June 1, 2007

Latecomer Zitek found niche with Maroons after leaving DI

A change of scenery bringing new styles of competition can appear daunting to even the most skilled athletes and can often hinder their progress. But by maintaining patience and persistence in the face of any unexpected challenge or trial, all that matters in the end is talent and determination.

Having emerged as a wise and respected teammate, mentor, and student, fourth-year second baseman Tony Zitek will leave a career that was a detour from his original college plans and goals. His path to success had a happy ending, but was slowed by vast transformations that forced him to reevaluate his goals and expectations.

Though he graduates as a Maroon in the history books, Zitek’s collegiate baseball career didn’t start in Hyde Park. The Tampa native had proved himself up to the challenge of D-I play in high school and was recruited by the University of Pennsylvania, where he chose to attend his first year.

As a small fish in a big pond at UPenn, Zitek knew that the day when he would be given a chance to compete every day was distant at best. Told by the Quaker coaching staff that he would not crack the lineup his first season, Zitek was faced with a difficult choice: risk losing a chance to live up to his abilities, or look elsewhere for an opportunity to make a name for himself on the field.

“While I felt that I was good enough, I don’t think the [UPenn] coaches saw me as part of their future,” Zitek said. “But I didn’t want to quit baseball. I just didn’t foresee myself playing there.”

Looking for that special balance between athletics and the life of the mind, the now-physics major made sure he chose a school that was up to snuff academically and “on par” with the Ivies. Zitek arrived in Chicago his second year, and ready to suit up for the 2005 season. While it might seem like a D-I–caliber athlete would have no problem “downgrading” to DIII, things turned out to be a bit more complicated than one might expect. Entering real competition for the first time since high school, Zitek found himself severely struggling by the middle of the ’05 campaign, coming up empty in the box.

“I hadn’t played many games in a long time, so I wasn’t particularly sharp,” Zitek said. “Anytime you go to a new place, you don’t really know what to expect. In high school I saw really good competition but all the pitchers were hard throwers. They didn’t throw that much off speed stuff, but they threw in the mid-80s. You come to college and the pitchers are throwing low-80s, but I didn’t realize that they throw a lot more off-speed pitches. They’re smarter and craftier in general,” Zitek said.

Yet the skill that landed Zitek D-I possibilities began to show as he adjusted himself to the college hurlers. While he ended his first season with Chicago with a .259 overall batting average, he played an integral role in the Maroons’ zealous comeback from a poor 6–14 start to finish just above .500 at 18–17. The surge came on the backs of an eight-game winning streak in late April. In the infamous season-ending Dan Yeksigian (A.B. ’06) no-hitter, Zitek knocked in two runs to contribute to the 6–0 victory, which closed the 2005 campaign on the highest possible note.

“At the beginning of the season, I was hitting a lot of balls off the end of the bat,” Zitek said. I sat back and realized that I needed to start hitting the ball more to right center. Once I realized that, I saw more success.”

Adapting to his surroundings proved to be the biggest obstacle for Zitek, which he had overcome completely in his third year. He proved it by hitting his way to an outstanding .383 season average that ranked second among all Maroons in 2006. His brilliant year at the plate coincided with increased versatility on the diamond, as he began to split time between second base and shortstop.

The pinnacle of Zitek’s unity with his team came on a chilly afternoon in early April, when he belted a one-out, walk-off single to defeat Edgewood 7–6 in game two of a doubleheader. Not only did the win shift momentum for the Maroons that year, but it marked a rite of passage of sorts for Zitek, who rocketed to hit after hit in ’06 and established himself as a team leader.

“It started to come together after that win,” Zitek said. “We all played really well for the rest of the season.”

Chicago rolled along to another victorious year as Zitek began to take his place among the third-year veterans as an integral piece of the Maroons’ baseball puzzle. Zitek could finally put in practice his plate philosophy of getting on base by any means, as opposed to other schools of thought that emphasize collecting the big hits.

While it took some time for Zitek to sharpen his hitting in a brand-new environment, he was always viewed by the squad as a teammate with whom they could consult for any reason, and he earned respect for his words as well as for his play. When players found themselves in difficult situations, they could always count on Zitek to be a patient listener and a great source of advice.

“I think that I’ve been good for the team as someone that guys can talk to,” said Zitek, who co-captained this year with classmate Dan Cozzi. “I like to talk to other guys about the game, I like to help out guys who are in slumps, and help them boost their confidence.”

Wishing to remain close to baseball, Zitek plans to take his soon-to-be-awarded degree in physics back home to Florida, where he’ll be teaching and coaching ball at the high-school level. Medical school holds a place in his future as well.

“Tony has been a great teammate,” third-year outfielder Mike Morgan said. “He led by example, and was always more than willing to offer any kind of help, whether it was advice on hitting or some well timed words of encouragement. He fit in almost immediately after transferring, and contributed in a major way in each of his three years with the team. We’re really going to miss him next year.”