By Sam Wilson

Robert Sawicki Jr. learned how to deal with disappointment before his college baseball career began.

Graduating from Ellicottville High School in 2016, Sawicki planned to play baseball at Division II Clarion University, where he’d been recruited. But entering the fall of that year, two weeks before arriving on campus, Sawicki learned the coaches who recruited him were out at Clarion, and he would have to try out for his spot on the team.

“Going into that fall at Clarion, we didn’t have a coach and we all showed up and there were actually 60 guys at Clarion for baseball,” Sawicki said. “Thinking I was recruited, I thought it didn’t matter for me. But after going through that process while I was at Clarion in the fall, I was actually the last person, they had to knock the roster down to 29 and I was basically No. 30.”

The new coach, Anthony Williams, said he could redshirt for a year, but it wouldn’t guarantee him a spot on the team the next year.

“He said ‘I completely understand if you want to explore options of going somewhere else,’” Sawicki recalled.

That night, while meeting with Sawicki, Williams called Zach Foster, coach at Pitt-Bradford, to set up a meeting. The next day, Sawicki traveled to Bradford.

“The next day, I was in Bradford and basically had a visit with Coach Foster, sat down with him and talked out my options and made my decision on the spot to transfer for that spring,” Sawicki said.

He made the most out of a disappointing surprise. Now, Sawicki is doing the same with the premature ending to his college baseball career. Like all spring college athletes, Sawicki’s season ended abruptly last month amid the escalating concerns over the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Sawicki said Foster taught him how to deal with a fear of failure early on after arriving at UPB.

“The first day I met him, he asked me what my biggest fear was and I had an extensive talk with him and I said, ‘honestly it’s failure, my biggest fear is letting the guys beside me down, letting my coaches down’ and that was the biggest thing I had to learn because baseball is a game of failure,” Sawicki said. “The best players in the world only get a hit three times out of 10. If you can do that you’re in the hall of fame in the majors. Knowing that I’m going to fail, but using failure as motivation to step my game up and become better every day.”

Sawicki’s playing time increased each season, from three games as a freshman, 13 as a sophomore and 16 as a junior. He called UPB a “perfect fit” where he found a “brotherhood” with the Panthers.

“It really opened my eyes seeing that I had to work really way harder because I was a guy that got cut from a Division II program and it wasn’t what I thought,” he said. “So going through that process of transferring from Clarion made me realize that nothing in college baseball is a given. Through the three and a half years at Pitt-Bradford, I really grew as a player and as a person and it definitely helped me not only with my work ethic but being able to go in and work every day.”

He had a sterling batting average through just seven games of his senior year, hitting .348 (8-for-23) with four RBI, often hitting second and playing left field. Sawicki didn’t know it at the time, but he played his final collegiate game March 11 against Bridgewater St., hitting 2-for-5 in Port Charlotte, Fla. 

“Going into that game I had a feeling that there was going to be something bad that happened but I didn’t realize it was going to be the last game that I ever played,” Sawicki said, as he got an email beforehand warning a postponement or cancelation could be coming.

Later that night, the Panthers learned their trip to Fort Myers and the season as a whole ended. The players were called to an ‘emergency meeting’ at the hotel pool.

“I was in a room playing cards with a bunch of the seniors and we were a senior-heavy team so a lot of us were in there and our heads just sank,” he said. “Everybody’s hearts just went into their stomach and no one really knew what to think, but we got down to the pool and we got the worst of it. Coach had to tell us we weren’t even allowed to finish our spring trip, we still had six games left to play. The whole four years that I had been there flashed in a second. That was the hardest part, to have 34 of my brothers down at the pool with me and seeing every one of them just heartbroken.

“We had something special. We had no doubt in our minds that we were going to be a frontrunner for winning the conference this year and had a chance to do something really special.”

After graduation, Sawicki plans to take the state police exam in the fall. Speaking almost a month later, while staying at home to complete his degree online, he had a bit more perspective on his lost senior season, but the wounds were still there.

“I think being able to sit back and have a couple weeks to get the anger out — not a hatred but a strong anger — that I had when I found out that it was over,” he said, “I had a chance to sit down and go through how many lifelong friends I’ve made and just being able to say that I did play college baseball and I like to think that I had a great time doing it and that’s something I can carry with me forever.”