OLD WESTBURY, N.Y. — Base stealing has become an art form with Head Coach John Lonardo of SUNY Old Westbury.
The Panthers swiped 528 bases over a recent 3-year span while leading NCAA Division III programs in stolen bases during the 1994 and 1996 seasons.
In 1996, his ball club swiped 163 bases in 201 attempts in 33 games as the team averaged nearly five stolen bases per game.
Eight players pilfered 11 or more bases and three stole 22 or more.
This has all been accomplished since Lonardo came on the scene in 1992 when he devised a plan to give his team an edge against other Division III teams - steal, steal, and steal some more and cause havoc on the base paths.
"One of the first things I did when I took the job was to take a different approach to recruiting," said Lonardo, who does not give out any athletic scholarships since his school is a Division III program.
"We try to recruit speed because I'm not able to recruit the type of guy who will hit a ball 400 feet. But I felt I could recruit quick kids and teach them how to hit. Some of the kids I have brought on board have possibly been a grade or two below hitting wise, but I felt they could be taught to hit."
Lonardo was asked if he recruits players with quickness, speed or combination of those qualities.
"I really like quickness in a runner. In base stealing, my philosophy is that the No. 1 factor in stealing is getting a proper lead. We have a system we use. No. 2 is the first step."
Testing Foot Dominance
Lonardo said his players are run through tests to determine which foot has the most power, and that foot is used to make that all important first step toward the next bag.
"We test every kid within our program for foot dominance. If they are dominant with their right foot, we use a jab step as the first step. If they are dominant with left foot, we use the cross over step. That without a doubt helps with first step quickness.
"The way we steal bases is based on timing. We try to get down to second base in a certain amount of time. That formula is based on the pitcher's release point, the pitcher's time to the plate and the catcher's time to second. If our runner can make it to second base in a certain time, we know he will be safe every time. We know how many steps we need to make and what sort of lead is necessary to beat that time.
"Our formula for success is based on a measured lead. We take one of three leads-either a three step, four step or five step lead. If we get a five step lead, we are safe 95 percent of the time. Players will walk off three steps. One shuffle is a fourth step, and then another shuffle is the fifth step. It's very easy because all the leads are always the same."
Lonardo said it doesn't matter to him if he has an athlete who is taller with a longer stride or a shorter player with a quicker, faster stride.
"A lot of guys on my team are 5-foot-9 to 5-foot-11 and are quick. I can tell you a funny story. One of the kids I recruited was playing in an All-Star game, and I saw him pinch run. He came out of the dugout hustling down to first base. He steals second and then third. I had never seen him swing the bat. I went over to his mom and dad and talked to them. Now he's playing for me.
"Somebody who can run well on my level gives us a bit of an advantage. We don't have to give up as many outs because w don't have to bunt as much. If I can move those guys over on offense without bunting them over, I feel we have a good shot at winning ball games."
Lonardo was asked what specifically his team works on in the off-season.
"We work on a whole bunch of things. In our pre-season conditioning program, we do a lot of plyometrics which includes bounding, leaping and explosive first step. We also do a lot of running form drills, high knee drill, kick back drills. What I found out from these drills is that they not only help us run but they also prevent injuries. Over a long period of time, especially with all the running we do, we have less breakdowns."
The SUNY Old Westbury coach was asked to explain some of the plyometric exercises in detail.
"We do the squat jump which basically is the broad jump through a wise base. We will do about 20 yards five times. Besides developing the explosiveness in the gluteus maximus, we also want to develop the stomach muscles. For those muscles, we do knee tucks where they stand with their feet together, and they jump up in the air and try to bring their knees all the way to their chests.
"With running form drills, what we do is high knees in place and start out with 15 seconds to warm the players' legs up. Then we do what we call a '15 second blowout' where they go high knee as fast as they can for 15 seconds. That increases stride length.
"Another one we use increases stride frequency in what we call 'kick butt drill.' The players attempt to get their heel to hit their rear end. With that drill, we again go 15 seconds to warm up and then have a 15 second blowout as with the previous drill."
Lonardo said the use of the arms is also important.
"You see some teams where players have their arms and hands hanging down. I want our players to have their hands similar to the way a middle linebacker would hold his hands with elbows tucked in and his hands about chest level. Then whatever move they make, whether it be the jab or crossover step, that right arm gets pulled into the body. That helps with the all-important jump a runner needs. I personally don't like the hands hanging down because it's not a natural movement. With the hands being held higher, it is more of a natural movement and more of an athletic position."
Gaining An Edge
Lonardo said having an edge in the running game is crucial to the success of his program.
"I'm in an area where there are a lot of Division I teams such as New York Tech., C.W. Post, St. John's and in Division II Adelphi, Stonybrook and others. This is one of the ways I could be successful on the Division III level. So far I have to say it's worked. We average 20 to 23 wins a season in a 35-game schedule."
Lonardo said his teams have averaged about 160 stolen bases a year at SUNY Westbury over a 35-game schedule which translates into about five SBs per game.
"The most stolen bases one of my teams had was 189 in 1993. We have stolen 15 bases in a game three times which tied the national record. We steal everything we can. We spend a lot of time stealing second, third and home. You better nail everything down or we will steal that, too. In 1994, Matt Stephens had 45 stolen bases in 46 attempts. He was our best base stealer. We had another real good one in 1996 in Nelson Castro who stole 26 bases."
Lonardo was asked how his team is able to steal so well since every opponent knows that his club will be stealing from the moment the game begins.
"Our success percentage is right at 83 percent which is pretty remarkable when you realize other teams know that we're going to steal at every opportunity. The first year we surprised everyone in 1993. But since that time, I have seen some of the most amazing pickoff moves you could imagine. They seem to keep it all for us. Because other teams are getting better at holding our running game down, we must get better as well."
High Pressure = Errors
Since SUNY Westbury has such a high pressure offense, the opposition has committed plenty of errors trying to stop it. Last year opponents committed 59 errors in 33 games - nearly two a game.
"That's true. One of our goals every year is to cause the opposing teams to make at least 35 pressure errors a season. What we try to do is average at least one a game. We have met that goal and more through the years."
Lonardo said he works with his players so they learn certain reads off pitchers when they tip off going to the plate and when they tip off a pickoff move.
"It's real team effort, too. Our first base coach is involved as well as the third base coach and the guys on the bench."
The SUNY Westbury skipper said giving different looks with his running game causes opponents fits.
"We try to give opposing teams all types of looks whether it be delayed steals, fake drop steals, etc. One thing I am a firm believer in which goes against the grain a bit is having our guys take a direct path to the base. We don't take leads behind the base. Even with two outs, we don't move back with our 2-out lead. A straight line is the fastest way to get to the next base."
Lonardo said his teams have never hit below .300. In 2002 the Panthers hit .307 in 33 games.
"I let my guys swing the bat. I don't believe in the take sign. They should have a command of the strike zone. We go out there hitting and running. We do a lot of hit and runs. We have a lot of guys moving on the base paths. I have always felt the most difficult pitch is the curve ball. If we can get our guys moving, most of the pitches our hitters will see is fastballs. If they get fastballs, hopefully they will make good contact."
Bases Loaded Hit & Run
Lonardo, who has the guts of a burglar, has even attempted hit and runs with the bases loaded on several occasions.
"A couple of times we cleaned the bases, and then several other times we had everybody in no-man's land with players being thrown out. People see us and can't understand how we take such tremendous leads and do this and that. But there is a system to it. It looks kamikaze. But there is a definite system with principles and rules which you must follow in order to be successful."
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