READING — Zach Stephenson was down to his last pitch in the semifinals of Saturday’s Home Run Derby at Austin Prep.
The senior center fielder from Bishop Feehan had eight seconds left in a 30-second tiebreaker to hit a home run and advance to the final round. And with his dad, Rob, delivering the ball right where he likes it, Stephenson extended his smooth lefthanded swing and ripped a ball down the right field line and over the 310-foot fence.
Stephenson carried that momentum right into the finals, where he hit three more bombs to be named champion of the inaugural A Shot For Life Home Run Derby, defeating Pat D’Amico of St. John’s Prep.
“I chose my dad [as the pitcher] right away,” Stephenson said. “He’s been throwing to me since I was 3 years old. And he’s a damn good ‘BP’ thrower.”
“I only had one shot left. I got a perfect pitch from my dad, and all that muscle memory just carried it out.”
Stephenson, who is committed to UConn, was one of 13 hitters to raise at least $1,000 toward brain cancer research in order to participate in the event.
Mike Slonina, CEO and Founder of A Shot For Life, has run multiple basketball-related charity events throughout the years, and hopes to expand the brand through other sports, including baseball.
“We had a lot planned for 2020 until the pandemic set us back,” Slonina said. “This is kind of the tip of the iceberg as far as what we were thinking. We’ve had quite a bit of development and were going to quadruple in size in one year.”
Despite the challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic, Slonina began planning the derby in April, when he reached out to freelance reporter Matt Feld for his baseball connections.
Working with Slonina, Feld was able to corral a talented roster of hitters and organize the event, which Slonina said will take place annually at Austin Prep following the conclusion of each high school baseball season.
“It was kind of a scramble, but in my estimation we truly found the best hitters in Massachusetts,” said Feld, now head of ASFL’s baseball department.
“With this event, we can reach more of the community. By expanding from basketball into baseball, we can raise awareness across the state.”
Stephenson said when he first got a direct message asking him to participate in a home run derby, he was skeptical. But after spending a night competing with some of the best players around and receiving the inaugural trophy for his efforts, the junior had no regrets.
“This is one of the greatest things I’ve ever been a part of,” Stephenson said. “I appreciate everything [Slonina’s] done. This has been great and I can’t wait to do it again next year.”
The ASFL Home Run Derby for softball will be held at Austin Prep on Sunday at 2 p.m.