Greg Olenski remembers Feb. 17, 2012, like it was yesterday, and not too fondly at that.
After redshirting his freshman season at the University of Maryland, Olenski was back on the baseball diamond for the Terrapins that late winter night in Los Angeles. Due to a glut in backstop options, the Somerton native and former catcher at Holy Ghost Prep had been shifted to the outfield by his collegiate coaches, and that season-opener at UCLA was supposed to represent a new beginning.
But then, something went horribly wrong.
“I was warming up in left field before the game, and my first throw home, I just completely airmailed the catcher,” Olenski said by phone from his apartment in College Park, Md. “I’ll never forget it. I took my glove off right away and I felt the worst pain I’ve ever felt in my arm. The throw, it wasn’t even close, so I knew something was seriously wrong. It felt like my shoulder was on fire.”
Originally diagnosed with bicep tendinitis, Olenski sought a second opinion from Phillies physician Dr. Michael Ciccotti a few weeks later. The ensuing MRI showed a SLAP tear in Olenski’s labrum, meaning he could no longer throw, but his swing wasn’t affected. Since he had already used a medical redshirt, Olenski played through the pain, hitting .421 with three RBI in 19 at bats, mostly in a part-time designated hitter/pinch-hit role.
He had surgery the first week of June, determined to come back to Maryland at 100 percent. However, the head coach who recruited Olenski, Erik Bakich, left to take the same position at the University of Michigan. In his place was John Szefc, a former assistant at Kansas State University, whose small-ball approach to hitting didn’t suit Olenski’s gap-to-gap power stroke.
Olenski, still working his way back from surgery, never got his chance to shine for Szefc, hitting .255 in 51 at bats as a sophomore.
“I did everything I could, but there were certain things I couldn’t do by fall practice and I fell behind the other kids,” Olenski said. “We had a new coach, and I didn’t really get a chance to showcase my abilities in a clean slate. My playing time was pretty irregular to the point where I couldn’t get into much of a rhythm.”
Olenski sensed it was time for a change, and Maryland granted his request for a release. He knew that for a team to get his very best, he needed to be in the middle of the lineup every day to showcase the power skills that allowed him to set offensive records while at Holy Ghost.
Luckily for him, University of Delaware head coach Jim Sherman had remembered Olenski from his time at Ghost. Sherman’s top two power bats, outfielder Nick Ferdinand (an Archbishop Ryan graduate) and infielder Jimmy Yezzo, were drafted by the Phillies and Washington Nationals, respectively, so he was in need of some thump in the middle of the order. He found it in Olenski, who will be joining the Blue Hens beginning in the fall.
“We saw him back in high school, so we knew he was a guy with pretty good pop,” Sherman said. “We needed to replace some guys, and Greg brings power to the middle of the order. He can really launch the ball and drive it into the gap. He hasn’t had the opportunity to play on an everyday basis, and he needed to find a situation that better fit his style of play. It comes at a good time for both parties.”
It certainly comes at an opportune moment for Olenski, who has gained all of his confidence back and admits he will come into his junior season at Delaware with “a chip on my shoulder.” Currently, he is playing summer ball for the DC Grays of the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League, an elite summer organization for college players looking to get extra work in the hopes of attracting attention from professional scouts.
It’s the second-go-round for Olenski in the Ripken League. Two summers ago, he played for the Alexandria Aces following his freshman season and enjoyed the experience. But now, given second life, he’s playing with fiery intensity and purpose for the Grays (21-18 overall record). Olenski leads the 12-team Ripken League with 29 RBI and ranks tied for second in home runs (four), second in hits (41) and third in slugging percentage (.507). On July 17, he participated in the league’s All-Star Game and won the Home Run Derby contest with five long balls in a driving wind.
“I’ve been playing every day in left field down here,” Olenski said. “It’s big for me to go out there and put up numbers to get back on track. I didn’t get the opportunities at Maryland, but why not start this summer? I got into a consistent rhythm right away, and I think I started to show what I can do when I get into an everyday routine.”
Those who know him well know a determined, on-a-mission Olenski will be a nightmare to opposing pitching in the Colonial Athletic Association, Delaware’s conference.
“He’s the only four-year starter I’ve ever coached, and this will be my twelfth season coming up,” said Holy Ghost head coach Keith Smeraglio. “We don’t usually keep freshmen, but the seniors came to me and told me I had to keep this kid. He’s an extremely hard worker and by far the strongest kid I’ve ever coached. He has tremendous bat speed, but his biggest asset is the demeanor he brings to the field every day. He’s just a great kid who’s got all the tools. I look for real good things from him at Delaware.”
David Amaro, brother of Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro, is a close friend of the Olenski family and coached Greg with the Philly Bandits, a high school travel team. He echoed Smeraglio’s sentiments.
“I’ve known Greg since he was 10, and you can’t say enough about him as a baseball player and a young man,” Amaro said. “He’ll do very well at Delaware. He’s a power hitter who doesn’t strike out a ton, which is a unique combination. He can hit for average and power. He’s stronger than everyone else, and he’ll outwork you. He’s a very determined young man, and I’m excited for him. There’s no stopping him.”
For his part, Olenski is just taking his constantly evolving situation in stride. All he wants is a chance to prove his mettle as a baseball player, which is his way of thanking all of those who have made sacrifices to put him on a stage to succeed, from Amaro and Smeraglio to parents Greg and Karen, who gave the green light for a batting cage to be constructed in their Somerton backyard so that their son could take extra swings.
With a new opportunity in front of him, he wants to use the next two seasons as a launchpad for his lifelong goal: to become a professional baseball player.
“Being a professional baseball player, that always was and still is my number one goal,” he said. “I’m working toward that every day. I realize the game gets tougher and tougher as you climb the ladder, but my plan is to play the game until I can’t anymore. If that day comes, I’ll have no regrets. Baseball is a humbling game of failure that keeps me stable and grounded, and I’m thankful that it’s been such a huge part of my life.” ••