By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Current players on the Atlantic Cape Community College baseball team may not be aware that their coach, Rodney Velardi, has quite an impressive resume on the diamond. He was a two-time all-state performer as a pitcher during his high school days at Toms River South and went on to become a four-year letter winner at Butler University. Bucs players surely aren’t aware that Velardi was the winning pitcher when legendary Toms River South coach Ken Frank notched his 300th career win, against Jackson in 1991. They don’t know a lot about coach Velardi because he rarely talks about himself. But they know enough to realize he has spent a lifetime in the game of baseball, and that knowledge can be useful to them as they work hard to try to hook on with a four-year college.
“I never talk about myself. I really don’t. I try to sell them on what we can give them and talk to them about trusting their coaches and their experiences, but I don’t really get into too many details of what either myself or coach Ball have accomplished,” Velardi said. “Usually it trickles out, but I’ve never been the type of person who likes to talk about myself and things I’ve done.”
Velardi and his coaching staff, which features Jeff Ball, a former Atlantic City Surf player, have spent the last couple of years trying to build up the ACCC baseball program, which hasn’t been easy considering the Bucs play in Region XIX — the toughest region in the nation. In the latest Division III junior college rankings, three Region XIX teams were in the top five, including No. 1 Cumberland County, No. 4 Rowan Gloucester and No. 5 Northampton (Pa.).
“I think it’s a blessing that we play in the best Division III junior college region in the nation. We have the top schools in the nation that we play day in and day out, and the level of competition is amazing. And the kids see that, and they rise up to the challenge. It forces them to train harder and become better. That’s what will propel them to the next level. We’re getting to the point where the kids we are bringing in have Division I ability, they just need a little more development,” said Velardi, whose team finished 14-22 this season. “Right now, we’re just preparing to turn the corner of bringing our program up to a competitive level like (Cumberland and Gloucester). Those programs have great facilities, they do fall programs. We’re starting to get to that point.”
Velardi said the strength of the other South Jersey junior college programs makes it a challenge to convince Cape-Atlantic League high school baseball players to stay close to home and play for the Bucs. But, he can offer something perhaps those other schools can’t — abundant playing time.
“The toughest thing is, a lot of kids want to have that feeling of going away to college, so going 45 minutes away to Cumberland or Gloucester is like going away to school. We’re right here in their backyard and we’re a great option, but some of them want to have that feeling of being away, living in an apartment and being on their own,” Velardi said. “We’re still fighting with some great schools that are within 45 minutes of us. But, opportunity is relative. We have the opportunity to give players the chance to come in and play immediately and develop. Some of the other programs carry 35 to 40 guys on their roster, where as we are usually between 16 and 20. The biggest thing we give them is an opportunity to play.”
Velardi formerly coached at Egg Harbor Township High School, but once he became an administrator he was forced to give up his job as the baseball coach of the Eagles. After spending a few years away from the game, he got the itch to get back into it and ACCC provided the perfect opportunity.
“I love it, absolutely love it. Right from the moment I met the players, I completely fell in love with it. Their dedication to the sport and their commitment to bettering themselves is amazing. About 90 percent of the guys I have work, go to school and play baseball. They are trying to manage so many aspects of their life, and to see the sacrifices they make to get to practices and get to games — it’s not a matter of convenience for them,” Velardi said. “They might have class in the morning, then work, then rush home from work to get to practice, then back to work. The level of commitment and dedication to baseball is what I fell in love with.”
While the Bucs aren’t on par yet with teams such as Cumberland County and Rowan Gloucester, Velardi said he is proud of having coached six academic All-Americans. That’s what it’s all about, he said, getting these young men on the right track in their lives and building toward a successful future.
“You have to persevere. It’s hard to come in and treat everybody exactly the same because they all come in under different circumstances. In any type of leadership role — it can be as a CEO of a company, a superintendent of a school, or a baseball coach — you have to have a bunch of different leadership styles in your tool belt. We have to mentor these kids to make the right decisions and to understand that along the way there are sacrifices you have to make,” he said. “Sometimes that sacrifice is not coming to baseball practice because you have to go to class, and you have to go to class and do well there. To them, it might be a conflict, but to us as a coaching staff it’s a no-brainer — you go to class. But these kids are adults and they are pretty easy to deal with.
“I love what I’m doing, the players and coaches that are around me — it’s a great thing. And it’s not about the wins and losses, it’s about seeing these guys grow as people and seeing them come back as alumni and giving back to the program.”
In recent years, Velardi has continued to play competitively in men’s baseball leagues, but father time is beginning to catch up a little bit. He has to make adjustments when trying to burn a fastball past one of his players when they challenge him during batting practice.
“The older I get, the better they are at hitting me. As I throw batting practice each year, I get a little bit closer to the plate to try to challenge them,” Velardi said with a laugh. “That’s the only way I can get it done now.”
He may not have the 90 mph fastball he had during his days at Toms River South, but Velardi is still getting the job done on the baseball field.
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN