Swenson baseball coach Shawn Williams (right) has been in charge of the varsity program since its inception 11 years ago.
To hear Shawn Williams tell it, Brian Nieves is the best baseball player to put on a Swenson jersey, only you’d never know it if you asked Nieves.
That’s just Nieves’ nature, as the humble senior shortstop — and sometimes pitcher and catcher — prefers to let his game do the talking on the field for him. That’s just fine for Williams, as the loquacious longtime head coach finds plenty of creative ways to express how important his star player is to the little-known school and its baseball program that has been shrouded in obscurity until recently, in large part thanks to Nieves’ Herculean efforts on the diamond.
“He can pitch, play short, catch, hit in the middle of the order … he can probably drive the bus, too,” Williams said last week after Swenson’s 11th straight Public League Division B victory. “Brian is of the mold that he’d rather say he went to war and won with a Q-Tip instead of a sword. I couldn’t be more proud of him. I’d pay his college tuition if I could … I’d adopt him if I could.”
Williams has been a father-figure type for Nieves, mentoring the youngster since he was a freshman for the program. Williams has seen his prized pupil from a freshman who was “quieter than a church mouse” to a more vocal leader who did it all for the Lions in 2015. His contributions have led to an 11–1 Public League Division B record, good enough to clinch the regular season division crown, a first-round playoff bye and an ascension into Division A with the league’s top dogs in 2016. The Lions will open their postseason at home on Wednesday afternoon against division rival King.
Nieves’ numbers this season, for lack of a better word, are ridiculous. He’s hit .472, with 25 hits in 53 at-bats, six doubles, three triples and three home runs while crossing home plate 37 times. He’s also drawn 27 walks, which speaks to both Nieves’ patience and skillset, as opponents want no part of him when he steps to the dish. He’s struck out just six times and gets on base 65 percent of the time. Oh, he pitches, too; after telling Williams he wanted to be more involved on the mound despite pitching sparingly for Swenson in the past, all Nieves has done is go 4–3 with a 1.24 ERA (six earned runs in 34 innings) while striking out 62. He is, without question, the heart, soul and everything else of the Lions program.
“All I want to do is win, so anything the team and coach asks of me, doesn’t matter what it is, I’ll step up for them,” Nieves said. “I knew we were short on pitching, so I told him anything I can do to help us win, I want to. They back me up as much as I back them up.”
In addition to Swenson going 11–1 in its own division, the team played eight regular season games against Division A counterparts. The Lions lost all of the games, but what is telling is that they led late in most of them. They had Frankford — Division A champs at 11–1 — on the ropes before blowing a late lead, and the same happened against Franklin Towne Charter, Prep Charter, Edison and Esperanza. The fact that they lost these games is not an indictment on them, but rather a testament to the fact that Williams, who has been the varsity coach of the program since its inception 11 years ago, has done a phenomenal job molding raw players into Division A-caliber talent.
“We have a Philly, ‘Rocky-style’ mentality,” Williams said. “We’re a small school that usually has four or five ballplayers who can play and then some others who you try to turn from water into wine. We lack a football team where we can pull stock athletes from, but we’re a team nobody will want to play come playoff time. We started at the bottom, but now we’re at the peak.”
Williams is trying hard to land Nieves at the collegiate level. It seems like an inevitability at this point, with schools like Widener and Philadelphia University interested. When it happens, it will make Nieves, a Mayfair resident who has also won a lot of games since he was 11 playing for the Liberty Bell Youth Organization, the first of his family to play sports at the next level.
“Even before I got to high school, it was my goal to go to college and play baseball,” Nieves said. “That’s always been what’s driven me. I give all the credit to my coaches, who have helped me a lot this year in becoming a better, more vocal leader. I’ve been trying to let these guys know that you need to take advantage of this situation, because you never know when you’ll be back. It’s taken me this long to get here, so I don’t want to let the moment pass.”
Swenson certainly won’t be a trendy favorite to win the Public League, which is just fine for Nieves. He knows people count him and his school out, and that’s something he thrives on.
“I think you can tell by the way we played teams like Frankford and had them beat before giving it up,” he said. “People sleep on us, and I like that. The underdog role is the perfect one for us to play. We don’t talk; we just show them what we’ve got and the rest will fall into place.”
Williams will miss Nieves when Swenson plays in Division A next season, going as far as jokingly saying he “could make all of his teachers fail him.”
“This is why we do this,” Williams said. “For kids like Brian, and the team would follow him off a bridge. This is all because of him. Here, he’s the guy. He could have gone to Washington to play with his buddies, but he didn’t. He does more with less. He’s a kid with guts, and he’s the best player to ever put a Swenson shirt on.” ••
Senior Brian Nieves has done it all for the Swenson baseball program this season, from pitching to catching to shortstop. He’s batted almost .500 and has a minuscule ERA on the mound. Swenson went 11–1 in Division B this season and will move up to ‘A’ in 2016. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTOS