One year ago, Zach Lauricella was powering his Clarence Red Devils through the Section VI postseason, looking forward to heading to St. John's to play baseball in the fall. But if you walked into his cafeteria at lunch time, you wouldn't find Zach sitting with the jocks.
He sat with Clarence's special education students.
"He's just nice to everybody, and it's a genuine, sincere behavior. It's just the way he is," said his high school coach, Dave Smith.
Lauricella, who made a name for himself in the area through a distinguished high school career, is now a freshman at St. John's. He has helped the Red Storm advance past the NCAA Regionals for the first time since 1980, when the squad's leader was a young hurler named John Franco. This past weekend, St. John's defeated its bracket's top seed, host team North Carolina, in consecutive games to win the series and advance to face Arizona in the Super Regionals, which start today.
John Paul Lauricella, Zach's father, said the team has adopted Zach as its "teddy bear." When John Paul and his wife, Lisa, went to see the Big East Championship in Clearwater, Fla., at the end of May, they were blown away with compliments. "The athletes came up to us and said: 'You've done a great job raising this kid, he's the nicest kid we've ever met,' " John Paul said.
When Zach belted a home run in the Big East Championship game, John Paul said it felt like his phone exploded. He got about 250 text messages. "I can't even begin to tell you how much fun this is," he said.
Smith has three kids who watch every St. John's game. His oldest son keeps nagging dad to take him to Omaha, Neb., to see the College World Series if the Red Storm advance. Smith said the best compliment he could possibly pay Zach is when his boys are 18, he hopes they're just like Zach.
It seems appropriate that Zach's hero is Derek Jeter, the consummate professional who has been a Yankees star for years but is still considered a selfless, hardworking teammate.
Lauricella, like Jeter, exceled in two sports during high school. He helped the Red Devils win the Section VI Class AA championship in baseball each of his last three years, and at quarterback, he led his team to the championship in his last year. He admittedly misses football, which he picked up at 10 years old. He also got scholarship offers to play quarterback.
"I think about it all the time," he said.
Perhaps Lauricella's greatest achievements, however, have been his academic prowess and humility along the way. Lauricella achieved a 97 average in high school and represented Clarence in the National Honor Society. Though he said it's difficult to succeed in class with how often his team is on the road, Zach accrued a 3.4 GPA in his first year at St. John's. Overall, the competition on the diamond has been the biggest adjustment.
"You go from being the man in high school to being on a team with everyone who was the man in high school," Lauricella said. "The competition is unreal. The speed of the game is so fast. Other teams have scouting reports on you, they know what pitches you like to hit."
He's only been able to come home twice since he left, and he misses Buffalo, but above all he misses his family. Lauricella cites his parents as the definitive reason he has succeeded.
"My parents always were the biggest influence in my life. They taught me to strive to achieve the best. Growing up, I wanted to be the best in the classroom, the community, on the playing field. I've always wanted to achieve more, become better, and keep working hard every day."
Lauricella has had to adjust to learning a new position; he played shortstop and pitched in high school and now only plays third base or designated hitter. Nevertheless, the freshman is tied for fourth on the team with 30 runs batted in and he has started 50 of 61 games this year.
Asked about his early success, he deflects the attention.
"We've got a bunch of great upperclassmen that took me under their wing and showed me the ropes," Lauricella said. "I'm continuing to learn every day and I've had a blast this whole year."
Five years from now, Zach would like to be in the minor leagues playing professional baseball, and he hopes to get drafted after his junior or senior year. But for today, he is thrilled to be exactly where he is.
"Ever since I was a little kid watching the College World Series on TV, the Super Regionals, I've always wanted to be there."
The Super Regionals will be broadcast on ESPN2. Those who know him say the opportunity couldn't come to a better person."
"He's super humble, nice to everybody, intelligent, well-spoken, respectful, and to boot one heck of a baseball player," Smith said. "That comes secondary to all that other stuff."