‘We shocked the world’: Tight-knit East Side team wins PSAL AA championship

As was their custom, before the championship game, the East Side players knelt in left field for a moment of focus and team togetherness.   Photos by DAMIEN ACEVEDO

As was their custom, before the championship game, the East Side players knelt in left field for a moment of focus and team togetherness. Photos by DAMIEN ACEVEDO

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON  |  With nicknames like “Speedy” and “Timo,” a coach with a shaggy good-luck beard and a “We Are Family” attitude reminiscent of the ’79 champion Pittsburgh Pirates, the East Side Community High School boys baseball recently rocked PSAL AA by winning the citywide championship.

On June 3, on the diamond at Yankee Stadium, the scrappy squad from E. 12th St. faced off against the Bronx’s High School of American Studies at Lehman College. East Side had entered the playoffs seeded No. 12 while Lehman was No. 3. Yet the Tigers left no doubt on the field, blanking the Senators, 7-0. His usual fiery self on the mound, Timothy “Timo” Lopez pitched all seven innings in the shutout.

On their march to the championship, the Tigers had to win five straight games. That included beating the playoffs’ No. 1 seed, the far larger Lincoln High School, in convincing fashion, 10-3. On the way, they also knocked off a tough Bushwick Campus team, 2-1.

After the huddle, they all put their hands in and got ready to hit the field as Head Coach Danny Lora, sporting his trademark hipster baseball beard, looked on, at left.

After the huddle, they all put their hands in and got ready to hit the field as Head Coach Danny Lora, sporting his trademark hipster baseball beard, looked on, at left.

Making their feat that much more impressive, East Side is a very small school, relatively speaking, with just 340 students in its high school grades. After having successfully made it into the playoffs in recent years, for this season the team was moved up from Public Schools Athletic League Division A to PSAL AA — the league’s middle division.

Speaking after the Tigers’ big win, Mark Federman, the school’s principal, said this team was special in a lot of ways, and that their drive for the championship helped build a positive spirit that spread throughout East Side, which also includes a middle school with grades six to eight.

Before they left for the game at Yankee Stadium, the team paraded through the school wearing special “PSAL AA Baseball Championship” T-shirts and getting high-fives from students and teachers.

“A lot these kids have been playing together since sixth grade and playing together in the neighborhood,” Federman said.

Not only are they a small school, but, he also noted, “We don’t even have a field.”

So they have to scramble for playing time in East River Park or take the train and a shuttle bus to the fields on Randall’s Island.

Pitcher Timothy Lopez delivered to the plate on his way to a complete-game, seven-inning shutout as East Side won the title.   Photos by kerisa jones

Pitcher Timothy Lopez delivered to the plate on his way to a complete-game, seven-inning shutout as East Side won the title. Photos by kerisa jones

“Another story is that this team has really become like a family,” Federman said. “These guys really believe in each other, have each others’ backs. We’re a small school, and the teachers and community offer their support, helping these guys keep their eyes on the prize.

“Some kids are pulled in the wrong direction,” he noted. “There’s a lot of hanging out that’s being done — caring more about friends than school.”

But this team was focused like a laser on a single goal: winning the championship. After almost going undefeated in last year’s regular season, they were ousted from the playoffs after losing a close game, which only helped to motivate them this season.

“They lost in the playoffs last year and were moved up a level. That made them stronger,” the principal said of last year’s heartbreaking playoff loss.

Even the faculty were swept up in the excitement, with many of them attending the playoffs. Federman personally went to four of the five games. More than 300 of the school’s students and about 60 faculty members watched the final game at the stadium.

“The pitching was incredibly solid,” Federman said of the Tigers. “They can field every position. There’s not a weak link in the lineup — just solid batting and smart choices at the plate. They had so many two-out rallies. They’ve got grit.”

Infielders gathered on the mound with pitcher Timothy Lopez, second from right, at the start of their frame of the first inning against Lehman at Yankee Stadium.

Infielders gathered on the mound with pitcher Timothy Lopez, second from right, at the start of their frame of the first inning against Lehman at Yankee Stadium.

Federman couldn’t say enough about the team’s coach, Danny Lora.

“For the students who have a dad, he’s like a second father figure,” he said. “For those who don’t, he’s like a father figure. And they just know he loves and cares for them, on and off the field.”

Lora has been the school’s baseball coach for the past five years, after returning from a two-year sabbatical in the Dominican Republic, before which he was East Side’s baseball coach for three years.

Tom Mullen, now an assistant principal at the school, founded its baseball team in 2002 when he was still a math teacher.

“There was no team, and there were a bunch of kids who were really enthusiastic about baseball — and this is the Lower East Side,” Mullen recalled. “That first year, we were 1-18.”

He stopped coaching after he became an A.P. around 2007. By then, the team’s winning percentage had climbed to .500.

“Danny is an incredible coach, and he really inspires the kids,” he said.

Winning the PSAL AA championship shows just how far the once-fledgling program has come, Mullen said.

“We’re a small school,” he said. “We’ve got less than 100 students per grade. Lincoln’s got — what? — 3,000 kids? But our kids just love baseball. And baseball is a motivation for the kids — both for the team and the school. The overall positive feeling about the team rolls over into the classroom.”

Lora — who also teaches history and lives in the neighborhood — said this core group of players is really special, and he’s seen them grow.

“This season was really three, four years in the making,” he said. “The nucleus of the team is my juniors. We really became a team in these last three or four years. We learned mental toughness, we gained experience. Over the years, we learned to bounce back from physical errors. We carried each other.”

In addition to Lopez, the team’s other key hurlers included Isaiah Perez, who threw nine innings of one-run ball against Bushwick; Jose Vazquez, who beat Lincoln and also made “an incredible, diving catch” in center field in the championship game, according to Federman; and closer Jacob “Jake” Pena, who, Lora said, also came up with “big hit after big hit,” including the walk-off winner against Bushwick.

Shortstop Joshua “Speedy” Almonte “played impeccable defense every game and was a madman on the bases that drove pitchers crazy,” Lora said. Catcher Marcos Martinez “is as tough as nails, calls a great game with our pitchers,” he added. Left fielder Mario Williams, the team’s only freshman, went on a batting tear in the playoffs. Anchoring the infield at first and third base were heavy-hitting twins Hussene and Hassane Azar, who, Lora said, “were clutch with their bats in big situations in what seemed like every playoff game.”

“And as everyone saw,” he added, “Timothy Lopez wore his heart on his sleeve and got big hits in every playoff game, and not only threw seven innings of shutout baseball at Yankee Stadium, but got the win in our first two playoff games.

“In short, this was a total team effort,” he said. “Every one of our players pulled together to make this happen.”

Also part of the winning formula was Steve Sell, who co-coached the team for the past four years, but this year moved out of state.

Federman has been the school’s principal for 14 years. For every year that school report cards have been issued, East Side has gotten “A” ’s for both its high school and middle school. In the end, producing academic “all-stars” remains the school’s goal.

Federman said the baseball Tigers are like role models for the rest of the school.

“From a principal’s point of view, these are just good kids,” he said.

Some of the players have already had to overcome a lot in their own lives, though Federman and Lora said they didn’t want to get into specifics.

“These are all Lower East Side kids, man,” Lora said. “They all have a unique story. I admire every one of them for different reasons.”

Winning a baseball championship is now one story that they all share.

“At the end of the day, we’ve all cried together, we’ve fought, we’ve come together, like a family,” Lora said. “I think the lessons we’ve learned on the baseball field are going to help them in life — how to deal with failure, how to have each other’s back.”

With the mission accomplished, Lora said he can now finally razor off his good-luck facial hair.

“I always grow my crazy beard for the baseball season,” he said. “I still have it! I’m gonna cut it soon.”

Players shared their feelings about finally winning it all.

“We shocked the world,” said pitcher/infielder Isaiah Perez. “Such a small school has such a big heart and passion for a lovely game. This team is special and we have a wonderful coach. One Team One Dream.”

Third baseman Hussene Azar said, “A lot of teams looked at us as the team that always won the division every year, but always lost in the first round, but that was answered this spring. We passed a lot of known teams on the map in AA and won the championship. This was four years in the making. Yankee Stadium was the best venue, and it couldn’t get any better than with playing with guys I played with on travel teams. It just all came together to win it in my senior year.”

Shortstop Joshua Almonte said, “The season was such a great experience of brotherhood and hard work. As a junior, it’s so hard to maintain our grades and play baseball, but that’s the life of student athlete. If it wasn’t for our coach, God knows what position we would be in growing up as young student athletes. Every day he would tell us, ‘It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it,’ and this year we did it.”

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