A standout season on the Valparaiso University baseball team may have never happened for Zack Leone ’18 MBA if it weren’t for a variety circumstances that came together perfectly, uniting the fifth-year senior first baseman with the Missouri Valley Conference program.
Entering the 2017 summer, Zack wasn’t sure where he’d spend his final season of collegiate baseball. He started his career by medically redshirting at Division I Massachusetts Amherst in 2014, then spent the next three seasons at Division III Susquehanna University, where he was named an All-American by D3baseball.com and the American Baseball Coaches Association.
With his undergraduate degree in finance already complete, Zack knew he had the option to graduate transfer and play at a higher level for his final season. That’s when Zack met Valpo junior infielder/outfielder Patrick Donohue ’19, who happened to be his summer ball teammate on the Grand River Loggers in the Great Lakes League. Zack learned about Valpo, and soon enough Head Coach Brian Schmack learned about Zack.
“It all happened really fast,” Zack says. “Pat called up the coaches and said, ‘I think we might have a guy who would be interested in Valpo,’ and a week and a half later, I was committed. He introduced me to the school and the coaches, and it worked out very well.”
While the baseball program was certainly a driving force behind Zack’s decision to come to Valpo, academics also played an important role.
“The MBA program was something that really attracted me, especially the accelerated program that gives me the ability to finish within one year,” Zack says. “There always has to be an academic benefit outside of baseball. If baseball doesn’t work out, you have to have something to fall back on. It was pretty much a no-brainer once the MBA program was thrown into the mix.”
And the Crusaders are sure glad it was a no-brainer for their first baseman to make his way to campus, as Zack leads the team in batting average at .351, a mark that ranks among the Top 10 in the Missouri Valley Conference. Zack has made the rare leap from Division III to Division I look easy.
“The talent of the pitching is much better at the Division I level,” he says. “Something I took from Susquehanna is my ability to swing at only strikes. That’s what has allowed me to have success. When you’re able to lay off the pitcher’s pitch, he has to come back with another one, and maybe it’s something you can handle. It’s taken a long time to develop my approach; it’s not something that happened over night.”
While the Valpo baseball team has accepted its share of transfers into the program, Zack became the first player under Coach Schmack to join the team from a Division III program.
“He’s an older kid, so you can have good conversations with him as far as hitting goes,” Coach Schmack says. “He’s a smart and experienced player. He’s got confidence in himself, and he’s easy to work with. He’s bought into our program, and he loves being here. The high level of competition was a big aspect of why he wanted to come here, with the challenging schedule we play and the conference we compete in.”
Zack and his teammates have had the opportunity to visit the likes of Alabama, Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Purdue, Michigan State, and Illinois this season.
“Not many people can say they’ve played at those places,” he says. “Those schools are household names to a lot of people. I’m sure I’ve faced a ton of future minor leaguers and maybe a few future major leaguers. That’s something I’ll have forever. Hopefully one day I’ll talk about it with my kids.”
When the curtain comes down on Zack’s college career at season’s end, that won’t necessarily mark the end of his time in baseball. He and Giovanni Garbella ’18 have dual citizenship in Italy, so they may have the opportunity to play professionally there if they don’t get the chance to do so in the United States.
“At the Division III level, you’re not as exposed, but playing in The Valley, there are scouts at every game because there are so many people getting looked at,” Zack says. “We know who is being scouted on the other teams. Playing against them gives players who might not otherwise get that exposure the chance to be noticed if they do well in front of the right people.”
Zack and pitcher Trey Ferketic ’18 M.S. were both brought in as graduate transfers, meaning 2018 is their one and only season at Valpo and their final season of eligibility.
“The worry anytime you bring in a grad transfer, a one-year guy, is that he knows he’s only around for one year and there could be selfishness. But Zack and Trey aren’t those type of kids,” says Ben Wolgamot, hitting coach and recruiting coordinator. “They’ve been great. Their maturity level makes them different.”
Naturally, Zack deflects the praise for how easy his transition to Valpo has been to his teammates, who have welcomed him with open arms despite his one-year status.
“There’s a little bit of nerves, regardless of how old you are, when you’re coming in and you don’t know who is who or if they’re going to accept you,” Zack says. “Chad Jacob ’18 was the second guy I met after Pat, and it was as if we had known each other for the longest time. Regardless of age, there’s not really any divides or cliques, and that comes down from the top. The culture was already established here, and that made it easy. I’ve made lifelong friends.”