as always, the tension was thick and the controversy heated. TABC jumped out to a 4-0 lead off of SP Jacob Hershenov that night, but Hershenov bore down and kept his team in the game, and a resilient Cougar team clawed its way back. Hain, on in relief of Stewart that night, tossed almost a complete game on his own, largely handcuffing Frisch and breaking numerous bats over six and two-thirds innings before Cougar OF Eitan Dukas finally grounded a seeing-eye single through the second base hole to push across the winning run. It was a heartbreaking first loss for TABC, but it would end up being a mere speed bump on their highway to the championship, and the Storm would eventually get two more shots at Frisch before the season ended.

At 5 and 1, TABC headed to Ohio for the 10th annual Columbus Baseball Invitational. Between trips to Graeter’s Ice Cream, cookouts in the hotel courtyard and a welcome breakfast that never was, the Storm gutted out five consecutive wins to take home their first CBI championship. The three-day baseball marathon saw TABC outslug LA’s Valley Torah, as well as Storm OF Sammy Levitt’s former school, Berman Hebrew Academy from Maryland and Boca Raton’s Katz Yeshiva High School. The Storm then bested rising pitching star Jacob Steinmetz of HAFTR, 5-1, leading to a CBI title showdown with none other than cross-county rival Frisch.

Aharon Weiden led off that title game with a towering home run on the first pitch he saw, setting the tone for what would be a 7-5 TABC victory. Weiden then tossed four-plus strong innings for the Storm, leaving the mound only due to a blister that developed on his pitching hand. Though Frisch fought back and took the lead briefly in the game, key offensive performances by Englander, Keiser, Pasternak and Goldman led the Storm to hoist their first Bob Lane Memorial Trophy, cementing their belief that it truly was their year at last.

Back home from Columbus, the Storm notched a win against North Shore Hebrew Academy but then suffered a letdown game against longtime antagonist Kushner, falling by a 5-4 margin. Still, the loss placed TABC at 6-2 on the regular season, good enough for first place in the MYHSAL’s Western Division, setting up a first round matchup with Flatbush. The Storm took that first round game handily, winning 10-0 behind more lights-out pitching by Keiser and a four-run first inning featuring consecutive hits by Pasternak, Greenberg and Goldman, as well as a single by Antosofsky and a pair of walks to Weiden and Keiser. The win set up yet another critical game against—who else?—The Frisch School.

Keiser toed the rubber in yet another big game for his team, and set down the Cougars 1-2-3 in the top of the first. The Storm then took command of the game in the bottom of that frame and never looked back, plating three runs thanks to hits from Englander, Keiser, Pasternak and Goldman. TABC would stretch its lead to 7-0 before finally locking up its championship appearance by a final score of 7-2.

***

For the members of the 2019 Storm, two titles in a single year could not possibly be topped. For the 13 departing seniors, though, the sweetness came tinged with a hint of sorrow. As they hugged and took selfies on the field at the end of the big game, the realization began to sink in: They had played their final game together as TABC teammates.

“It has officially hit me,” said Weiden later. “But at least I’m going out a champion.” Others echoed his sentiment.

It was also Blumenthal’s final game as head coach. After twelve seasons as TABC’s hockey coach and five at the helm of the baseball team, Stormin’ Norman made the decision last summer that this sixth season would be his last before retiring. Doused in Gatorade, Blumenthal explained after the game that he was really ready to hang it up last year, but decided to stay on one more season to finish with a close-knit group of boys he had been coaching since they were in grade school. He would see his many years of instruction pay huge dividends in the championship game: That group included winning pitcher Keiser, MVP Greenberg and CF Yonadav Rimberg, who had almost a third of the putouts in the game.

“A championship team relies on contributions from every member of the roster,” said assistant coach David Greenberg. “That’s what we got this season from these guys. Whether it was an RBI single from [Natan] Mendelson or J-Blue [Jacob Blumenthal] as our offense found its legs in the early games of the season, or a two-hit game by Ari Katz against Valley to spur our exhausted squad in the Columbus opener or even just the heart and energy that a guy like Avi Proctor brought to our dugout every game—every guy did something to help us win.”

Assistant coach Steven Malech summed it all up after the game had ended.

“This is just a great group of boys,” he said, referring to both the seniors and the roster at large. “I’ll miss them.”