Heart Of A Champion: An Inside Look At How Ethan Szlachetka Has Become A Star For Oak Hall Baseball

On a warm Saturday morning, the Oak Hall Eagles baseball team held a practice over at Roger Maris Field. Nothing out of the ordinary happened. Some reps in the batting cages, a few base running drills and similar exercises to prepare the team for Districts. Practice let out at 1 PM, but not everyone wanted to call it a day.

While the team headed back to the clubhouse, Ethan Szlachetka headed back onto the field. Head Coach Kevin Maris fed Szlachetka pitches as he practiced hitting line drives. By the time they had finished, the clubhouse had emptied out. Szlachetka’s hard-nosed work ethic and dedication to getting better every day has turned him into a premier ballplayer for Oak Hall.

Szlachetka has already come a long way since joining the Eagles midway through the 2021 season. Over the last 12 months, he went from only recording two hits and not pitching in his freshman year to taking on a commanding role in the team’s bullpen and batting rotation.

Throughout the 2022 season, Szlachetka has maintained a .316 batting average. He has also racked up three doubles, two triples and 17 RBIs. In addition to his powerful hitting, Szlachetka has proven himself to be a menace on the base paths as well. With 13 stolen bases and 17 runs scored, he has flaunted his speed for the Eagles in multiple key moments this year.

Troy Freeman (left), Ethan Szlachetka (center) and Jack Kuzmicki (right) take the field for Oak Hall during their victory against Union County.

However, some of Szlachetka’s strongest performances this season have been on the mound. During the 2o22 season, he has served as the team’s go-to closer in tight situations. Needless to say, he has excelled in this role. In 17.2 innings pitched, Szlachetka boasts a 1.981 ERA along with a staggering 26 strikeouts. He has also picked up three wins along the way.

Finding Love For The Game In The Big Apple

Szlachetka got off to a later start playing baseball than most of his teammates. Growing up in New York, he initially played ice hockey. However, at the age of 11, his dad took him to his first-ever Yankees game. It was there that Ethan Szlachetka fell in love with the game of baseball.

“I still remember going to that first Yankees game, and I thought that was the coolest thing in the world,” Szlachetka said. “I was like ‘Maybe I should start trying baseball’, and I just fell in love with it.”

As he began to pick up the game of baseball, Szlachetka gained some experience with multiple school teams. He played for his school’s baseball team starting in seventh grade. By the time he was a freshman in high school, Szlachetka hoped he would end up playing for his varsity squad. However, before the 2021 season began, Szlachetka moved down to Gainesville after his dad found a job in the area.

Having lived in New York for most of his life, Szlachetka initially struggled to adjust to the Floridian lifestyle. The difference in temperature proved to be a significant obstacle. In his early days with Oak Hall, Szlachetka found himself tired out almost immediately after taking the field due to the Gainesville heat.

Nonetheless, Szlachetka did not let these early adversities sideline him. He started working out on a daily basis at a gym across from the school. As a result, he got faster and much stronger. At one point in our interview, Szlachetka pointed out that he is “in the best shape of [his] life”. Szlachetka had already substantially improved since moving down from New York. His dedication to the game and all of his hard work set up Szlachetka for a promising career with the Eagles.

Building Connections Early On At Oak Hall

Despite some promising moments in his freshman year at Oak Hall, Szlachetka still struggled at times with the transition. He noted how in his first practice, he had to wear gear “twice his size” since he did not have any personalized equipment yet. At first, it took some time for Szlachetka to get to know his teammates. As the new kid from across the country, he had just met everyone on the roster for the first time.

Szlachetka warms up in the bullpen prior to taking the mound in Oak Hall’s win over P.K. Yonge at Roger Maris Field.

Nevertheless, he gradually began to develop bonds with several of his teammates. Emory Ezzell partnered up with Szlachetka during throwing warm-up drills in the team practices. Szlachetka also befriended Troy Freeman after he joined the Florida Hardballers travel baseball team. While the former did not take the mound at all in his freshman year, Szlachetka and Freeman would end up forming a dynamic duo on the mound for Oak Hall. Throughout the 2022 season, Freeman has served as the team’s go-to starter, while Szlachetka has served as the go-to closer.

Over time, Szlachetka became one of the bigger personalities in the dugout. His easygoing personality made him an instant favorite among several of his teammates. He knows exactly when to crack a joke or hype a teammate up. However, he also knows when to put on a serious face and take care of business. One thing that makes Szlachetka stand out from the rest of the guys on the roster is his sense of humor.

“The man is FUNNY. He is hilarious,” Oak Hall catcher Brody Beaupre said. “He definitely knows when to use his jokes and when not to.”

While his personality helped Szlachetka bond with his teammates, his work ethic quickly impressed his coaches as well. At one point, Coach Maris compared the way Szlachetka practices to “game seven of the World Series.” He treats every drill like an in-game situation, and his intensity never wavers. The coaching staff took note of that early on in his time with the team, and they grew fond of him as a result. The love between Szlachetka and the Eagles’ coaches is mutual; he expressed his gratitude for the chances that Oak Hall has given him to grow.

“I am so thankful for the opportunity that [Coach Maris] gave me. I was not having fun in New York. Honestly, I did not like it up there,” Szlachetka said. “We were actually supposed to move to Tampa for a little bit. That was the plan, but then we met Coach Maris… We fell in love with this school and the coaching staff. Coach [Bobby] Hill and Coach Maris are two of the greatest coaches I’ve ever had in my life.”

Putting In Work Behind The Scenes

By the time Szlachetka joined the Eagles varsity squad, they had already played out half of their season. Szlachetka quickly made his way into the starting lineup as an outfielder. He initially played in left field before making the switch back to center fielder, his preferred position.

Szlachetka got off to a slow start in the batter’s box in his freshman year with Oak Hall. In his 25 plate appearances, Szlachetka only picked up three hits and five walks. Earlier in his career, his coaches did not emphasize the technical aspects of hitting as much in his training. With a brand new coaching staff guiding him, Szlachetka got to work in the offseason at the plate to improve his hitting.

Ethan Szlachetka (bottom right) warms up prior to taking the plate in Oak Hall’s first matchup against Union County this season.

“I’ve been working on hitting a lot more than I did in New York,” Szlachetka said. “We do a lot more specific [drills] down here. In New York, they’d just be like ‘Oh, that was good contact’ and stuff like that. But here, it’s like ‘Work the ball up the middle, have a goal for when you hit.'”

With an offseason of hard work and plenty of training under his belt, Szlachetka got off to a flaming-hot start in 2022. He picked up twice as many hits in his first two games as a sophomore than he did during his entire freshman year. Szlachetka ended up batting fourth for the Eagles throughout the majority of the regular season. He came up clutch for Oak Hall in several situations at the plate.

One of his finest moments came in the team’s victory over Union County two weeks ago. Trailing by one run in the bottom of the fifth inning, the Eagles had the bases loaded with two outs. Szlachetka proceeded to blast the ball into deep right field to bring in all three runners on a 3-RBI triple. The Eagles went on to win the game 5-2. When asked about the play after the game, Szlachetka quipped that he was a little disappointed it didn’t turn into a home run.

The Man On The Mound When It Matters Most

Despite not initially pitching for the Eagles in his freshman year, Szlachetka has tackled several tight situations on the mound for Oak Hall this season. In just his first pitching appearance during the 2022 season, Szlachetka had to take the mound midway through the fourth inning against the P.K. Yonge Blue Wave. Having already scored six runs, the Blue Wave hoped to keep their offensive momentum going despite the pitching change. Szlachetka had other plans.

Szlachetka throwing out a pitch earlier in the season.

Over the next 3 1/3 innings, Szlachetka only allowed two hits, two walks and one run. He also went on to throw six strikeouts. Three of them came in the final three at-bats of the game. His electric performance on the mound (and at the plate, having racked up three hits on the day) led to the Gainesville Sun naming Szlachetka the Athlete of the Week.

The P.K. Yonge game solidified Szlachetka as one of the best pitchers in the team’s bullpen. With his aggressive pitching style and a staggering 31% of at-bats that end in strikeouts for the opposing team, you can almost guarantee that Szlachetka will get the job done for his squad. He has proven that he can perform on any given day in any given inning.

“He’s done a good job of coming into some big situations pitching-wise, and solidifying himself as a guy that can come out and close the door,” Maris said. “A lot of guys don’t have that mentality… He can rise to the occasion for that big moment at the end of the game.”

On multiple occasions, Szlachetka has described his mindset on the mound as “angry”. In order to throw as hard as he possibly can, Szlachetka riles himself up to the point where a fastball could penetrate a bulletproof window. When asked about what he uses to make himself angry on the mound, Szlachetka’s answer sounded like it could have come from the late great Kobe Bryant himself. He uses his own mistakes to essentially trick himself into playing better.

Preparing For The Future While Staying Grounded

Szlachetka and the Eagles have started to turn heads throughout this season. Oak Hall finished the 2022 regular season with a 13-2 record and clinched the #1 seed in their upcoming Districts tournament.

Szlachetka gets some extra practice in with Coach Maris on a Saturday afternoon.

Szlachetka, as one of the team’s standouts, has received multiple accolades for some of his standout performances this season. However, despite the recognition he has received, Szlachetka continues in his strive for greatness as the postseason approaches. 

He has given some thought to his future in baseball. As he plans to play college baseball down the road, he already has a couple of prospective destinations in mind. However, at the end of the day, Szlachetka will go wherever he needs to if it allows him to continue pursuing his passion. Just as he has all of his life, he can and will do whatever it takes to keep getting better and to keep proving himself. Safe to say, any school would be lucky to have a player with a heart for the game like Ethan Szlachetka’s.

“I’ve heard great things about the state of Texas. I’d love to either stay here in Florida or go to Texas,” Szlachetka said. “But obviously, anywhere that would want me, I’d love to go to… I love baseball, and I love being able to play it as much as I can.”

About Jack Meyer

Jack Meyer is a first-year student at the University of Florida. He is majoring in Journalism and specializing in Sports and Media.

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