It was a memorable way to cap off his college baseball career.
John Zilnicki, a 2005 graduate of Riverhead High School, was not only the starting first baseman, he played an integral role in SUNY/Cortland’s march to the finals of the NCAA Division III World Series. While Cortland fell to Illinois Wesleyan, 17-5, in the championship game on June 1 at Fox Cities Stadium in Chute, Wis., Zilnicki had a string of big hits in the Red Dragons’ drive to the title game.
What made this even more special for Zilnicki, who received a fifth year of eligibility because he broke his hand eight games into his senior year in 2009, was the fact that he overcame the injury and still played a key role down the stretch this season.
“It means a lot,” he said. “It shows hard work pays off.”
After hitting .330 as a freshman, followed by .280 his sophomore year and .420 as a junior, Zilnicki was hitting .390 and in his words “tearing the cover off the ball” before he injured his hand, which eventually required screws to be inserted. This season, his hand was still healing, but Zilnicki hit .287, with four homers and 30 runs batted in.
“It was a struggle at first,” Zilnicki said. “I got off to a slow start, then I got hot.”
In the opening game of the eight-team double-elimination World Series, Zilnicki had a pinch-hit RBI single to right-center field in the bottom of the ninth inning to lift the Red Dragons (42-10-1) to a come-from-behind 9-8 win over Wisconsin-Stevens Point on May 28. Zilnicki, who majored in physical education and is now going for his master’s in health education, called the moment “unbelievable.”
Cortland Coach Joe Brown called Zilnicki “a great leader.”
“John comes from a great family and his work ethic is outstanding,” Brown said. “John battled very serious hand issues and never once complained. He was pivotal in securing our first base position defensively and he had some huge hits in postseason play. If every player had John’s work ethic, we would be even better. John was a strong leader for our team.”
After splitting the next two games, Cortland beat Illinois Wesleyan, 11-10, on May 31 as Zilnicki scored the winning run in the bottom of the ninth. He had led off with a walk, went to second on a sacrifice bunt and scored the winning run on a double by Shawn Bailey. Zilnicki had also tripled earlier in the game.
Zilnicki had two hits on June 1 in Cortland’s 12-9 win over Linfield to advance on to the title game later that afternoon. But Zilnicki said the Red Dragons’ pitching staff simply ran out of gas in the championship-game loss to Illinois Wesleyan. Zilnicki went 1 for 2 in that game and got his hit in his final at-bat. “My first at-bat as a freshman in 2006 I got a hit and I got a hit on my last at-bat,” he said. “It was a nice way to wrap it up.”
Looking back, Zilnicki said all the hard work was worth it.
“From my Riverhead Little League days and playing baseball with my cousins across the street, to the middle school and varsity baseball, and winning the league title in high school, the hard work paid off,” he said. “I thank my parents. This has been a lot of fun. It actually proves the little things do pay off.”