Zooming back to South Philly

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Mike Zolk helped Neumann-Goretti to win the 2011 Catholic League title as a player and will seek similar glory as a coach come the spring.

Photo provided by Mike Zolk

When good fortune finds people early in life, a few pinch-me moments are likely to occur when they consider the opportunities ahead. Mike “Zoom” Zolk experienced such astonishment and anticipation Nov. 2, landing the varsity baseball head coach position at Ss. Neumann-Goretti High School, the institution that he helped to lead to the 2011 Catholic League championship as a star second baseman.

“I did have a moment recently where I said ‘Did I really just become the coach at Neumann-Goretti’?” the 23-year-old said of his looming return to South Philly. “Being able to shape players and give them guidance is definitely a job that I want, so I’m prepared for everything; it’s go time.”

The Northeast Philly resident expressed interest in becoming affiliated with the East Passyunk Crossing-based school again right after the summer resignation of Kevin Schneider, who will helm the program at Immaculata University. As he and his father, Mike “Big Zoom” Zolk, become fully immersed in their duties as owners of Sluggersville Philadelphia, the younger entrepreneur felt now would prove the perfect occasion to intensity outreach to youngsters.

“I think Neumann-Goretti is the best opportunity for me as I’m getting in the swing of things,” Zolk said shortly before heading to Sluggersville, the city’s first premier year-round indoor baseball and softball training site, which he and his patriarch purchased in January. “It’s such a great environment and always fields a great group of dedicated guys. I expect a really fun run.”

In overseeing the Saints, Zolk will be inheriting the task of continuing a dynasty that has yielded five league titles in the last eight seasons, including the aforementioned ’11 team and the ’12 squad that his father coached. No matter the personnel, the local athletes always find themselves in the championship hunt, and, given their elder’s pedigree, one fully expects a fruitful spring for the bunch.

“There will be some really tough competition from schools like St. Joe’s Prep and La Salle, but we’re fully expecting to remain a top tier program,” Zolk said of his players, including senior shortstop Jared Healey, who has committed to Chestnut Hill College, and junior outfielder/pitcher Colin Eiser, who will head to Villanova University. “Plus, the support I’m going to have around me is the very best.”

“Out of all my years coaching, he has had the best combination of skill to go with a high IQ of baseball sense,” longtime assistant Joseph Messina said of the fellow alumnus. “His energy was infectious then, and it’s going to translate to coaching.”

Zolk transferred to Neumann-Goretti ahead of his junior season following successful enrollment at the now-shuttered North Catholic High School. All-Catholic designation and co-MVP status in the Blue Division his senior year helped to prove the University of North Carolina wise in having offered him a scholarship, and he ventured to the Tar Heel State with aspirations of enhancing its classification as an elite program.

“I’ve always been someone who wants to contribute and inspire, and going to such a reputable school really taught me so much more about the qualities that you need to have if you want to excel,” he said. “I’m a better player and person for having gone there.”

Zolk thrived as a UNC roster member, with his determination leading to his freshman christening as the starting second sacker. Tallying a .293 batting average and a .981 fielding percentage, he also won the chance to regale supporters with tales of the team’s triumphs, as the Tar Heels’ 2013 unit will live forever in the program’s annals by having gone 59–8, capturing the Atlantic Coast Conference’s regular season and tournament championships, earning the top seed for the NCAA Tournament, and advancing to the College World Series in Omaha in registering that mark.

He joyfully mentioned the influence that former assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Scott Jackson, who accepted a July offer to lead Liberty University’s team, had on his maturation and looks forward to advancing the mentor’s emphasis on “big boy baseball” at Sluggersville, where he is the director of baseball, and at Neumann-Goretti.

“It’s all about developing players right away and seeing that they feel and are emotionally, mentally, and, of course, physically prepared,” he said first of how his philosophy will benefit the travelers to the Northeast spot, which is undergoing an expansion that will take its size to 36,000 square feet, including a full infield and 10 batting cages; assists nine teams; and has established great connections with baseball beacons, including Phillies’ first base coach Mickey Morandini, with whom he will host an All Skills Camp Nov. 30, Dec. 7 and 14; and how it will inspire the Saints to march past their foes. “As we prepare to have everything done there, which I hope will be by January, I’m eager to think more about how to encourage the Neumann-Goretti kids even more, too.”

Along with their merit as parochial powerhouses, the Saints will also be defending City and State titles, and Zolk expects for them to have chips on their shoulders when naysayers make their annual forecast that the end is near for their impressive run. Messina, an element of all five league victories, noted “His hire is going to pay dividends, as we are receiving great response from grade school kids who know of his reputation and want to play for a proven winner.” With such esteem and rampant expectations, Zolk vowed not to let a minute go to waste in continuing to mold the Saints as dominators of the diamond.

“It’s going to be a young team, but that’s what’s going to make our success even more admirable,” he said. “We want to grow, and we want to win. I wouldn’t have gone after the job if I thought otherwise.” SPR

Contact Staff Writer Joseph Myers at jmyers@southphillyreview.com.