BY MICHAEL KELLY
CLIFTON PARK — Joe Palko mostly kept his head down last season, the lone junior everyday starter for the Shenendehowa baseball team. On a squad with big personalities and stars, Palko quietly filled his role as the player willing to do whatever it took to help the Plainsmen.
Now, he’s a year older.
That’s pretty much all that’s changed.
“Yeah,” Shenendehowa junior third baseman Devin Disonell said, “Palko’s not much of a talker.”
“Joe doesn’t say much, doesn’t talk much,” Shenendehowa head coach Greg Christodulu said. “But it’s his performance and his actions that lead us.”
Doing it his way, Palko has a Shenendehowa program hit hard by graduation after winning last year’s state title on the verge of defending its area title. First pitch for Thursday’s Section II Class AA baseball championship game between Niskayuna (No. 2, 17-4) and Shenendehowa (No. 8, 16-7) is scheduled for 7 p.m. at Joseph L. Bruno Stadium in Troy. After an up-and-down regular season, Shenendehowa is peaking at the right time.
“Right now,” Palko said, “we’re playing really good baseball.”
Palko has been consistent all season. The senior leads the team in nearly every offensive category, but what sticks out as much as his .447 batting average or .506 on-base percentage is that he’s only struck out twice this season in 87 at-bats.
“It just feels like every time he’s up to bat,” Disonell said, “he squares up the ball and hits it hard.”
Palko was a postseason hero a year ago. He smacked the game-winning hit for Shenendehowa in its comeback victory in the state championship, a walk-off single which delivered the Plainsmen their program’s first state crown.
This postseason, Palko has carried the Plainsmen offense. Through three postseason games, he’s had seven hits in 11 at-bats, walked once, scored four runs and had four RBIs.
Not represented in those gaudy statistics? The heads-up play he made in this past Saturday’s semifinal win against Saratoga Springs, when he went from first base to third on a sacrifice bunt against an unexpecting defense. That move helped set up a Shenendehowa run, and was right in character for an always-hustling Palko.
“Even when you watch him run onto the field,” Shenendehowa junior shortstop Devin Smith said, “he’s the first one out to his position and first back into the dugout.”
Where he runs out to in the field this season has often changed. He’s split time between second base and each of the outfield positions, his versatility helping the rebuilding Plainsmen as they tried to find their best possible lineup. Similarly, he’s hit in several spots in Shenendehowa’s batting order, his production never waning.
“I’ve just tried to do the same thing whether I’m hitting first, second, fourth, eighth, whatever,” said Palko, who has settled into the lineup’s No. 3 spot.
“We trust him in any position and any spot in the lineup, really,” Christodulu said of Palko, who will play next season at Union College, where he plans to study math.
So as the Plainsmen play Thursday in their fifth consecutive area championship game and seek their 101st overall win during those five years, they know which guy is their on-field leader.
A year ago, Palko was happy to be on the team. This year, it is his team.
“For two years,” Christodulu said, “he’s shown up every day and the coach has known what he’s going to get from him. You can’t ask for more than that.”