By TOM BONE
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
TAZEWELL, Va. —
The two-time College World Series champion South Carolina Gamecocks don’t have to take just any high school pitcher.
But they want Zak Wasilewski.
“I’m really happy to be a Gamecock, and going to South Carolina is a great feeling,” the Tazewell High School senior said Monday afternoon after a signing ceremony on the infield of Lou Peery Field.
“I’m very thankful,” he said. “I’m just excited to be going to college, playing baseball, because all the hard work paid off.”
The left-handed pitcher with a .498 career varsity batting average signed a letter of intent to join the ultra-successful team that finished a sweep of the College World Series on June 28, defeating Florida 5-2 and winning Division I for the second straight year.
After getting a call from the university, Wasilewski and his family paid a visit to Columbia.
“I just loved it at first sight,” the THS senior said. “It was a great place, great coaches, great facility. I couldn’t ask for anything better. Great teammates, too. ... It makes it a lot easier, that way.”
He said he’s been playing with some of the South Carolina players for two years on an 18-and-under baseball team based in Fredericksburg, Va., the Canes.
He was on the South Carolina campus again last weekend, this time for an official visit, and his signing soon followed.
He said, “I’m going to be, probably, a left-handed pitcher and DH some as well. A two-way player? I’m going to try, anyway.”
“They’ve got a great school, a lot of good fans. Everything there was what I wanted.”
Tazewell head coach Lou Peery said, “It’s always a big honor for kids to go on to college and pursue their dream.”
He said about the signee, “Ever since I’ve known him in the seventh grade, and in Little League, this is his goal, to play at the next level. And the next level could be South Carolina or it could be in the Major Leagues, but at least he’s starting [by taking] a major step.”
“He just worked hard every day to try to perfect things. He listens, he’s a ‘sponge.’ He was never satisfied with anything he did, he’s a perfectionist and he just keeps working harder and harder. And he’s a big influence on everybody around him.”
Peery said, “You always anticipate good things [when a young athlete is growing up], but they usually fizzle out because there are a lot of other things for them to do, to sidetrack ’em. Zak hasn’t been sidetracked. His main goal was to be where he’s at now, and to go further than this.”
Wasilewski’s father Tom said, “He’s worked hard to get these opportunities. ... He has a drive I haven’t seen in any human being.” He said “at least 30 colleges were looking at him.”
He said, “You dream of your children getting to go to college, let alone to go play for a college that’s won back-to-back championships.”
In each of the last three years, Wasilewski made the all-Coppinger Tournament team, the all-Southwest District first team and all-Region IV first team, and all-Southwest Virginia.
In the Group AA all-state lists, he was honorable mention as a freshman, first team as a sophomore and second team last spring.
Peery said, “He’s made all-state three years ... and hopefully, he’ll get the fourth one, which would be the first time anyone’s ever done that here.”
In his 69 varsity games, Wasilewski has 109 hits in 219 at-bats with 20 home runs and 98 runs batted in. He’s stolen 49 bases and scored 117 runs. He also has a fielding percentage of .966 with 46 putouts and 11 assists.
“His offensive production here in high school is great,” Peery said. “He’s led the team in batting average and home runs and RBIs, and has just done everything you’ve asked for. ... It’s just amazing we have an athlete like that come through.”
He added, “South Carolina is the cream of the crop. They’re the next thing to minor league ball. It’s always a great honor when you see coaches, like the caliber of Coach [Ray] Tanner, to come through. He can recognize talent [so] you know you’ve got a good one.”
Playing for the U-18 team helped introduce Wasilewski to another level of competition and got him noticed by college coaches, Peery said.
The veteran THS coach said, “It’s important, because instead of seeing one quality pitcher every five or six games, you’re going to see one every game you play. And the more quality players you play against, and play with, the higher quality player you become.”
“Like I say, you can shine in a small pond, but when you get in a big pond and you’re still shinin’, you got a real dollar on your hands.”
Wasilewski said working with Peery and playing at Tazewell has “given me every opportunity, that’s for sure. Coach is out here every day. I’ve been able to come out since I was about in the seventh grade, every day since then.”
“He’s taught me the game of life moreso than even playing. I’ve learned a lot of good things from Coach Peery. I really appreciate it.”
Tom Wasilewski said, “Ever since Zak’s Little League all-star team won the championship when he was 10, Coach Peery watched him. They’ve been real close. He’s more than a mentor; Zak says he’s like a granddad. He’s always been there.”
“He cares about the kids. He loves to win, but that’s not the most important thing on his mind. He’s said he doesn’t want kids pitching [too much]. He said he doesn’t want them leaving their arms on this field. That’s big.”
The THS senior has also learned from retired Major League pitcher Billy Wagner, a Tazewell alumnus who returns often and talks with players.
The younger Wasilewski said, “He’s a great role model, that’s for sure. I look up to Billy a lot, as somebody that’s worked, like I have, not had the [perfect] body but has worked hard every day. ... He’s told me that’s what it takes to get to the next level.”
“He’s told me good things will happen. That’s great, coming from somebody like that. It really means a lot, from somebody like that.”
Peery said Wagner “worked hard and strived to be the best. And we try to always have good influences come their way for them to appreciate the efforts [that are] there. That’s what this facility was built for, for kids to utilize it.
“The ones who keep on working are the ones who are going to strive to get where they want to go.”
Wasilewski’s athletic path has been sidetracked twice, once by “Tommy John” ligament surgery on his pitching elbow and again by a knee ligament tear. It didn’t stop him long.
Wasilewski said, “I knew I could overcome anything if I set my mind to it. I mean, overcame Tommy John and my ACL. There’s just nothing I can’t accomplish.”
Peery said, “Everything happens for a reason, and [withinjuries] that’s a way of showing patience, and knowing he’s going to have to work hard no matter how gifted he is.
“I don’t think it’s is going to deter him one bit. If possible, it’s going to cause him to raise it one notch.”
Wasilewski said that when he was going into surgery to repair his knee, South Carolina was playing Virginia in the College World Series. But he said the Gamecocks “supported me all the way.”
He was told by a newspaper reporter that the team “said a prayer for me at Omaha. ... That’s a great school, to do something like that. ... They know how hard I work and that I’ll bounce back.”
The Gamecocks finished 55-14 last season, and went 33-4 at home. South Carolina’s 2011 postseason record was 10-0, the first time a Division I team accomplished that feat in one season. They have won 16 straight postseason contests, another NCAA record.
The Gamecocks, coached for the last 15 years by Ray Tanner, have been in the College World Series 10 times, including five of the last 10 seasons.
Tom Wasilewski said, “Their stadium is just unbelievable. It seats 8,000. They regularly have a crowd of 6,000 for their games. They have good support for all the athletics down there, but in baseball, seems like the whole town is behind them.”
With regard to the baseball team’s community support, he added, “Winning two college championships doesn’t hurt them none.”
— Contact Tom Bone at