School closings and the postponement of the spring sports seasons have affected high school athletes all across Long Island. All of them hope for this season in limbo to happen because they want to play. Braden Clark hopes it happens because he needs to play.
Clark will be the starting catcher at Plainedge if and when the season commences. Like a number of Island athletes, the senior has been banking on this season to help shape his college future. Across the nation, most of the Division I-caliber baseball players – which Clark is – played their junior seasons, received scholarship offers based on their performance and made college commitments.
That didn’t happen for Clark, who also is a top linebacker for Plainedge’s 2019 Long Island championship football team. He did not play high school or summer travel team baseball last year after having biceps tendon surgery to repair a football injury.
“I had been thinking scholarship and now I might have to consider [junior college], but I was banking on this season to see what all my options really could be,” Clark said. “This season is important, very important.”
“When people talk to him about the subject of this season, he acts like it is no big deal,” said Mike Clark, Braden’s father. “But I know he’s sweating it out some. He wants to be on that field showing people how good he is.”
During his sophomore season, Clark batted .389 for the Red Devils. On his summer team, Beast MVP 2020, he impressed on the travel circuit. According to Beast coach Pete Kritikos, Longwood University from the Big South Conference was on the cusp of offering a scholarship that fall before Clark got injured.
“He would have been one of our Division I commits. With his abilities, he can play college baseball at a high level,” Kritikos said. “Behind the plate, he is tough, smart about what to do in any situation and has a cannon for an arm. At the plate, he is one of our best hitters. The issue now is timing.”
It may not be the only issue for high school athletes that could elicit a college scholarship offer this late in the recruiting game. The NCAA, after canceling all spring sports because of the coronavirus outbreak, is offering seniors who play Division I spring sports an extra year of eligibility. Depending on how it would implement that, it, too, could shape the landscape.
Clark was injured on a kickoff during the first half of the 2018 season. He said he fielded the ball, turned to lateral it to teammate Luke Lombardi and “when I turned back upfield I got blasted.” He didn’t feel limited enough by the injury to stop playing football and, as a junior, had an important role in the Red Devils winning the 2018 county title. But in the first days of December – after Plainedge lost in the LIC – he attended a catching clinic and felt discomfort using the added range of motion to throw.
What ensued was six fraught weeks. Clark saw an orthopedist that week, had an MRI and was delivered the devastating diagnosis of a rotator cuff tear. “When we heard that we both started crying,” said Mike Clark, who played college baseball in the late 1980s for LIU Post. “It was the one thing we couldn’t bear to hear.”
They sought a second opinion at Manhattan’s Hospital for Special Surgery and got the more favorable diagnosis of a partial rupture of the biceps tendon. He had surgery in late January. 2019. After months of physical therapy, Clark attempted a comeback with Beast MVP 2020 at a tournament in Georgia and pulled the plug soon after beginning to warm up.
“It hurt,” Clark said. “I knew there I’d jumped back in too quick. . . . I wasn’t going to play ball again until this year.”
In January, Clark visited upstate Ulster Community College and, after hitting for the coaches in the Senators' batting cage, could have made a commitment. But Clark and his father wanted to see what this spring season might bring.
Could Clark apply to schools with Division I programs, walk on and possibly earn a scholarship for the last three years? Maybe, but as Kritikos says “you want the security that comes with knowing the coach wants you there and you are one of his guys – that’s more the sure thing. Then you kill it for a year and end up on scholarship where you should have been all along."
“If there is a [Division I] scholarship, I’d say I’ll definitely go. If not, maybe it’s the JUCO route,” Clark said. “I am 100 percent and feel perfect when I throw now. I just hope there is a season, even if they have to make it a shorter one. I just want to play some ball.”