Struggles a thing of the past for University High School baseball player Ben Shapiro

Courtesy Jean FruthUniversity’s Ben Shapiro slides in safely for one of his two home runs this year. Shapiro

Courtesy Jean FruthUniversity’s Ben Shapiro slides in safely for one of his two home runs this year. Shapiro

As far as mental hurdles go, University senior second baseman-pitcher Ben Shapiro had hit a wall.

For the first three years of his varsity career, the 5-foot-10, 165-pounder never hit over .300 in a season. That’s what makes the numbers he’s putting up this season all the more impressive. Shapiro leads the Red Devils (11-5, 7-1 Bay Counties League West) in several offensive categories, including batting average (.474), home runs (two), on-base percentage (.540) and slugging percentage (.868).

“The running joke on the team is I’ve accumulated more hits this year [18] than the past three years combined,” Shapiro said. “I think the first three years I convinced myself I couldn’t hit.”

Shapiro finally shattered the mental barrier he had built up in the team’s season opener, a 5-4 loss to St. Vincent de Paul of Petaluma. Despite the defeat, Shapiro’s confidence level soared.

“I realized if I could hit against one of the better teams in Division V, a team that destroyed us last year, then I could hit against anybody,” Shapiro said.

University is having one of its best seasons in recent memory, thanks to major contributions from standout players Andrew Thompson, Stephen Nemy, Kirk Steyer, John O’Malley, Josiah Corbus and Brian Palmigiano. Every team needs a catalyst, and there’s no question that Shapiro gets the Red Devils going.

“Ben gets everyone up on the team,” University coach Gary Johnson said. “He’s a no-nonsense guy, and when the lights go on, he seems to shine the brightest. He’s absolutely fearless, and that’s what I love about him. He is without a doubt the leader of our baseball team, hands down.”

Shapiro, who bats right-handed and throws right-handed, has made a team-high eight pitching appearances, often coming into a game as a setup man or closer. Shapiro didn’t pitch much last year because he was battling an inflamed nerve in his right biceps. To provide a glimpse into Shapiro’s toughness, Johnson relayed a story from last season.

“I approach Ben on the mound and ask if he’s OK,” Johnson said. “He tells me, ‘Coach, my arm can hurt tomorrow.’ Believe me, Ben Shapiro rocks. It’s going to be sad when Ben and the rest of the seniors graduate. This has been my favorite senior class [in five years as University’s coach]. I’m going to cry when they leave.”

Before that happens, however, the Red Devils have championship goals. If University wins the BCL West Division title — it is currently in first place with two league games remaining — then it’ll turn its focus to possibly winning a North Coast Section Division V championship.

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