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Wharton junior Jon Searles will take a leave of absence from the university to pursue his big-league dreams. Once recruited to play Penn football, Searles now plays full-time for the Pittsburgh Pirates' Class A affiliate.[Jacques-Jean Tiziou/DP File Ph

NEW YORK -- The playoffs start today in the Class-A New York-Penn League, and in a few days, the league finals will begin.

One of the teams will be from New York -- the Staten Island Yankees and Brooklyn Cyclones are playing against each other for the McNamara Division's spot in the finals -- and that makes Jon Searles happy.

Searles, who was a sophomore at Penn last year, spent his summer pitching for the Williamsport Crosscutters, the Pittsburgh Pirates affiliate that dominated the Pinckney Division in the regular season and seems likely to win a spot in the finals. After getting off to a rocky start, Searles closed out the regular season with a 5-4 record and a 3.82 ERA.

If the Huntington, N.Y., native gets to pitch in Staten Island or Brooklyn, he will perform in front of friends and family for the first time since high school.

"I'd love to be the New York guy who comes in and gets the job done," Searles said. "I was hoping so bad to play them [in the regular season]. I'd have to get tickets. We've been following the standings a little bit, but we've been trying to win our division. We look over and see that they're playing pretty well. The experience of playing in the area will be awesome."

Pitching close to home would be the perfect ending to a summer that has convinced Searles to take a leave of absence from Penn so that he can pursue his big-league dreams.

After the Crosscutters' season is over, Searles will report to Bradenton, Fla., for instructional ball. After next year's spring training, he expects to pitch in Hickory, N.C., with the Pirates' affiliate in the South Atlantic League.

Pitching in Hickory would put Searles ahead of the curve on his journey through the Pittsburgh organization. Most players in the South Atlantic League are in their first full year out of college, while Searles will be in his third pro season out of high school.

"When I went down for spring training on spring break, they put me on [Hickory's] roster," Searles said. "Unfortunately, I showed up late, and that prevented me from getting to the South Atlantic League this year."

Searles' decision to take a leave of absence from Penn is not uncommon among baseball players. When teams draft players as juniors out of college, there is usually a contractual clause in which the team agrees to pay for the player to finish school.

For most players, it means two or three semesters. For Searles, it means two more years at Wharton -- but he knows that he can go back anytime, whereas baseball's window of opportunity is much smaller.

"This is an opportunity of a lifetime," Searles said. "I decided to go for it 100 percent. I really started to get a feel for college and the schoolwork, and I was a little apprehensive about taking a leave of absence.

"I am going to miss my junior year, with everyone who I entered with and have come to be friends with, hang out with, go to parties with," Searles continued. "But I've talked to guys, and they're like, `You've got a great opportunity.' I owe it to myself to go for it."

This is not the first time that Searles has had to make a tough decision about his future, and not the first time that he has selected the Pirates over Penn.

Searles was recruited by Quakers football coach Al Bagnoli to use his strong right arm on the gridiron as a quarterback. Due to Ivy League rules, Searles could not play pro baseball and Penn football -- he chose baseball.

"I do miss football," Searles said. "Our first baseman was one of the top defensive linemen, and signed a letter to play at LSU. We sat in the hotel bar watching the Alabama game -- sat there, watched the whole game. I miss the rush of the kickoff, and being in the locker room. Baseball you play every day. Football, it's once a week, and you prepare for the war on Saturday. I've grown to love baseball, and I wouldn't trade it for anything."

In its own Saturday wars, Penn has done just fine without Searles under center.

Shortly after Searles announced his decision to play baseball in 1999, Gavin Hoffman decided to transfer from Northwestern to Penn.

Hoffman has since taken it upon himself to rewrite the Quakers' record books, passing for 300 yards in eight games last year -- which is the same number of 300-yard games compiled by all Penn quarterbacks before Hoffman, combined.

"Gavin obviously is going to set all kinds of records, and they're going to be a powerhouse with a good nucleus," Searles said. "I'd love to have been a part of that and competed for the job. But I know my future is in baseball, and the improvements I've made in the first couple of years. I know this was the right decision for me. I think it's possibly the best decision I've ever made."

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