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Iconic stage set in Bronx for PSAL championships

Four schools to play at Yankee Stadium beginning Thursday

They've reached the city championships, and appropriately, the biggest stage in the city. Yankee Stadium will host the Public Schools Athletic League championships in baseball on Thursday, welcoming four city teams in two divisions that are vying to be named the best of the best.

The Bronx High School of Science will be drawn against Beach Channel/Channel View in the PSAL B Division Championship Thursday, and Tottenville High School of Staten Island will play against Queens-based Benjamin Cardozo in the A Division Championship scheduled later that night.

All four teams have taken their own circuitous paths to their respective title games, and now they'll get to play on one of the most storied fields in baseball. John Mangieri, a former Mets prospect and the coach of Beach Channel/Channel View, said his players are really excited about the opportunity.

"It's going to be an experience of a lifetime," he said. "They're playing on the biggest stage of sports. With what they've accomplished, whether they win the game or not -- and I've been stressing this so much -- they're going to have lifelong memories that nobody can ever take away from them."

Mangieri, a former pitcher who worked in the Minor Leagues and the independent leagues for a decade, said that his school has come a long way to get to the championship. Mangieri's varsity roster at Channel View has just 12 players, and all but two of them are freshmen and sophomores.

Mangieri's team went 14-2 during the regular season -- the most wins of his four-year tenure -- and swept through four playoff games despite entering the tourney as a No. 10 seed. Only one of Mangieri's players is over 6-foot tall, and he said the team has really stressed fundamentals.

"When I took over, my goal wasn't just to win games but to give these kids a little taste of what I experienced through hands-on instruction," he said. "Some coaches learn what they know through clinics or through YouTube videos, but I experienced a lot and I was around a lot of Major League players. I wanted to tell them my stories and to make an impact in more ways than baseball."

Mangieri was originally an 11th-round selection by the Mets in the 1997 First-Year Player Draft, and his pro career took him to Italy and briefly to Taiwan. Mangieri even won a spot on Team Italy alongside Mike Piazza in the 2006 edition of the World Baseball Classic. But in his new job, Mangieri gets to go back home. Mangieri grew up in Howard Beach, around three miles from Beach Channel/Channel View, and he said that he gets to drive over the landmark Bay Bridge every day on his way to work.

But more importantly, Mangieri knows how far this school and this community has progressed. The last two years, he said, have been really difficult because of the effects of Hurricane Sandy.

"The whole school was displaced for two months after Superstorm Sandy. Kids were being bused back and forth," said Mangieri of the team's arduous journey. "We played a season last year, but it was rough because the kids weren't in their homes. They were living with other family members, including myself. I was living with my in-laws for over a month. But to get through all that and play in Yankee Stadium? For some of these kids, they haven't even been to Yankee Stadium as a fan. It's a big deal."

Mike McGrath, the coach at Bronx Science, can identify with his opponent. Bronx Science has made the semifinals of the city tournament three times in the last five years, but it had never been able to progress to the city championship under its current administration. And this time, Bronx Science had to persevere after squandering a seven-run lead in the top of the seventh inning of its semifinal game.

Bronx Science came back to win in the bottom half of the seventh in that game, and it will come into the finals as a slight favorite. Bronx Science was seeded No. 10 out of 32 teams in the postseason tournament, and McGrath said his school has really rallied around its baseball team.

"It's been quite a journey, but there's one thing about this school: I've been blessed with a lot of good kids," said McGrath. "The kids really put a lot of effort in, and they're very coachable. For the most part, they perform. They take what they've learned at practice and use it on the field in games."

Bronx Science, much like its opponent, is a young team. McGrath has just three seniors on his roster of 20 players, and he said baseball has been one of the most popular sports at his school.

Bronx Science has 3,000 students, he said, and it participates in more than 40 sports. And while the school is known as an academic powerhouse, Bronx Science also thrives on the field.

"We definitely hold our own," said McGrath. "We're known for academics, and I think we have one of the top high schools in the country. Especially in New York City. The education the kids get here is second to none, and to be able to balance that with sports is a credit to them. But we take our sports very seriously here. We put a lot of effort in and I think we get the most out of the talent we have."

Bronx Science will take a 17-3 record into the championship game, and it will may also hold a hometown advantage over the team from Far Rockaway, Queens. But all of that will disappear once the teams step between the lines, and McGrath said his players can't wait for the opportunity.

"They're ecstatic. They can't wait," said McGrath. "They're really excited, but the big thing for us is just to realize that it's a normal baseball game. We can't get caught up in the excitement. It's going to be tough to focus on the game looking around the stands and seeing the beautiful stadium."

Spencer Fordin is a reporter for