Lee and Carrie Nielsen anxiously awaited the arrival of a United Airlines flight from Seoul, South Korea on June 20, 2001. They stood at the arrivals gate for international flights nervously waiting for a plane carrying a most precious cargo - a six month old boy - the couple had adopted.
“It’s so rare to adopt a boy from Asia,” Lee Nielsen said. “We were so excited about his arrival. We had already adopted our daughter Molly from China and here was our beautiful little boy.”
The Nielsens have been blessed with three adopted children from Asia. Max, Molly, 21, an honors-student graduate of Stony Brook University, and Megan, 14, from South Korea.
Max Nielsen exceeded any expectations anyone may have had. Little did Lee and Carrie know, they had imported their own future baseball star.
“He was one of three children coming over to the United States for adoption and he was so much bigger than the other two babies and had a full head of hair,” Nielsen said. “From the moment we laid eyes on him, we knew he was going to be something special.”
From the first time Max grabbed a vacuum hose and used it as a baseball bat, Nielsen had shown an interest in the game. And when he threw his first pitch, his dad couldn’t have been more happy - he was left-handed.
“He was a lefty and such an athletic kid,” Lee said. “And he embraced the game, just loved it and never let it go.”
Nielsen became the first eighth-grader to play for the varsity baseball team at Ward Melville. He went on to a brilliant five-year career where he shattered records and honed himself into one of the best high school players of his time.
For his accomplishments, Nielsen was presented the 52nd Annual Carl Yastrzemski Award, presented to Suffolk’s best player, at the Suffolk County Coaches Association dinner at Villa Lombardi’s in Holbrook.
Nielsen pitched 49 ⅔ innings and struck out a school record 103 on his way to a 5-1 record with a 1.44 ERA. He allowed 19 hits, 21 walks and fired three shutouts. He also had three-game winning hits for the Patriots.
“Max grew up in the Ward Melville baseball program,” Ward Melville coach Lou Petrucci said. “He started as a 13-year-old eighth-grader, much to the chagrin of his parents, and he turned into our fiery leader. He’ll be remembered as one of our all-time greats.”
Nielsen, who will play on a baseball scholarship at UConn, struck out a school-record 293 batters in his career and finished with 19 wins, one short of Anthony Kay’s school record of 20. Ward Melville won four Suffolk League I titles during his tenure.
Kay, a pitcher with the Mets Triple AAA affiliate in Syracuse, has been a mentor to Max.
"Max worked hard for everything this year and I know he will crush it at UConn," Kay said. "Way to show what Ward Melville is all about."
“There are three people responsible for my success,” Max Nielsen said. “My dad was always supportive whether I was up or down. He never let me get too down and he helped me keep my feet on the ground when I was successful. My mom gave up countless hours to drive me everywhere. And for five years Coach Lou has treated me like his own son.”
Nielsen’s career was filled with big moments but none bigger than his school-record 18-strikeout shutout performance over West Islip, the defending Class AA champion, in this year’s semifinals.
“He’s always been compared to Ward Melville’s Steven Matz and Kay, two professional pitchers, and that carries a lot of pressure,” Petrucci said. “Max never let it bother him. He let it motivate and drive him. And he was just as highly competitive as both of them.”
Nielsen, 6-1, 200 pounds, credits his Ward Melville senior teammates of 2015 for helping mold him as a player. He cited Joe Barbieri, Troy Davern, Joe Flynn, Dan DeCastro and Jeff Towle as the keys to his development.
“That senior class was loaded with leaders and they took me under their wing,” he said. “Joe Flynn was a wonderful role model and showed me how to play the game the right way.”
Nielsen’s first pitching start came in his freshman season. It was a sign of things to come. He had a perfect game with one out in the seventh, retiring the first 19 batters, before he allowed a base hit. He won 3-1 and set the stage for a great career.
Nielsen, an all-around athlete, who can dunk a basketball, was fast enough to be a leadoff hitter in his sophomore year and strong enough to be a power hitter in his senior season. He went 8-for-24 with two home runs and eight RBI in the Patriots playoff run this spring.
“We’ve talked about playing with intensity and we’ve had to curb his enthusiasm at times,” Petrucci said. “But we didn’t want to tone him down too much because it would take away from his skillset. He’s basically loud and proud and always ready for a challenge and we loved that about Max.”
Lee Nielsen picked up a special delivery in 2001. He just didn’t know how special.