East Xtra: Valley grad enjoys strong season in new role at Kent State

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This baseball season was one of firsts for Zarley Zalewski and this Valley High School grad enjoyed every minute of it.

A former standout infielder for the Vikings, Zalewski recently completed his sophomore season at Kent State and primarily was the designated hitter for the Golden Flashes, a role he had never played before.

"It wasn't bad," he said. "I got used to it as the season went on. Then on occasion they'd put me out at third [base] for a game or so then back to DH. It wasn't bad.

"It kept me more mentally focused on hitting. I didn't have to worry about making plays on the field. It was strictly going up to the plate and doing my thing there instead of having to worry about fielding. My focus was just on hitting."

It was a role that first-year Kent State coach Jeff Duncan said fit Zalewski perfectly.

"To explain Zarley Zalewski," Duncan said, "he's a pure hitter. He lacks a little bit of lateral movement but in all honesty it was more of him fitting in [the designated hitter] spot with the way our roster was. We had a third baseman who needed to be playing and he did. That was the only spot for him to play.

"We have a first baseman the same way, that was the only spot he could play. It just fit that way that Zarley was going to be the DH. He was steady for us all season long. With about two months to go in the season he was hitting over .400."

It was that type of hitting that helped Zalewski, a switch-hitter who throws right-handed, achieve another first ... playing in the postseason.

Kent State is no stranger to the postseason. The Golden Flashes have competed in the NCAA regional tournament nine times in the past 14 seasons and have won the MAC regular-season or tournament title 14 of the past 15 seasons.

Zalewski, however, never has competed in the postseason. Ever.

In four years at Valley, the Vikings never made the WPIAL playoffs. As a freshman last year Zalewski was helping the Golden Flashes toward the MAC tournament when he dislocated the patella tendon in his left knee late in the regular season and could not compete.

This season, in his new role as designated hitter batting fourth in the lineup and with a healthy knee, Zalewski started all 58 games including eight at third base. He was second on the team in batting average (.351, 78 for 222), doubles (16), RBIs (42) and total bases (104) and was third in runs scored (38).

"I think Zarley can play at the next level just because it's so hard to find guys like him who have a knack to really hit," Duncan said.

"He's got a great line-drive swing from both sides. He's strong, he's physical. He didn't have big-time power numbers but he had a lot of doubles. He drives in a lot of runners and it's hard to find guys like that."

Zalewski, a 6-foot-3, 185-pounder from New Kensington, drove in no bigger runs than in the MAC championship.

With runners on first and second in the bottom of the eighth inning in a scoreless game against Akron, Zalewski ripped a double to right-center to drive in both runners and later scored the third run as Kent State won the championship, 3-0.

In his previous three at-bats, Zalewski had batted from the right side of the plate and grounded into three double plays. Akron intentionally walked Cody Koch to get to Zalewski in the eighth and Zalewski responded by batting from the left side and getting his winning hit.

"I went up there with the same approach as I do every at-bat, it just worked out better that time," said Zalewski, who was named to the MAC all-tournament team. "I tried to get a pitch to drive.

"It felt so good because it helped us win the championship. I don't think I've had any bigger hit than I did that day."

Zalewski's season officially ended May 31 when Kentucky scored four runs in the ninth to defeat Kent State, 4-2, in the second game of a double-elimination NCAA regional at Louisville. The Golden Flashes lost to Louisville in the opener, 5-0.

His next season will be beginning soon as he competes this summer with the Front Royal Cardinals of the Valley League in Virginia. The league is an NCAA-sanctioned wooden bat league located in the Shenandoah Valley.

Rick Davis: rdavis@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3789.

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