A “dream come true” is how senior catcher Zach Cerbo describes his four seasons as a member of the Arizona State baseball team.
For Cerbo, playing at ASU has been a realization of a childhood dream, culminating in a senior season in which he’s become a catalyst for the Sun Devils’ offense.
From his breakout presence on the field to his experience and clubhouse leadership off the field, Cerbo has been an invaluable member of the team not just this year, but all four years that he has donned the maroon and gold.
Still, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for Cerbo.
He has been forced to overcome a significant amount of adversity during his time at ASU, specifically during his first three seasons. Upon arriving in Tempe, Cerbo had the distinction of playing behind standout catcher Brian Serven, and that pattern held from his freshman season to his junior campaign.
“He (Serven) was one of those kids who went out and did his job every day,” Cerbo said. “It was fun watching him play.”
Serven left following the 2016 season for the MLB Draft, which seemed to open the door for an increase in Cerbo’s playing time prior to his final spring with the Sun Devils.
Entering the 2017 season, Cerbo expected to split time behind the plate with freshman catchers Sam Ferri and Lyle Lin while serving as a leader in the ASU clubhouse. However, due to a variety of factors, Cerbo has emerged as the everyday catcher for the Sun Devils.
Though he didn’t hold such an extensive role during his first three seasons at ASU, Cerbo has earned and kept his role due in large part to a hot bat. The veteran is currently hitting .314 with nine extra base hits and has played in 33 of ASU’s 41 games during the season.
With 14 games still to play, Cerbo already has more at-bats than he had in any of his three previous seasons. In the 2017 season, Cerbo has also hit his first two collegiate home runs and has thrown out 11 of 20 runners that have attempted to steal on him.
“It’s one of those things where I look at this season like it could potentially be my last season playing baseball,” Cerbo said. “So I went out every day and realized if this is going to be it, I’m going to make sure I do everything right and not leave anything behind.”
The opportunity to make a difference on a daily basis, something that wasn’t guaranteed earlier in his career, has lit a fire under Cerbo.
The senior carries a new mentality into games and practices, which has undoubtedly played a role in his improved statistical output.
“The last three years have been tough, even the beginning of this year has been tough,” Cerbo said. “It’s one of those things where it’s very nice to be able to show up to the field and play baseball again and do what I love doing and what I’ve wanted to do my entire life, so it’s definitely a good direction.”
Hailing from Montville, New Jersey, Cerbo’s route to ASU was reflective of his frequent childhood trips to the state of Arizona, further solidifying the dream he is living.
“My family used to come out here for vacation every year when I was a little kid,” Cerbo said. “So we used to come pretty much the first weekend of Sun Devil baseball, of their season, so I loved growing up, coming out here and loving the weather and falling in love with ASU baseball.”
It’s the enthusiasm Cerbo has toward the program that is displayed in his demeanor. He is often seen with a smile on his face, encouraging his teammates and leading by example. Simply put, the catcher is ecstatic to be a part of ASU’s program.
Natural born leader
Cerbo’s fervor for the team and the sport of baseball has been passed on to some of the younger players on the Sun Devils’ roster. Specifically, freshman catcher Sam Ferri shares many traits with Cerbo, which has led to the two forming a special bond.
“From day one, me and Zach have been really, really close,” Ferri said. “Just being a young guy, and both being Italian, and everybody says we kind of look alike. We bond in a different way than if he was a senior and I’m a freshman like we are, or if we played a different position or something.
“We like to do the same things when we are working out or working on things, so he has been a very, very positive influence and he’s taught me a lot about college baseball in general and that’s been really good for a young freshman like me to learn.”
As someone who has seen firsthand how Cerbo goes about his business, the freshman maintains that the veteran is always the same, calming presence.
“He’s really into the team and winning, and he’s really into leading,” Ferri said. “That’s one of his best traits, that he’s just a natural born leader. Leadership is a big role for catchers, so that’s something you really need to look at.”
Another teammate of Cerbo’s holds a different perspective. Pitcher Eder Erives is the only senior that has been with Cerbo throughout all four seasons at the college level.
The pair has developed a seamless chemistry, which has reached its peak in each of their last years.
“He knows my pitching style, he knows the pitches that I throw, him being a catcher,” Erives said. “It’s very important because he knows what I feel comfortable throwing in certain situations so he knows how to call a game the way I want to throw it. It’s just the road we’ve been through throughout these four years.”
Erives has recognized the work Cerbo has put in, saying that he has “worked his tail off,” to reach this point in his career.
While Cerbo has mentored and grown close to several teammates, he describes the way he leads as more natural and mentioned he doesn’t tend to do anything different when he’s attempting to pick up his teammates.
“It’s not like we came here the first day and I told everyone ‘Hey, I’m the captain,” Cerbo said. “It’s more of one of those things where I try to go out and carry myself the way that I was taught to be carried and the way I was taught to do things and I think people just gravitate towards that.”
ASU’s coaching staff has taken notice too. Some of Cerbo’s leadership qualities and tendencies have made head coach Tracy Smith’s job a little bit easier.
Smith detailed one such example.
“He’s (Cerbo) someone who is, particularly of our veteran players, really trying to do it right on a daily basis,” Smith said. “Not just on the field, but to take a guy or two and make them better, which is a responsibility of an older guy in the program. I think that’s an area we can do way better in going forward and hopefully some of those younger guys in that clubhouse now are watching how Cerbo grabs a Sam Ferri or a Lyle Lin and doesn’t feel threatened by that, but actually encourages.”
Cerbo’s dedication was tested early on in his college career, after the head coach who recruited him, Tim Esmay, was fired and Smith was hired as his replacement.
Nonetheless, Cerbo decided to stick it out and try to stay on the roster for his sophomore season, despite having received only two at-bats as a freshman. His effort was successful.
“It was a smooth transition since I didn’t really play much my freshman year, so it was almost like going into my sophomore year, I had the honor to be here still and not get cut right away with the new coaching staff coming in,” Cerbo said. “I took it basically as a tryout and said ‘You know what, if I can play and these coaches like me, I’ll stick around, but if not I’ll find somewhere else to play.”
Under Smith, Cerbo was able to acclimate himself much more and find his niche within the team.
“With Skip, we focus on smaller details,” Cerbo said. “There is a lot more thinking that goes into things, there is a lot more focus and mentality that goes into each and every thing you do. If anything, he’s more on us and it strives us to be better baseball players and always aware of what’s going on.”
Although Smith was not able to play Cerbo much the past couple of seasons due to Serven’s presence, he has always seen the positive in Cerbo’s work ethic and attitude.
“He’s (Cerbo) done a good job of putting himself in a position, staying with it as a senior, in a program like Arizona State when given the opportunity, which is all you’re ever promised in life, is an opportunity, to take advantage of that opportunity,” Smith said. “You always root for that.”
As Cerbo’s senior season winds down, he still carries a similar personality that he took with him into college, all while realizing his dreams.
“Regardless if I went through all four years and not played or if I went through all four years and played, this is something I’ve always wanted to do,” Cerbo said. “I went to sleep as a little kid thinking I was going to be in a Sun Devil uniform, so at the end of the day I’m blessed and honored to be able to be a part of this program.”