Over the last seven years, the Oswego State baseball team has played 228 games, seen two head coaches and adjusted each year to roster turnover from graduations and transfers. Throughout all that time, however, there has been one constant in the program: there has always been a Stark.
The Stark brothers have been a part of the Oswego State baseball program in some form since 2007, when Bryan Stark joined the team as a freshman outfielder. Seven years and hundreds of games later, his younger brother, Mike, is in his senior year and attempting to lead the team to its first NCAA tournament berth since 1996.
Mike Stark is currently having the strongest year of his career for a Lakers team that has notched several big wins, including a 5-4 extra-inning victory over nationally-ranked SUNY Cortland last Thursday, en route to a 10-10 record on the season. The senior second basemen and team captain is leading the team in runs, doubles, home runs, walks and slugging percentage and was named both the SUNYAC and ECAC Upstate Player of the Week for the week of March 24. During that week, Stark posted a .467 on-base percentage and scored six runs over a seven-game stretch that saw the team go 5-2, including two wins over rival The College at Brockport.
To reach this point of success, Mike Stark has had to work through three years of both triumphs and struggles with the program, all of which were sparked in part by the influence of his brother.
Bryan Stark became a leader during his career with his team, even making national headlines his junior year when he filled in as head coach when then-head coach, Frank Paino, was struck and injured by a foul ball. Bryan was a junior when his younger brother Mike was considering which schools to play baseball for, and, according to Mike, was a large influence on his college decision.
“I look up to him a lot and he doesn’t really steer me in the wrong direction,” Mike Stark said. “He said the program was on the uprise, which at the time it was trying to get there.”
Mike said he was also influenced by his varsity baseball coach at Greece Athena High School in Rochester, Jason Bunting, who had coached Mike and Bryan and had close relationships with both.
“He told me to believe in what my brother said and that Oswego would be a great program for me,” Mike Stark said.
Joining the Lakers’ squad his freshman year in 2010 provided Mike with the opportunity to play with his brother, who was headed into his senior year, for the first time.
“It was awesome,” Mike Stark said. “We were so far apart in high school that I had no idea we would ever play together, and when I had the opportunity to I thought it was great.”
Mike Stark received limited playing time his freshman year, appearing at the plate 41 times over 23 games, but still notching a .353 on-base percentage.
Mike said he tried to take advantage of any opportunity he received.
“I’d play second, short, third, outfield, wherever [Paino] needed me to,” Stark said. “I didn’t play everyday, but it was just nice to have some sort of role as a freshman.”
In his sophomore year, Stark saw more playing time, though still in a mostly utility role.
“I played everywhere and batted in every spot in the order,” Stark said. “So it was a big coming out year for me.”
Bryan Stark stayed with the team that season too, working as an assistant coach.
“It was big,” Mike Stark said of his brother’s presence on the coaching staff. “He’s had a positive impact on my life, so having him around had a big impact on my career.”
Alternating between second base, shortstop and right field, Stark led the team in walks, finished second in stolen bases and third on the team in runs scored.
“I just tried to get on base,” Stark said. “I wasn’t really hitting for power or anything, so on-base-percentage was a big thing for me. Any way to help the team win.”
The team struggled in Stark’s freshman and sophomore year, however, going 3-27 in SUNYAC play over the two seasons.
Following Stark’s sophomore season, the program made a coaching change. Scott Landers, who had previously been serving an assistant coach for Divison I Le Moyne, took over as the head coach of the team. Stark said the impact of the move was felt by both him and the program.
“It was really big honestly,” Stark said. “I think it was a big transition for this program in the right direction. Coach Landers is a great guy, he hasn’t done this program wrong yet and it’s only on the uprise. He was the perfect guy for the job.”
It was also Stark’s first year without his brother, who took an assistant coaching position at the University of Rochester.
Despite all the changes, Stark continued to improve. He again led the team in walks, and saw a marked improvement in his overall hitting, finishing fourth on the team in hits, RBIs and runs scored while batting .271 overall.
Stark credited his improvement to the coaching he received.
“The workout program Coach Landers gave us in the offseason for hitting and fielding work helped tremendously,” Stark said. “A lot of it I owe to Coach Landers.”
The team improved overall as well, finishing 8-10 in SUNYAC conference play and 20-20 overall, but fell short of making the SUNYAC playoffs.
Coming into this season, the team set lofty goals for itself.
“Our goal from day one was to make NCAAs,” Stark said. “We haven’t won SUNYACs in maybe a decade, so beyond that our goal is to make NCAAs. Obviously SUNYACs come first, but still NCAAs and 30 wins is our main goal.”
Stark said this year’s team, while young, has developed strong chemistry in the offseason, which has shown on the field.
“Half our team is basically new, so we didn’t know how things were going to work out, but instantly we clicked,” Stark said. “The chemistry was there from the fall so it worked out real well. I’d say we’ve become an experienced team really.”
Stark has been able to settle in offensively this year, regularly batting second in the lineup with a slash line of .294/.402/.471 is on pace for the best offensive season of his Laker career. Stark credits his success to be able to settle in a more established role.
“As a player, it’s nice to know exactly where you’re going to be playing and batting,” Stark said. “It can be difficult to look at the lineup and one day you’re playing right field, the next day you’re playing second. Or your batting first one day and then eighth the next. It’s nice to have some stability.”
Stark has also had to settle into a role as a leader, something he said he learned from the team captains before him.
“I had a lot of good leaders to help me through my first couple of years,” Stark said. “You try to just pass that down to the younger kids and help to improve the program.”
Stark said an important element to leading this young team is being vocal with the players.
“You’ve got to get on kids and have authority at times,” Stark said. “They might not like it, they might not like you for that moment, but in the end it helps the team.”
Stark hopes to help the team achieve its goal of an NCAA tournament bid, something he has eyed since he joined the program as a freshman.
“Coming in, I knew that they hadn’t been to SUNYACs in so long and I figured it would be awesome to get there and do something big with the program,” Stark said.
NCAA tournament or not, Stark said he is happy with his time with the program.
“I wish it could have gone a little better, but last year coming in with Coach Landers, it was a big move and big step for the program,” Stark said. “So I’m happy to have been a part of that.”
Stark will get to continue to be a part of the program’s growth, as he will follow in his brother’s footsteps and stay on as an assistant coach after graduation. Stark said he looks forward to the opportunity to watch the program continue to grow under Landers.
“I know he is going to bring it to new heights and I can look back in 10-15 years and say I was one of the guys to start that,” Stark said. “So in my eyes that’s an honor.”