Zoellner Bringing The Heat To College Park

The latest commitment in Maryland head baseball coach John Szefc’s program did not take a typical route to the Division I level. Aside from maybe a game of catch here and there, rising senior Elliot Zoellner barely touched a cork-centered, yarn-woven, mud-rubbed piece of cowhide during his elementary years.

The latest commitment to Maryland head baseball coach John Szefc’s program did not take a typical route to the Division I level. Aside from maybe a game of catch here and there, rising senior Elliot Zoellner barely touched a cork-centered, yarn-woven, mud-rubbed piece of cowhide during his elementary years. In fact, the Annapolis, Md., native was more taken with athletic endeavors such as basketball and various other outdoor activities.

The next Nuke LaLoosh the eventual fire-balling right-hander was not.

But in the sixth grade, at the behest of two close friends who played travel ball, Zoellner decided to give America’s pastime a try. As it turns out, the diminutive 5-foot-4 middle schooler had a pretty good arm and a solid swing to boot. So he ended up making the area travel team . . . as a catcher.

And behind the plate Zoellner would’ve stayed if not for the emergence of an even more advanced backstop two years later.

“When I was like 13 one of my youth teams had a better catcher, and I had to find a different position,” explained Zoellner, who committed to Maryland in mid-July. “So I tried out at a bunch of different spots, but the place I had the most success at was pitcher. I thought, ‘OK, I can do this from now on.’”

Initially, Zoellner got by more on guile, placement and movement than his fastball. He recalls being clocked at around 70 mph the first time he took the mound. That’s a far cry from the 93 mph-heater he’s able to throw some three years later.

“I was actually not that good at first, but I think in a year-and-a-half, from like the end of seventh grade to ninth grade I grew from 5-4 to 6-1. As soon as I hit a growth spurt I started to develop more and things became a little easier for me athletically,” Zoellner said. “So I guess I kind of developed mostly right before high school and into high school, and that’s when I sort of [took off].”

Even as he was progressing, Zoellner had a live enough arm to earn a varsity spot soon after arriving at St. Mary’s High. Still, he had much to learn about the art of pitching.

Enter Zoellner’s high school coach, John Poss, a former Winthrop infielder who spent time in the Baltimore Orioles’ minor league system. Zoellner, who abides by special long-toss programs designed by renowned surgeon Dr. James Andrews, credits Poss for helping him advance from a mere thrower into a Division I pitching prospect.

“There have been a lot of coaches and programs that I’ve followed,” Zoellner said, “but Coach Poss has definitely been the most influential coach I’ve had. He cares about pitchers’ arms and arm health, and he’s given me plenty of advice. And not only has he helped develop me, but he’s a big reason why [St. Mary’s] has won over 100 games and lost like 15 the last three years. He’s just a very personal coach and knows what he’s doing.”

With Poss’ help, Zoellner ended up winning seven games that first year, immediately becoming one of the team’s most dependable starting pitchers. Then, during his sophomore campaign, the budding right-hander ended up going 7-0, pitching to a 2.91 ERA and striking out 60 batters in 43.1 innings. St. Mary’s, meanwhile, finished with a 27-1 record and won the MIAA B-Conference title.

It was around that time when regional college coaches came sniffing around, taking particular notice of the 6-1 hurler with the 90-mph fastball.

Maryland’s Szefc and associate head coach Jim Delanger were the first to offer a scholarship.

“I actually never thought I’d be able to play at a high level of baseball until Maryland had interest in me my sophomore year. I knew I was successful my freshman year at St. Mary’s, but it never really occurred to me that I could play at a high level like that,” Zoellner said. “I never really thought about it before then. I mean, I just wasn’t as developed. But it was really nice to find out that a college like Maryland wanted me in their program.”

Although he was intrigued by the hometown offer, Zoellner didn’t commit right away, instead letting his recruitment develop. He ended up accruing offers from West Virginia, UMBC, Navy and Campbell, while Boston College, Clemson and Penn State showed interest.

Still in a holding pattern, Zoellner remained uncommitted leading up to his junior year. . . . And it almost cost him.

While throwing a side-session, Zoellner suffered an almost-season-ending forearm injury right before the spring campaign began. He ended up missing the next six weeks and tossed just nine innings all last season.

Zoellner said the flexor-muscle issue “hindered” his recruiting, the various suitors opting for a wait-and-see approach as the pitcher rehabbed.

“Any injury is unfortunate, but especially at that time, right when I was being recruited,” Zoellner said. “It was really not ideal to have an injury right at that time. But I worked very hard in physical therapy, followed a throwing program, got back into shape, and I was glad I was able to compete in the summer and show off my stuff. It all worked out in the end.”

Indeed it did.

Earlier this summer Zoellner pitched for the EvoShield Cane North 17U travel team, performing well enough to re-earn his college looks. Then, just a few weeks ago, the St. Mary’s prospect ended up firing five no-hit innings, striking out 11, while at a Maryland summer camp.

Szefc, of course, heard all about the stellar outing.

“I think [the opposition] only made contact a couple times all game,” Zoellner said. “I would count that as my best pitching performance.”

Shortly thereafter, Zoellner was a Terp.

“Maryland has a top baseball program with elite coaches that produce wins and good players,” said Zoellner, who chose the Terps over West Virginia. “I’ve had a great relationship with the coaches there; Coach Szefc and Coach Dellanger have been terrific. I believe they can develop me into the best player I can be. They had eight guys drafted and [the Terps have] been to the super regionals two years in a row. The track record is definitely there.”

Zoellner also cited College Park’s proximity to his home and the school’s academic reputation as the main reasons he chose UMD. Not to mention his mother is a Maryland alumni as well.

“Maryland is only 30 minutes from my house, and I’m very comfortable there because I’ve been up there so much,” said Zoellner, who has met several current and former Terps. “But what impressed me about the school and program as a whole is it’s a big school, it’s great academics, and I know a lot of people that have gone to Maryland; are going there now; or are about to go there. Like I said, it’s a school I’m very comfortable with.”

With his college decision behind him, Zoellner’s immediate goal is to aid St. Mary’s in its quest for yet another conference title. After that, he’d like to help Maryland do the same in the Big Ten.

“I think I bring a good fastball with a good breaking pitch, and I bring a little competitiveness to the mound -- a little bit of a bulldog mentality,” said Zoellner, who admits he has to improve his consistency and location. “But I really enjoy going out there and competing and doing what I can to help my team win. So right now, I just want to help St. Mary’s win and Maryland win when I get there.”

Not that Zoellner doesn’t dream big.

He might not be Nuke LaLoosh, but, hey, every kid with a mid-90s fastball would love to reach The Show.

“You know, hopefully I’ll get to the majors one day,” said Zoellner, who plans to major in business. “But, if not, Maryland is an excellent academic institution and I know I’ll get a great degree. I know I’m in a good place right now.”

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