May 28, 2022 still stings for Thomas Russo III and the entire Roy-Hart baseball program.
With a chance to win the Section VI Class B-2 championship game, the Rams saw their 19-win season end with a 1-0 loss to Medina. Russo surrendered just four hits and struck out seven. The only run allowed came on a throwing error. Somehow it wasn’t enough to win.
Russo and the Rams could have spent a few days reflecting and recuperating away from the diamond after the emotional ending. But after texting to each other in a group chat they weren’t satisfied, Russo and some of the 12 total returnees coming back for 2023 got back to work the following day.
The player-initiative decision to return to the diamond, Russo said, allowed the Rams to turn the page and set their eyes again on another postseason run.
“I’m just sick of the red patches — I want a blue patch,” said Russo, who was part of Roy-Hart’s sectional championship team as an eighth-grader in 2019. “Soon as the Medina game got over, we all texted each other in the group chat, ‘Hey, let’s go to the field. Let’s work on fielding, let’s go hit. We’re hungry. We’re gonna get it next season.’”
With more experience came a growth in Russo’s confidence, which led to his dominance on the mound. Last spring, the Canisius College signee was one of the top pitchers in Western New York, going 9-1 along with a staggering 0.43 ERA and 136 strikeouts, allowing just three extra-base hits in over 65 innings of work.
This is in comparison to his sophomore year in 2021 when he posted six wins, a 2.68 ERA and 87 strikeouts in 47 innings, the same time that he developed his signature slider that has sent batters back to the clubhouse the last two years. The method behind Russo’s performances on the mound is simple. When the opponent steps into the batter’s box, don’t let up on the gas pedal.
“Get ahead, stay ahead, that’s my main focus,” said Russo, who also had a .400 batting average, drove in 36 runs and recorded 16 extra-base hits at the plate. “Get ahead with that fastball early, throw the breaker and hopefully, they put the ball in play or I can strike them out.”
Outside of his parents — Brittney and Thomas Jr. — Jim Heideman has watched Russo progress as a baseball player and young man through the years. One of their favorite moments together came when Heideman coached a young Russo on a baseball team called the Scrappers. It was a classic rags-to-riches story as the Scrappers entered the postseason with the worst record in the league before they ran the gamut and won the championship.
Along with coaching him on JV his seventh grade year, Heideman and Russo have worked together at the varsity level the last three seasons. Russo described Heideman as his “second dad” and they both mutually agreed that they’ve been there for each other when needed. Referring to Russo as “the kid that never quits working,” Heideman said the ace is focused more on the on-field results than his own individual accolades.
“He doesn’t care about the numbers, but, you know, it’s about winning (for Thomas),” Heideman said. “It’s about being a good teammate. That’s what is important to him. The numbers that he has are staggering. He doesn’t get enough credit for them, in my opinion. … The kid just works hard all the time. … I’ve never seen anybody dominate on a mound like he has.”
Right now, he’s focused on bringing home postseason championships — and the coveted blue patch — back to Middleport this June. So far, Roy-Hart is off to a hot start this spring with a 4-1 record — all of them in non-league play, including wins against AA’s Niagara Falls and A-1’s Lockport.
In his first start of the season — a 3-1 win against the Lions on April 8 — Russo threw five innings of no-hit baseball and struck out 13 batters. In his next outing — a 2-0 loss to rival Wilson this past Wednesday — he struck out a season-high 14 batters in six innings — the same program he recorded a career-high 18 strikeouts in the Rams’ 8-0 win last April.
Russo credits his success to learning how to take a step back and breathe and reassess on the mound during tight situations, which, along with working hard towards your dream is what he advises players coming after him.
“You’re gonna fail more than you succeed,” Russo said. “You can get down on yourself easily. Make sure your mental health is good. Make sure you’re good physically, and just (taking) care of yourself is what’s most important.”
Roy-Hart continues its season with a home-and-home series with Newfane Friday and then Monday, April 24. First pitch for both contests is scheduled for 4:45 p.m.