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Top players shun South for baseball on LI

Joe Fusco of Clarke is greeted by teammates

Joe Fusco of Clarke is greeted by teammates after scoring. (May 12, 2012) Credit: John Roca

Joey Fusco, a junior at Clarke High School and one of Nassau County's best hitters, has made an unusual choice for a varsity star: He'll be playing baseball at home on Long Island when he graduates.

His decision to go to Hofstra University underscores the growing prominence of local college baseball programs -- capped last Saturday by Stony Brook University's defeat of Louisiana State to become the first metropolitan-area team to advance to the College World Series in 26 years.

"Baseball on Long Island is just as good as baseball anywhere else," said Fusco, 17, a finalist for the Diamond Awards, which honors an outstanding pitcher and position player from Nassau County.

Top local prospects are usually lured away to dominant programs in the South, such as LSU's, with the promise of better facilities, bigger crowds and warmer climates that allow teams to train outdoors all year long.

But the success of Stony Brook -- and other local college programs -- signals that top prospects don't have to leave the area for a quality program. Indeed, on Stony Brook's roster, 11 players are from Long Island.

While Stony Brook is on a championship run this year, Hofstra University set a record for wins and made the playoffs for the first time since 2005 and St. John's University played in its first ever super regional. And in 2009, Dowling College competed in the Division 2 World Series.

Winning seasons aren't the only changes that are making local programs more attractive. The facilities are improving. In 2006, Dowling installed a softball stadium and Hofstra added grandstand seating.

For local talent, says Tom Abruscato, who coaches the Clarke team, Stony Brook's championship run "gives them hope that they're not going to just play a season, but that they're going to win a title."

John Ceprini, an area scout for the Chicago Cubs, says that competition to recruit local players is "very high."

"Anytime a program wins, and wins championships, they get much-deserved publicity for winning," says Ceprini. "I think the recruiting becomes a little bit easier."

Sal Agostinelli, of Kings Park, a scout for the Philadelphia Phillies, says players today benefit from year-round training, citing indoor batting cages.

On a rainy Tuesday night this week, Larry Dittmar was expecting about two dozen 9- and 12-year-olds at the indoor training facility he manages with his son-in-law, former major league baseball player Keith Osik. The boys' scheduled league games had been canceled, so they swung at pitches in batting cages and fielded balls on indoor turf.

"I never had anything like this," said Dittmar, 62. "You used to drop your glove in September and not pick it up until March."

Fusco, who has agreed to play at Hofstra, says that facilities like these proved crucial to his training. "We work out all year round, just like the schools in the South," he said.

There was a moment, during Stony Brook's victory last Saturday, when Osik's son Tyler, 15, a third baseman and designated hitter for Shoreham Wading River High School, turned to his father and announced that he would like to play for Stony Brook when he graduates.

His father, an alumnus of LSU, could not have been happier. "You talk to a lot of kids and they naturally want to go away," Osik said, before adding, "But this is where I'm from."

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