Sports

Soul of the game

Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter Islanders Cullen Russell, left, and Joey Scalzo led the team to its second playoff appearance in a decade.  -
Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter Islanders Cullen Russell, left, and Joey Scalzo led the team to its second playoff appearance in a decade.
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Scalzo and Russell fueled MI baseball

By Matt Phelps
Mercer Island Reporter

One player was a surprise on the mound and the other exceeded his team’s highest expectations at the plate. One player threw a no-hitter and the other hit over .500. Both players admit that this year’s playoff appearance, only the second in a decade, was a team effort. But both seniors, Cullen Russell and Joey Scalzo, undeniably made the Islanders exciting again and gave the younger players a glimpse of what is possible.

“This year, we had a better understanding of ‘team,’” said Scalzo. “Our attitudes turned the program around. We used to be worried about what other programs thought of us, but this year we just went out and played.”

It took Scalzo a couple of games just to get on the field, due to a back injury. When he finally got on the field to play second base, he had to wear a back brace the entire year.

“I got used to it,” said Scalzo. “It was my senior year. I just wanted to play.”

That drive led the senior to set a school record by hitting .500 for the season, 150 points better than his 2007 season.

Scalzo’s batting average was also second in KingCo and ninth in the state. Leading off for his team, he set the table for the Islander offense.

His performance led to leaguewide accolades, including a unanimous first team all-KingCo selection at second base. He is the first Islander player to earn that honor since 1999.

The senior also got to play in the All-State game, was named the Mercer Island High School baseball team’s Most Valuable Player and earned the Silver Slugger Award.

“I was happy with the selection,” said Scalzo. “But I was more happy with making the playoffs.”

And while Scalzo is a four-year letterman with the team, Russell was an unknown at the beginning of the season.

“As a sophomore, I focused on hitting and took some time off,” said Russell. “But I got back to basics and got my curveball more accurate.”

That work on his curveball paid off as Russell became one of the best pitchers in the league after toiling in obscurity.

Russell’s 4-1 record was tied for second in KingCo, finished fourth in strikeouts and finished ninth in the league with a 1.98 ERA.

His four wins were the most since 1999, when current Seattle Mariner Sean White reached that mark.

KingCo was chock full of great pitchers, including teammate Chris Black. Russell was not selected to the all-KingCo team for pitching but for utility.

“I was not surprised that I didn’t get it for pitching, since there are so many great pitchers in KingCo,” said Russell. “They didn’t want to give me just honorable mention, and to get second team means a lot.”

Russell’s season climaxed with a no-hitter on April 25 against Interlake 8-1.

“It was one of those things where no one on the team even knew,” said Russell. “It was really gratifying.”

Both Russell and Scalzo give most of the credit to their team and coaches for the program’s turnaround this season. One of the biggest players was catcher Andrew Higgins.

“He was a big part of all of the pitchers’ success,” said Russell. “He knows how to call a game.”

“He was paramount in shaping the team,” said Scalzo. “Some of the teams in the past didn’t have a backbone. But he really cared about the team.”

Both players hope that their success will be a catalyst for next year’s team to do even better in one of the toughest leagues in the state for baseball.

“I think we brought a new mentality to the program, and I hope that attitude continues next year,” said Scalzo.

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