The father’s umpire shirts were much too large, of course, cascading down to the boy’s knees. But that didn’t matter to Erick Zecha, for it was most important that he was with his father, inside the inner circle.
They’d gather in a cramped officials’ locker room at halftime or after a game — be it football, basketball or baseball — and talk about particular calls they made. Chances are Rick Zecha’s partner that day was Jim Moylan, for the pair from Keene officiated hundreds of high school games together, crisscrossing the state.
As a kid, Erick Zecha would tag along, just like Jim Moylan’s son, Dan, did some 25 years earlier. The sons would listen intently to their dads, dream of the day when they played on the fields where their fathers officiated. Since officials carry multiple sets of uniforms, Erick would don one to emulate his dad.
“I’d come to Alumni Field, watch my dad umpire and think, ‘It’s almost like Fenway Park.’ ” Zecha recalls while seated in the brand-new third-base bleachers at Keene’s Alumni Field. “I’d think, ‘Someday I’m going to play at Alumni Field.’ ”
Today, Dan Moylan is coach of the Keene High baseball team, and Erick Zecha is its senior captain, a right-handed pitcher who bats in the middle of the lineup. Their fathers still officiate together although time has taken a toll — Rick has had both hips replaced in recent years.
Dan Moylan raves about Zecha, the player, not only for his talent but his leadership. He’s humble rather than boastful, and it sets the tone for the team, Moylan says.
Zecha is a throwback, a football-basketball-baseball three-sport athlete in an age when specializing in one sport is becoming the norm. Zecha’s mentors have always pushed him to diversify, insisting that skills learned in soccer, football and basketball will make him a better baseball player, his true love.
Academically, honors are pouring in.
He’s a standout student, ranked eighth in his class of 310 with a GPA of 4.21. Next year he will study biomedical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., a track that could eventually lead to a career as an orthopedic surgeon. He’ll keep his options open, he says.
On Tuesday, Zecha will be recognized at the Joe Yukica Scholar/Athlete awards dinner in Manchester, the flagship event of the Joe Yukica Football Foundation that honors the elite student-athletes in the state.
Zecha in April won the Life of an Athlete’s outstanding student-athlete of the month award presented by the N.H. Interscholastic Athletic Association. He earned the Rensselaer Medal, a scholarship for outstanding math and science students worth $100,000 over four years.
“I push myself in the classroom,” he says.
Math, science and baseball have many similarities, he says, especially in the cerebral arena. He says his mother, Darcy, “is always pushing the well-roundedness.” He’s especially grateful to science teacher David Lybarger for continually demonstrating how sports, school and life intersect.
“He kind of connected my work on the field with the classroom,” Zecha says. “He taught me that just as some days you have to grind it out on the field, you have to grind through, say, a math problem. In fact, you can grind through anything because it will only make you stronger.”
He credits coaches John Luopa (football) and David Sontag (basketball) for also teaching him lessons beyond the playing fields.
On Thursday afternoon a photographer asks Zecha to pose outstretched on the outfield grass at Alumni Field, his teammates hooting and howling nearby. He grins sheepishly, yet there’s a showman inside him. Zecha enjoys the stage; he sang in Keene High’s production of “The Music Man” as a freshman and in his church choir for years.
He’s unafraid of the spotlight, willing to take the mound when it shines brightest. He is edgy, however, when the spotlight is solely on him. Thus, he later types out this email:
“I just wanted to give a big thank you to all my teammates over the years. None of my success comes without the hard work they put in next to me. I’ve played with Lucas Lower, Noah Clay, Hunter Massucco, and Trevor Bourassa from the very beginning. All of my success in high school is backed by my teammates. I pitch the ball; they are the ones who actually get the outs.”
Leadership the family way
The spelling of Erick’s name, and his father’s name, is an ode to several generations of Frederick Zechas. His sister, Alexis, is a Keene State College junior majoring in safety and occupational health applied science. She is the college’s secretary of the American Society of Safety Engineers Student Section.
For decades Rick Zecha has been acknowledged as one of the top officials in the state, working countless football, basketball and baseball state championship games. He umpired Keene State College baseball games as a high school senior.
“(Erick) is a much better player than I ever was,” Rick Zecha says. “I had to find another way to stay involved.”
Inside the officials’ room, Erick was fascinated when his father and Jim Moylan would analyze games and the roles they played as officials. Nuances mattered. In basketball, he learned why some games may be called tight and others not. In baseball, he learned why some borderline pitches were called strikes and others not.
One of the most important lessons was handling failure. It’s why Zecha says he tries to refrain from being demonstrative when things don’t go right. He reminds himself that hitting .300 in baseball is exceptional, and yet the failure rate is 70 percent.
“We’ve tried to instill it’s not about him, it’s about his team and his teammates,” Rick Zecha says. “Athletics are a very humbling experience at times. But I think there are a lot of great lessons in that.”
Similarly, Moylan never yells, Erick Zecha says, but he’s always questioning his players.
Ditto, Paul Swingle, the former manager of the Keene Swamp Bats who pitched for the California Angels. Zecha has been taking lessons for years from Swingle, who emphasizes “you can’t be getting mad all the time in baseball.” It was Swingle who first suggested Zecha try pitching when he was about 12.
“Dude,” Zecha recalls Swingle saying after seeing his arm, “no one asked you to pitch?”
Zecha throws four pitches: two different fastballs, a change and a curve.
In deciding on a college, Zecha chose RPI over Wesleyan and Trinity. Academics were the overriding factor, as Zecha says he likes all three Division III baseball programs equally. Majoring in biomedical engineering gives him numerous options.
“I want to play baseball at as high a level as possible,” he says. “An ultimate goal is to play professional baseball, but how realistic is that, eh?”
The odds are Zecha will never pitch to a Major Leaguer. But don’t bet against him operating on one.