Island Trees star Bryan Verbitsky says he's far more concerned...

Island Trees star Bryan Verbitsky says he's far more concerned with winning a Class A championship than he is with individual honors. (Mar. 23, 2010) Credit: John Dunn

It was, if you'll excuse the cliche, a David and Goliath matchup, as re-imagined by Ikea.

Bryan, the tiny righthander, against the Verbitsky's mammoth (for a toddler, at least) recliner. Tennis ball in hand - at 2 years old, he wasn't picky - Verbitsky went into his windup, then the throw.

The recliner invariably won the living room battle. The bright yellow ball skittered harmlessly off the cushions, tempting Verbitsky to try again. It would take about another 15 years for that major league-caliber slider to develop.

"I would just want to throw things as hard as I could," Verbitsky says now, 16 years older and about three feet taller. He still does it, too - the throwing hard thing. Only instead, the Island Trees pitcher and outfielder baffles hitters, who often only can watch as his fastball, clocked at 91 mph, zips through the strike zone. He's last year's Diamond Award winner - given to the top position player in Nassau - and is headed to Hofstra on a full scholarship.

Yes, a lot has changed, but just like all those years ago, Verbitsky still is trying to topple giants - ones that aren't nearly as cushy or as immobile. These nemeses take the form of battering Rams.

Island Trees dropped the Class A championship to the Clarke Rams last season in a 5-4 loss in Game 3. And don't think it doesn't still bother Verbitsky, the fact that Island Trees hasn't been able to wrest the conference championship from Clarke since the Bulldogs won it his freshman year.

Go ahead, ask him if he'd give up his big award for two more runs all those months ago. Hands folded sedately on a desk in coach Joe D'Auria's social studies classroom, the well-spoken senior perks up and literally doesn't bat an eyelash.

"Any day of the week." He says it like he means it, too.

It's a moot point, though, because it was Verbitsky's incredible season that helped inch the Bulldogs so close to glory. A versatile player, he batted .467 with eight home runs, 37 RBIs and 35 runs. He also went 8-1 with a 1.44 ERA and 83 strikeouts in 63 innings.

Coaching assistant Dan Fazio, who was a senior when Verbitsky was a freshman, saw the talent early. "I remember his first at-bat, he smoked the ball in the hole," Fazio said. "He's never been overmatched. I've never seen someone hit the ball with so much authority the other way."

Then there's the pitching. Island Trees returns with three top-line starters: Verbitsky, Brandon Garcia and Dan Bartlett. Verbitsky says they're all aces, and he does it without a sniff of false modesty. His dad, Troy, says that his son always has been levelheaded. D'Auria takes it a step further.

"He makes my life easy as a coach," D'Auria said. "[He's] humble - other kids with that talent can get overly cocky, uncoachable."

It doesn't go unnoticed, despite the attention-grabbing big hits and beefy pitching repertoire that Hofstra coach Patrick Anderson calls "off the charts." Anderson tells a story about how he and his assistant stopped by unannounced one day to watch Verbitsky. They came from behind the supermarket that abuts the grass and surprised him as he was playing centerfield. Verbitsky waved nonchalantly, like an old friend, and the coach was taken aback by his innocence and good humor. Anderson laughs: "I guess you had to be there."

Perhaps, but there's one place Verbitsky's levity doesn't extend, and that's the Clarke game. His face clouds over when the topic comes up in conversation.

"That's been eating me for awhile," he said. "I don't really have personal goals. That's my biggest goal, to win it."

Until then, Verbitsky and Island Trees find themselves in an awkward position. Ability-based grouping means they're already in the playoffs, so they're looking up at Clarke knowing that a second chance is only a stone's throw away.

Or a tennis ball, as the case may be.

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