Becoming that guy again

Niles’ DeFalco adjusts to get back on top of game

Tribune Chronicle / Joe Simon Niles junior pitcher Marco DeFalco fires a pitch during a Division II sectional bracket final this week against Southeast. A star in youth baseball, DeFalco had a shaky start to his high school career, but has bounced back to become one of the best pitchers in the area.

NILES — Anyone who ever played Little League baseball probably remembers that one kid who could hit farther and throw harder than everyone else.

His team was always the best, and he was the main reason why.

Well, Marco DeFalco was that kid growing up, and now that DeFalco is starting to grow up, he’s realizing everyone else is too. That hasn’t stopped him from being one of the best.

The Niles junior, who has dominated the competition this year to the tune of a 0.44 ERA, entered high school after being one of the big shots of youth baseball. Pony, Colt, all-star teams — it didn’t matter. DeFalco could throw fastballs past them and hit home runs off anyone. Things were a little different as a freshman, when a 14-year-old kid had to play against 18-year-old men.

It took a little time for DeFalco, who played varsity as a freshman, to realize how to overcome the situation.

“I realized that I wasn’t ‘the guy’ anymore,” DeFalco said. “I had other guys on the team that were just as good as me and better than me. I had to compete, and I didn’t really have that before. So, I’ve realized that, and each year I worked harder and harder to get where I am now.”

Where he is now is pretty impressive.

Aside from his ERA, he’s 7-0 with 82 strikeouts in 48 innings pitched. He has six shutouts, allowed three earned runs total, is batting .388 and is a huge reason Niles is 18-4 and the top seed in the Division II Struthers District.

Considering how rough things were when DeFalco was a freshman (6.87 ERA), when DeFalco said “I didn’t believe in myself,” his progress has been incredible. Maybe the prime reason for his growth is trusting the players behind him.

“One of the things that I’m most proud of Marco is, when he came in as a freshman he was kind of a kid that I think he was always that dominant player in his group,” Niles High School baseball coach T.C. Guarnieri said. “It took a little bit of a maturation process for him to understand that hey, you have eight other guys who have your back. He didn’t need to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders. You don’t have to do everything. You don’t have to be perfect.”

Perfect is a fair description of how DeFalco is pitching nowadays.

Aside from the aforementioned statistics, he has thrown back-to-back no-hitters (one last week against Lakeview and another Monday against Southeast in the first postseason game for the Red Dragons). DeFalco has three no-hitters on the season, with the first of his career coming in April against Jefferson.

The 5-foot-9, 160-pound DeFalco isn’t exactly an imposing figure on the mound. Well, until he throws a fastball. The lefty can reach 86 mph and spots his fastball just about anywhere he wants. That kind of control, and also being able to throw off-speed pitches for strikes, didn’t come easy.

“Early on, he didn’t have the control, maybe not the confidence,” Guarnieri said. “His pitch counts were high. The walks were high. He struggled to get out of innings. He didn’t have that second pitch to help him put hitters away.

“The first thing that (DeFalco and pitching coach Aaron Johnstone) really worked on was his command and making sure he could spot the fastball. Once he got that … he didn’t really have a second pitch. It was just something he and the pitching coach kept working on.”

Working on baseball is part of everyday life for DeFalco.

The 16-year-old, who’s young enough to be a sophomore, stays after practice on a regular basis. He plays in a summer league after the high school season is over, and in the winter, he’s thinking about playing — “He’ll text me in the middle of the winter time,” Guarnieri said, “and say, ‘Hey coach, check out this baseball video that I found.’ “

Being as young as he is and considering this is the first season he’s really flourished, DeFalco is still awaiting college offers, but that’s likely to change in a hurry. DeFalco said a few schools have shown interest, and his first pick as of now would be Youngstown State.

“Playing for my city, that’s where I want to be,” he said. “It’s been my dream to go play college (baseball), for as long as I can remember. That’s another motivating factor for me, knowing that at any given time there can be college scouts watching me, coaches, anybody. All it takes is that one eye to notice you. It gives you that much more motivation to hustle, never take any plays off and play every game like your last.”

Every game could the last of the season for Niles. The Red Dragons face West Branch in the district semifinal at 4 p.m. Monday at Cene Park.