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Valley grad Zalewski, now injury-free, making impact for Kent State baseball

| Saturday, April 5, 2014, 12:21 a.m.
Kent State baseball player Zarley Zalewski, a Valley High School graduate
Valley graduate Zarley Zalewski leads Kent State with 76 hits and is second with a .355 batting average.
Erica Dietz | Valley News Dispatch
Fox Chapel's Erin Mathias attempts to block a shot by Hempfield's Monica Burns during a PIAA Class AAAA playoff game Tuesday, March 11, 2014, at Gateway.

Multi-colored cereal ovals clink into his bowl, and Zarley Zalewski completes his breakfast ritual with a splash of milk.

Spoon in hand, the Kent State sophomore is now ready for game day to commence.

“I have to eat Fruit Loops every morning before games; I started it when we went to Arizona to open the season,” the Valley graduate said. “One time, we didn't have Fruit Loops at our hotel and our trainer was staying across the street and her hotel had some, so she brought them over. Had to have them.”

It's no surprise that he's a superstition-driven baseball player; what's surprising is how he's come back from an injury that cost him a chance at the playoffs.

“I still haven't seen a playoff game,” said Zalewski, the Golden Eagles' cleanup hitter. “I finally get the chance to do it here, and I get hurt. I want to play one playoff game before my career is over.”

Zalewski, who never made the playoffs at Valley, could only watch from the dugout as Kent State played in the Mid-American Conference Tournament last season after a knee injury abruptly ended a strong freshman season.

He dislocated the patella tendon in his left knee during a plate appearance late in the regular season. That meant a long offseason and crawl-before-you-can-walk comeback, although Zalewski's return has been anything but slow. He's taken off like he was fired from a sling-shot.

“I rehabbed a lot and came back to play late last summer,” said Zalewski, who ping-pongs between designated hitter and third base. “I am finally feeling better in the box and seeing the ball better.

“Our coach always talks about staying with the process and the approach.”

Maybe it was the sugar-rush from breakfast that had Zalewski hitting a team-best .410 through 26 games (41 for 100) with nine doubles, a triple and 18 RBIs.

Or maybe it's not rushing back too soon and putting in time to rehab that has him back where be belongs — in the meat of the order and making sure the bases are clear for the next hitter up.

Zalewski, who has started all 26 games for Kent (16-10, 4-2 MAC) admits patience has played a key role in his return to form.

“It's been a process, but I know I want to be a good college player and have to do what's necessary to keep that going,” he said.

Zalewski returned to play a dozen games with the Butler BlueSox late in the summer, doing strengthening exercises on his own before to earn his uniform.

He lists his fears in the media guide as heights and spiders, but tedious stretching apparently is no problem.

“It was a long time since I saw live pitching,” Zalewski said. “It was about three months. I was in the cage, doing front toss and taking BP with my dad throwing to me.”

Zalewski had two or more hits in his first eight games this season and has 14 multiple-hit games. He went 6 for 11 with five RBIs in a season-opening three-game series at Arizona.

“Zarley is probably our best all-around hitter,” Kent State coach Jeff Duncan told the Record-Courier. “He just has a knack for putting the barrel on the ball.”

The Golden Flashes started 1-9 last season before turning a corner. The improved start has them thinking postseason again, much to Zalewski's satisfaction.

“I think we can be better than last year,” said Zalewski, who hit .279 with two homers and 21 RBIs in 46 games as a freshman.

Zalewski, who was drafted by the Pirates out of high school but chose the college route over the minors, will become draft-eligible again after his third college season.

“It's always been a dream to play in the majors,” he said. “I hope the opportunity happens for me again.

“Right now, I feel like my (personal) goals are in progress. I want to maintain what I am doing, especially from a hitting aspect.”

Bill Beckner Jr. is the local sports editor of the Valley News Dispatch Reach him at bbeckner@tribweb.com.

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