R.J. Etzel, who was one of East Hampton High School’s best athletes in the 1990s, has returned here from Miami, where he’s lived since 2005, to coach the high school’s varsity baseball team.
The spot became open when it was learned that driver’s ed classes would be switched from school to after-school hours, thus making it impossible for the team’s veteran coach, Ed Bahns, to continue.
“Nick Finazzo was the one who told me about it in a text,” Etzel said after Sunday’s practice. “I’d been wanting to get back here. . . .”
Etzel’s father is a charter fisherman in Montauk, his mother works at the Montauk School, and it was there, following a recent interview, that he ran into his former teammate Will Collins, who was Bahns’s assistant in the past few years. “I was walking out of an interview when Will [who was subsequently hired as a physical education instructor there] was walking in. I’m glad he got the job — he deserved it.”
The hiring of Collins at the Montauk School resulted in Mike Ritsi, the former junior varsity coach, moving up to assist Etzel with the varsity.
During a recent conversation at the Sportime Arena, which he manages, Ritsi, who graduated from East Hampton High School in 2002, said he had looked up to Etzel, a fellow Montauker, when he was growing up. “I idolized him — when he graduated he gave me all his football stuff.”
Ritsi, who played on Stan Rhodes’s District 36 Little League championship team in 1996, should also serve as a fine mentor for Bonac’s ballplayers if for no other reason than the fact that, under Mark Mensch’s watchful eye, he made a remarkable comeback from what appeared to be a career-ending knee injury during the fall of his senior year, in time to play baseball for Jim Nicoletti that spring.
Mensch said at the time, in a story that appeared on The Star’s front page, that “basically, he had to learn to walk again. . . .”
Ritsi was told following a seven-hour operation, in which two torn ligaments were reconstructed and cartilage damage was repaired, that his chances of ever again playing competitive sports were very slim.
“He telescoped eight months of rehab into four,” Mensch said at the time. “He’s a medical miracle. Basically, his whole knee had to be reconstructed. It would have been career-ending had he been a pro athlete. Two ligaments — the anterior cruciate ligament and the lateral cruciate ligament — were ruptured, gone. . . . It’s been a phenomenal recovery.”
It’s an all-Montauk staff, what with Etzel and Ritsi and Hayden Ward, the former State University of New York men’s basketball player of the year, who is coaching the jayvee after having coached the East Hampton Middle School boys basketball team this winter and jayvee boys volleyball in the fall.
“Ideally,” said Etzel, “I’d like to have 16 to 18 on the varsity — the jayvee has 18 — but we should do all right, barring injury, with the 13 we have.”
East Hampton finished in a tie with Amityville for last place in league play last season, each with 2-18 records, but Kevin Brophy, who’s volunteering again as East Hampton’s pitching coach, reminded that four of those losses had come at the hands of an undefeated state champion, Bayport-Blue Point, and that, for the most part, East Hampton’s team had been competitive.
Etzel, who played on a county-championship team for Nicoletti in 1995, along with Guy Ficeto, Henry Meyer, Tom McGintee, and Jake Katz, said his pitchers — the Dominican-born Maykell Guzman, Peter Shilowich, Kyle McKee, and Joseph McDonald among them — were looking good.
“Maykell is a tremendous athlete — he can play any position and he can hit,” said Etzel. “We’re looking for him to set the tone.”
There’ve been some changes to East Hampton’s field — all for the good — since Etzel, who led the team in all hitting departments in his senior year, played. “It looks like a legitimate field now,” he said with a smile.
The varsity’s first scrimmage has been scheduled with Hampton Bays for Saturday, March 22, but Etzel said he was hoping to set something up with Southampton here tomorrow.
“Though,” he said in parting, “I hear it’s supposed to snow.”