At first glance, Highland’s Sam Zeleznik appears to be a lifelong catcher with a shorter, somewhat muscular build. No one who watches him block balls in the dirt and gun down runners would argue.
The truth is much different, as the personable, always-smiling senior took up one of the most physically and mentally demanding jobs in sports only six years ago because, well, no one else wanted to.
Now Zeleznik is committed to Ohio Northern and having the season of his life — highlighted by a dazzling second half at the plate — as the streaking Hornets (19-9) head into a Division I state semifinal Friday against Olentangy Liberty (28-4) at Huntington Park in Columbus.
“It’s been a fun ride — a fun senior year, in fact,” he said. “It’s been a moment overall I’ll never forget.”
Not known for blazing speed, Zeleznik grew up as a corner infielder. He sprinkled in pitching, too, but never bothered with the often thankless job of putting on a ton of gear and getting beat up every game.
But in the summer of 2012, Zeleznik volunteered to catch for his travel team because there was an open spot. There was no pressure to succeed, yet Zeleznik fell in love once he overcame the mental hurdle of feeling pain a whole heckuva lot more than he was accustomed to.
“I just stuck with it. I love catching,” he said. “(I enjoy) the intenseness of when you’re blocking the ball and throwing someone out or always being a part of the play. You’re the brains of the defense.”
Zeleznik acknowledged the transition was difficult yet addicting. Highland pitching coach Mike Weyand places the pitch-calling responsibilities on the catcher — most teams have coaches call them — and Zeleznik has mentored a staff with a 1.47 postseason ERA.
“It’s a great responsibility, because I know on a lot of teams the catchers don’t get to call the pitches,” said Zeleznik, who has thrown out 14 runners. “But I think it’s better for the catcher to call the pitches because they can see what the batter’s doing from the previous pitch or where the pitch was or how the umpire’s calling it. It’s important because you don’t want to make too good of a pitch when the pitcher’s ahead in the count.”
Defense and brains have remained consistent for Zeleznik. Hitting, however, went from good to amazing.
Through 13 games, Zeleznik had numbers similar to his teammates with a .344 average, four RBIs and six runs while hitting near the bottom of the order. The constant was Grissom stressing everyone should have a saying in their mind while they’re at the plate, and Zeleznik chose “stay short to the ball.”
A downright silly stretch followed from May 1-7, as Zeleznik was 15-for-18 (.833) with six doubles and 13 RBIs. While Zeleznik understandably couldn’t keep the god-tier pace after a promotion to the No. 2 hole — he’s 7-for-23 (.304) since — he had a sacrifice fly in a 3-1 regional semifinal win over Mentor and a go-ahead, two-run single in the seventh inning that completed a dramatic rally in an 8-7 regional final victory over Massillon Jackson.
“I just got lucky, I guess,” Zeleznik said with his signature big smile. “I just got hot.
“(The postgame games) have been big and important emotionally because I know in the Jackson game, that was the biggest hit of my life to this point. The whole at-bat when Tyler Savron was batting in front of me, I was just saying to myself, ‘When he gets on, I’m going to drive everyone in,’ and I was giving myself a confidence booster. I knew I had it in me. I just had to put it out there.”
Zeleznik was being modest because that’s the Hornets’ M-O. They’ve been extremely level-headed, allowing them to pound teams early (Kenmore-Garfield, Wadsworth, Medina) as well as rally late (Mentor, Jackson) this postseason.
Highland is so laid back they figure they might as well win the state championship since they’re going to Columbus anyway, and Zeleznik has been a major reason why.
“He always cares about everybody else, and he always puts in as much effort as he can to help us win,” senior pitcher Shane Nelson said. “That’s shown throughout the year.
“He’s just good, but he’s also putting in the extra effort and hustling. I don’t think there’s been a game this year where he isn’t dead tired at the end of it.”
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