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Sports Person of the Week
Mardjekaj Fosters Family Feeling with Valley Baseball
Nick Mardjekaj came back to the Valley Regional baseball team as an assistant coach this spring and is bringing a unifying energy to the dugout. (Photo courtesy of Nick Mardjekaj)
Nick Mardjekaj has returned to Valley Regional to help the Warriors’ baseball team grow closer and work hard toward a common goal. Nick was named an assistant coach of the Valley Regional baseball squad this spring, and he’s bringing the club together one year after its student-athletes had to spend an entire season apart.
A Deep River resident, Nick spent his high school athletic career playing baseball and football with the Warriors, winning a state title in his sophomore season. Though he didn’t log too many minutes on the gridiron that year, Nick views the 2014 playoff run as a formative experience.
“I was on a state championship football team with Valley. I didn’t play that much, because I was a sophomore, but that team was one of the reasons I got into coaching,” says Nick. “I enjoyed being a part of that team camaraderie.”
Nick would like to bring that same spirit of camaraderie to the Valley baseball team. When Nick played for Valley, the program went through some ups and downs as the Warriors looked for the right person to helm the team as its head coach.
Once Brian Drinkard took over as head coach in the middle of the 2017 season, Nick felt that Valley had found the best person for the job. Now, Nick is excited to team up with Drinkard and help the Warriors build a winning tradition.
“I’ve played baseball my whole life and have had a lot of good and bad experiences. At Valley, we had four or five coaches in my four years. I enjoyed playing with Coach Drinkard my senior year. I had a pretty successful second half of my senior year with Coach Drinkard,” Nick says. “That’s another reason I got into coaching. It’s always been a dream of mine to bring a championship to the Valley baseball team. Coach Drinkard gave me the opportunity to do that with this team, and here we are.”
Nick mostly occupied the infield during his playing days, but Coach Drinkard saw that Nick could be more valuable playing in the outfield for Valley. That move gave Nick a big boost.
“I played second base, and then I was struggling a bit during my junior year and at the beginning of my senior year. I knew I had the talent and worked hard, but I couldn’t get it going. Coach Drinkard always believed in me and helped me out after practice. When he took over as head coach, he made me the starting left fielder,” says Nick. “Him telling me that he believed in me gave me all the confidence in the world. I’m happy how it ended. Getting there was pretty bumpy, but I’m happy with how it finished.”
As far as football goes, Nick primarily played linebacker on special teams. Nick believes that the ability of a football team to harness a family atmosphere is unrivaled by any other sport, but he also feels that there’s a brotherhood amongst the 2021 edition of the Valley baseball squad.
“I think the biggest thing is creating the family unit. I think football is unmatched at that. Going through those constant coaching changes, I never felt that with the baseball team. If Valley baseball could have had what Valley football had, they could have made a deeper run when I was there,” Nick says. “I understand baseball is more of an individual sport, but there are still nine guys out on the field. You can tell a team that is just nine different guys, and what team is a family. I think this team we have now has that family feeling.”
After graduating from Valley, Nick went to UConn Avery Point to major in maritime studies with a minor in geography. Nick decided to focus on his studies instead of continuing his baseball career in college, and he realized that he missed being around the dugout. That’s when Nick determined that coaching might be a good avenue for him.
Nick plans to go back to school this fall to get his teaching certificate in physical education, drawing inspiration from both Coach Drinkard and Valley football Head Coach Tim King.
“I thought I could maybe walk on the Avery Point team at the time, but I decided to call it a career and focus on my grades. I knew I was on a new chapter in my life. Now, my goal is to become a physical education teacher,” says Nick. “When I was a player, I just wanted to help my team. Once I graduated, I really missed it. I always enjoyed helping people out, and I felt like I could do that coaching. Then maybe one day, we could lead Valley to a Shoreline or state title. I just wanted to come back and work with Coach Drinkard. He’s a good guy, and I think can we do big things.”
Nick knows that the effort has to start at the top as he tries to foster that family feeling on the team.
“I always try to bring as much energy and intensity as possible. No matter what, make sure you have your teammates back, good or bad. When they make a mistake, you have to pick people up. Everyone makes mistakes. That’s life in general,” Nick says. “I try to bring that energy and transfer it to the kids. When we score a run, I try to get everyone out of the dugout to cheer that or, when they strike out, say that you’ll get them next time. If there’s a runner on third with one out, make sure that a batter who hits a fly out is happy to help the team out—not upset that they got out.”
Coach Drinkard has been impressed with Nick’s dedication to the Valley baseball program. Drinkard likes the energy that Nick brings every day in order to help his players.
“I think Nick is doing a great job. Being a little bit younger, he’s got the ability to relate with the players a little bit better. He understands these guys,” says Drinkard. “Nick is an extremely positive and motivating guy. He leads by example. I taught him when he was in elementary school. From that point, he’s always been a great hardworking kid from a great family. He brings those great values to our baseball team and showing how to lead by example for these young players. I think that’s invaluable.”
Nick feels encouraged by what he’s seeing on the field this spring. Most teams in the Shoreline Conference are a little behind since everyone missed out on last season due to COVID-19, but Nick thinks that Valley has a talented cast of underclassmen who are ready to lead the team to success the next few years.
“I think we’re really young. We have a great group of sophomores who missed out a whole year of high school ball,” says Nick, who thanks his parents for their support. “There are still a lot of solid teams in the Shoreline that are well-run, great programs. We have some holes, but we’re working through it. We believe in our boys, and we think they’ll make a pretty good run.”