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The straw that stirs the Storm: Rozema fifth in the nation in batting

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Mike Rozema is 8 years old again. He’s back on the Fair Lawn Little League infield, anticipating his post-game ice-cream cone.

The St. John’s junior shortstop has been reintroduced to baseball and he loves every minute of it.

“When you’re little, you’re playing this game because you love the game. If you don’t enjoy it, you’re in it for the wrong reasons,” said the soft-spoken Rozema. “You have to enjoy this game. I love this game more than anything.”

And his love of the game has translated into a career season for Rozema.

His .467 batting average is fifth in the nation and leads the Big East conference. He is tops in the conference with a .511 on-base percentage and had a 22-game hitting streak — second longest in the program’s history — snapped Saturday in the first game of a doubleheader against conference rival West Virginia.

Rozema has also excelled in the field at shortstop, the same position his older brother, Matt, played at Division III William Patterson University and his younger sister, Meredith, played in high school before heading to the University of Florida. He has just three errors all season to become one of the top players in the Big East conference.

“I think he’s one of the best players in the league because of his performance,” said St. John’s coach Ed Blankmeyer. “(Notre Dame standout Matt) Macri has better arm strength and runs better, but he doesn’t perform like this kid.”

And Major League scouts have noticed too, making it a very real possibility Rozema gets selected in June’s Major League Draft.

“The kid can play professional baseball,” Blankmeyer added. “He’s what I call a level-to-level guy, every level he plays in he’ll get a little better. He’s a type of guy, if you let him play, he’ll perform well at each level.”

But the draft is the farthest thing from Rozema’s mind. Priority No. 1 is to get to the four-team Big East tournament. For the past two years, Rozema and the Red Storm have finished just out of the top four spots. Last year St. John’s lost out on the final bid on the final day of the regular season, losing a heartbreaker to Rutgers.

“You see (scouts) there, but it’s important to put it in perspective,” Rozema said. “Last year I went to the first round of the Big East tournament with (former teammate) Jason Kane, and for us to lose to Rutgers by a run or two and then to see Rutgers (in the tournament), it was the worst feeling. I went home and told my mom, I said next year we’re going to the Big East tournament.”

It hasn’t always come this easy for Rozema. After three nondescript years at Fair Lawn High School, Rozema had a breakthrough senior season when he earned all-county first team honors after hitting .517 and then drew the attention of former St. John’s assistant coach Kevin McMullen after a three home run afternoon in a pair of summer league games.

McMullen left St. John’s to take the top assistant job at East Carolina University, but, although he went down for an official visit, Rozema decided not to follow McMullen south and instead opted for St. John’s.

“He’s a very modest person, which is probably part of the reason why he’s such a great player,” said Al Barton, who coached Rozema at Fair Lawn High School. “His single greatest attribute is his passion for the game. I’ve never had anyone play harder in my 20 years of coaching high school baseball.”

Rozema hit a clutch late-inning pinch-hit single in his collegiate debut and then found himself mired in a hitting drought that seemed to last the rest of the season and well into his sophomore campaign.

The game he loved so much all of a sudden became a monotonous full-time job.

“At the end of freshman year I was absolutely drained,” he said. “It was a grind all the way through. Last year I came out and couldn’t get it together all year. I wasn’t relaxed.

“That’s a big thing in baseball, when things are going good for you, everything’s great but this game will kill you when things aren’t going good.”

It was actually the Rutgers series last year, when the Red Storm took the first two games and fell to the Scarlet Knights, 9-7, in the final game, when Rozema began to break out of his snide.

“Last year against Rutgers I said, ‘that ball looked like an absolute watermelon.’ Now every time I go up, I think I’m going to get a hit. It’s like a confidence, the ball looks better.”

After a successful fall campaign, Rozema went 5-for-10 with three runs scored in the opening three games of the year for the Red Storm and has not slowed down since.

“Last year he wasn’t trusting his hands enough and he would pull off,” said St. John’s hitting coach Mike Hampton. “He kept working at it and working on going the other way and staying inside the ball, and it’s clicked for him this year.”

As a result, Rozema loves baseball again. It doesn’t matter if it’s 8 a.m. practice or a meaningless mid-week game against a local foe, Rozema’s favorite place once again is the diamond, even if that diamond is now encased in a 2,000-seat stadium rather than the cozy confines of the Fair Lawn Little League field.

“I absolutely love this game,” he said. “Every day I have a good time out there.”

Reach Associate Sports Editor Dylan Butler by email at TimesLedger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 143.

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