ROBERT O’ROURK PHOTO | Former Riverhead softball players came together for an alumni game Saturday afternoon at Stotzky Park. The “gray” team won 9-8.
It doesn’t take much for a former athlete’s competitive juices to start flowing again. Never mind how long it’s been since the uniform was last buttoned up.
A competitor never loses that fire.
“If you’re a competitor, you’re a competitor all the way through,” said Bob Fox, the recently retired varsity softball coach at Riverhead.
Take for example Catherine Dillingham.
A 2005 Riverhead graduate who played four years of varsity softball for the Blue Waves, Dillingham sprinted around the bases, dove on the dirt and chased down baserunners Saturday morning as if it was a championship game.
“She’s got the most fire,” said Dillingham’s teammate, Melissa Edwards, after an alumni softball game at Stotzky Park. “She can’t mess up, because then she freaks out.”
Dillingham’s energy and Edwards’ bat helped the “gray” team to a 9-8 victory over the “white” team Saturday in an entertaining, well-played game featuring more than a dozen former Blue Waves players from the last decade.
ROBERT O’ROURK PHOTO | Catherine Dillingham (’05) played shortstop for the gray team.
That Dillingham, the gray team’s shortstop, still had the competitive fire came as no surprise to Fox.
“She hated making an error, hated making a mistake,” Fox said of Dillingham’s high school career. “There are lot of girls like that.”
Early in the game Dillingham stood in the batter’s box, her bat raised as she waited for the pitch from Fox – who was the designated pitcher for both teams. Dillingham let the pitch go and the umpire yelled “strike!”
Dillingham fired back a disapproving look.
“First warning!” the umpire countered, later joking that Dillingham was the only player who had to be warned.
In the 8th inning at shortstop, Dillingham snagged a line drive just off the top of the dirt. Seeing that the runner at first was caught between the bases, Dillingham sprinted toward her to apply the tag rather than throw it.
“Have you seen her throws all day?” Edwards quipped.
For nearly all the women, it had been a long time since they last played a softball game.
“That’s the first time a ball’s been hit to me in God knows how long,” said Dillingham, who played softball in college at Mount St. Mary’s.
There was one notable exception: the white team’s star shortstop, Jackie Zilnicki. A three-sport standout at Riverhead, Zilnicki faced a constant besiege of playful ribbing.
“Who invited you Zilnicki!?” one player yelled.
“How is she still good? wondered another.
Yet another player described her as “like a magnet.”
ROBERT O’ROURK PHOTO | Riverhead softball coach Bob Fox was the designated pitcher for both teams.
At shortstop, Zilnicki smoothly scooped up nearly every ball hit her way. And at the plate, her powerful lefty bat forced almost the entire team to shift into right field when she stepped into the box.
“She’s fresh out of college, though” Dillingham wryly noted.
“It’s a little unfair,” said Edwards, who was a catcher at Springfield College for four years after graduating from Riverhead in 2001. Edwards, a coach at Pierson High School, launched a two-run home run to left field early in the game and just missed hitting another later in the game.
At Riverhead, Zilnicki was one of the top athletes to come through the school in the last decade. A two-time recipient of the News-Review’s Athlete of the Year award, Zilnicki played basketball and softball at Western Connecticut State University, where she graduated in 2012. As a senior, Zilnicki was honored as the Female Athlete of the Year at Western Connecticut, batting .477 on the softball team with 45 runs batted in.
Every time she stepped to the plate Saturday, everyone stood on their toes expecting Zilnicki to hit a bomb. She just missed a three-run home run in the seventh when she launched a ball off the right-field fence.
Fox said Zilnicki was the type of player who could play any position as a Blue Wave.
“Overall I think Jackie was the best player [I coached],” he said.
Zilnicki had a chance to end the game with one swing in the bottom of the ninth when she came up with the bases loaded and two outs, her team down by two runs. She singled in one run, but that was as close as her team would get.
The alumni game, which is expected to become an annual event, had been something talked about for the past few years, Fox said. After deciding to retire after last season to spend more time with his grandchildren, Fox figured this would be the ideal time to start.
And he wanted it to have a purpose. So this year’s event was also a fundraiser to purchase two automated external defibrillators for the high school softball teams.
Fox said even though most schools have a trainer and AEDs on school grounds, even a slight delay can be the difference between life and death.
“If you get hit in the chest with a ball, you got two minutes,” he said. “We want to try to protect our kids more.”
Fox said the AEDs would be donated to the school on the stipulation that they be used by the softball teams in the spring. In the other seasons, the school can use them at its discretion, he said.
“Mr. Fox has done a lot for us and the program at Riverhead for years,” Edwards said. “To come out and support him, that’s huge I think.”
DANIEL DE MATO FILE PHOTO | Riverhead shortstop Danielle Napoli applies the tag at second base on a Bay Shore runner last spring in the playoffs.
A Riverhead High School alumni softball game will be held Oct. 12 at Stotzky Park with proceeds going toward the purchase of portable automated external defibrillators for the varsity and JV softball teams.
The event is sponsored by Riverhead Little League and begins at 10 a.m. Any former Riverhead softball player is encouraged to participate. A $20 registration fee per player includes a T-shirt. The game will be nine innings on Field 4 at Stotzky Park. Helmets and catchers equipment will be provided.
JOE WERKMEISTER PHOTO | A reunion of the R.M. Blockbusters and R.M. Masonettes — two softball teams in Riverhead — brought people together last Saturday for a barbecue.
On summer nights in a bygone era, crowds of spectators would descend on the softball fields at Stotzky Park. They would line the fences to catch a glimpse of the action, to see players like “Skeeter” chase down fly balls and sprint around the bases.
In Riverhead, no one was faster than Skeeter.
“Didn’t you run like a 9.5, 9.6?” Greg Mack asked Waverly “Skeeter” Atkins, referring to the 100-yard dash in track.
“9.4,” Skeeter clarified as he manned the barbecue, flipping burgers and grilling hot sausage as the sun shone down Saturday afternoon.
On this day, two decades removed from their playing days, the R.M. Masonettes and R.M. Blockbusters gathered for their third annual reunion in Riverhead. At a cookout block party on Hinda Boulevard, they shared stories, joked with one another about who had been the best player, and remembered the man who started it all: Roy Mack Sr.
They all once played modified fast-pitch softball, the Masonettes, a team of women, and the Blockbusters, of men. Beginning in 1979 and continuing through the next decade, the two teams were at the forefront of a widely popular softball league.
“We were champs all 10 years,” said Cynthia Mack, one of Roy and Bernice Mack’s nine children. “Our rivalry was Allied Optical. Our last year, when we were ready to fizzle out, that was the first time we lost.”
Cynthia played in the infield (second base) along with her sisters Charlene Crump (third base) and Cheryl Atkins (first base). Dottie Lewis played shortstop.
While the former team members’ athletic days have passed, they’ve continued the tradition, set by Roy and Bernice, of giving back to the community by forming Our Future Generation, an organization whose goal is to “encourage, uplift and promote our youth to become better citizens in their communities.”
The organization annually donates the $500 Roy Mack Sr. Memorial Scholarship to a Riverhead High School student who is pursuing higher education.
This year’s recipient, Wesley Wheeler, a 2013 graduate, was on hand Saturday for the festivities.
“It helps out a lot,” Mr. Wheeler said, “even if it’s small, because books cost a lot.”
Mr. Wheeler attends Suffolk County Community College, he said, in liberal arts and plans to transfer after a year to Farmingdale State College to pursue a psychology degree.
A new youth group, called The Future Generation, was recently formed to complement Our Future Generation. The new organization’s goal is to help the community and learn what it takes to run an organization. They’ve already run a bake sale and a car wash as fundraisers. The youngest member is 8 years old and the oldest, 18-year-old Shaiquaisha Mack, who just graduated from Riverhead High School, is a great-granddaughter of Bernice and Roy Mack. Shaiquaisha is president of the group.
JOE WERKMEISTER PHOTO | Members of The Future Generation, led by president Shaiquaisha Mack (left), at Saturday’s barbecue.
“We said ‘OK, what do you want to do with your group?’<\!q>” Cynthia Mack said. “So they said they want to visit senior citizens, help the community with different things like cleanup.”
Roy Mack Sr., a longtime Riverhead mason who served in World War II, formed the two softball teams and coached the Blockbusters. “Daddy Mack,” as he was known, was remembered Saturday, with everyone wearing T-shirts with his face on the front. “Daddy Mack” died in 2008 but not before leaving a lasting imprint on his family and the entire community.
“He trained us well,” said Gwen Mack, oldest of the nine children. “We couldn’t go any place on a Saturday morning until the yard was raked and cleaned.”
Roy Mack’s son Greg Mack was the noted power bat in the league for the Blockbusters, setting records for home runs.
“I used to hit the home runs,” he said. “A long time ago.”
Nowadays he watches his grandson, a seventh-grader in Riverhead, play lacrosse.
“That’s the big thing now,” said Greg, who played in the outfield, first base and as pitcher for the Blockbusters.
As part of the yearly reunions, the former players would love to get back out on the field, to form two teams and toss the ball around for old time’s sake. Finding enough players willing to lace up their cleats has proved challenging.
“It’s hard to get people out of retirement,” Cynthia Mack said.
As the sausage sizzled on the grill Saturday, Greg Mack and Skeeter reminisced. Greg succinctly summed up the origin of Skeeter’s nickname: “Because he’s fast,” he said.
“Used to be,” Skeeter responded. “You’re talking almost 40 years now.”
Joe Werkmeister is the web editor of Times/Review Newsgroup. He can be reached at joew@timesreview or 298-3200, ext. 228.