Mike Onufrak, a sophomore, looks likely to be Mattituck’s catcher on Opening Day. (Credit: Garret Meade)
An event that occurred hundreds of miles away, all the way in Albany, had an immediate impact on Mike Onufrak, an impact he could not have foreseen.
Onufrak, a sophomore catcher, had figured he was looking at another season playing for the Mattituck junior varsity baseball team, with perhaps a call-up to catch a game or two for the varsity team. If that was the plan for the Tuckers, it changed dramatically Friday morning.
That was when word spread throughout Mattituck High School that the Tuckers’ first-string catcher, Brian Pelan, had suffered a serious shoulder injury while wrestling in the New York State Public High School Athletic Association Championships in Albany. Onufrak received the news while he was in a physical education class. A fellow student approached him and asked, “Did you hear about Brian?”
Just like that, the spotlight was cast on Onufrak.
Onufrak’s role on the team has changed considerably. His playing opportunity has arrived sooner than later. At least until Pelan returns in good health, Onufrak is being to looked to as the man behind the plate. One door closes and another door opens.
Coach Steve DeCaro said Onufrak was given the “land of opportunity speech.”
Pelan, a senior who throws right-handed and bats left-handed, separated his left shoulder where the left clavicle meets the sternum. He said he can’t lift his left arm above his shoulder. Three to five weeks of physical therapy, anti-inflammatory medication and rest have been ordered.
“Not being able to lift my glove past 90 degrees is a huge problem,” said Pelan, who watched his team’s first preseason practice in the Mattituck High School gym on Monday evening. “The doctor said it’s going to hurt for the whole season no matter what. I just got to push through it.”
Pelan said he expects to be on the field later this season. “I see no problem doing that,” he said.
DeCaro said the Tuckers were “devastated” by the news. Pelan, an All-League player who was a starter the past two years, finished last season with a .371 batting average, 17 runs batted in, 5 stolen bases and 3 doubles. But he brought the Tuckers more than numbers.
“He’s the leader of this team,” said DeCaro.
For the 6-foot Onufrak, Pelan’s misfortune produced conflicting emotions.
“It’s a weird feeling because you feel bad for Brian because it’s his senior year and he’s starting off the year hurt,” Onufrak said. “You don’t know when he’s going to come back. But I was also a little happy, too. I felt like I had a shot to show what I can do for varsity catching-wise.”
Onufrak said he was a catcher in Little League for a couple of years before straying away from the position. He played mostly third base and pitched for the junior varsity team last year.
Last summer DeCaro saw Onufrak catch in a tournament and asked him about committing himself to the position, which he has. The early reviews have been encouraging.
“Mike’s very good,” the ace of Mattituck’s pitching staff, Cameron Burt, said. “I trust him. I have faith in him. He’s a good hitter, too. He’s just going to have to rise to the occasion. I know he will.”
DeCaro said: “The pitchers love him because he does a great job receiving. The coaches love him because he works so hard.”
The other catchers on the team are sophomore Jon Dwyer and junior Ben Knowles.
Onufrak said he enjoys catching and being involved in every pitch. Speaking of the prospect of being the starting catcher on Opening Day, he said: “You’re happy, you’re excited, you’re nervous. It’s a bunch of different feelings, and in the back of your head you’re thinking, I always feel bad for Brian because he’s missing his spot, but I’m also excited that I’m out here. I’m happy and I just want to contribute to varsity as much as I can.”
Onufrak’s opportunity is not solely the result of Pelan’s misfortune.
“He’s also a guy who worked really hard, and now he’s going to get his chance,” DeCaro said. “It’s like ‘Rocky’.”