From Brooklyn's Blackbirds to the Big Red Machine
By John Torenli
LIU-Brooklyn junior right-hander Justin Topa, who missed all of last season due to injury, apparently did enough in his first two seasons as a Blackbird to draw the attention of Major League scouts.
The 21-year-old Binghamton, N.Y., native became the 36th player in program history to be drafted Wednesday as the Cincinnati Reds selected him in the 33rd round (1,012th overall) on the third day of MLB's First-Year Player Draft.
“It’s pretty shocking to say the least,” Topa said in a school-issued statement. “All baseball players work to get to that level and get drafted. It’s extremely exciting and I’m looking forward to see what happens in the next couple of days.”
In two full seasons on the Downtown Brooklyn campus, Toba compiled a 12-13 record with one save in 30 appearances, including 23 starts. He posted a 4.57 ERA and struck out 119 batters while walking only 36 over 138 career innings as a Blackbird. Topa was a major catalyst in helping LIU to a program-record 28 wins in 2011, but was unable to take the mound for a single pitch this past season as the Blackbirds sunk to 22-33 and failed to reach the Northeast Conference Tournament.
Topa hopes to follow in the footsteps of 2009 LIU alum James Jones, who was picked in the fourth round (113th overall) by the Seattle Mariners. The left-handed pitcher/outfielder out of Brooklyn's Telecommunications High School is currently batting .280 with eight homers and 34 RBIs in 51 games for the Mariners' Class A affiliate in High Desert of the California League.
“It's a tremendous honor for Justin to be selected in the MLB Draft by the Cincinnati Reds," LIU assistant coach Craig Noto said. "It's an amazing accomplishment for any young man to fulfill his lifelong dream to play professional baseball. He is a quality young man who comes from an outstanding family. This selection is a testament to his natural ability and work ethic. He has only been pitching full-time for a little bit over three years and has a tremendously high ceiling as a pitcher. To see Justin grow over the past three years in our program has been gratifying. We wish him the best moving forward.”
If signed, Topa will likely begin the long path toward the majors in one of the Reds' lower-level affiliates, which include Rookie-level Billings, the Arizona League Reds or the Class A Dayton Dragons.
Topa wasn't the only local product to be selected on Day 3 of the Draft.
Grand Street campus shortstop Jose Cuas, who will be playing for the Brooklyn high school in Friday's Public School Athletic Association Championship Game at Coney Island's MCU Park, was picked by Toronto in the 40th round (1,225th overall) on Wednesday. According to the PSAL's website, Cuas batted .422 with 22 RBIs in 16 games for the Wolves, leading them to a 15-1 regular-season mark before five straight playoff wins advanced them to Friday's showdown with PSAL powerhouse George Washington.
Cuas, who is committed to attend the University of Maryland in the fall, is unlikely to sign a pro deal, but getting drafted as a high schooler points to a bright future as a ballplayer, even if it isn't in Toronto.
Former Poly Prep standout Kevin Heller, who is currently playing center field at Amherst College, also got picked in round 40 (1,231 overall) by the Boston Red Sox.
“This is a dream come true,” Heller said. “This is the happiest I’ve been in a long time. I don’t know if I’ve ever been this happy.”
If he is able to reach an agreement with the team, Heller will likely jump right into the Boston minor league system. Last month, the ex-Blue Devil graduated from Amherst as the program’s all-time leader in hits (172), runs scored (136), RBIs (126) and total bases (275). He also shared the school's career home run record (18). Heller went 41-for-45 on stolen-base attempts during his four years as an outfielder and designated hitter, and he is one of only two players in program history to record four consecutive 40-hit seasons.
“Kevin is one example of the many student-athletes at Amherst who excel at the highest level in their sport,” said Amherst baseball coach Brian Hamm. “Amherst has produced many professional baseball players and front office personnel, and I am proud that Kevin will continue this legacy. He leaves Amherst and our program a better place.”
Heller didn't take long to pledge his allegiance to the organization that had enough faith in his skills to give him a shot at his big-league dream.
“I never thought I’d say this, but I’m probably the biggest Red Sox fan in the world right now," he said.
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It didn't take long for ex-Canarsie football coach Mike Camardese to land on his feet.
Bay Ridge's Poly Prep Country Day School announced this week that the Public School Athletic League coaching icon would take over the Blue Devils' Junior Varsity football progam, as well as help head coach Dino Mangiero with the nationally renowned varsity team.
Camardese, who led the Chiefs to nearly 200 wins and four appearances in the city title game during a 28-year tenure at the Brooklyn school, was given a "U" (for unsatisfactory) rating last month by the Department of Education and revealed that he had been relieved of his duties. Though he vowed to continue the fight to have the rating overturned, Camardese apparently wasn't willing to sit still during what could be an elongated appeals process through the United Teachers Federation.
The Canarsie administration continues to remain mum regarding Camardese's status.
“It’s like coaching at a small college,” Camardese told the New York Post of his new job. “The weight room is unbelievable. Dino does a great job. Everything you can think of, they have. The field is great. The whole situation is great. I’ve been there like, three, four times. They make you feel like family. You’re in football heaven there.”
The Chiefs will be coached by Camardese's former assistant, Carl Allen, but a pair of his other coaches, Maurice Jones and Bernard Titley, will reportedly join him on the sidelines at Poly Prep.