Winning the Southern Cascade League title seemed like a pretty bold goal this spring considering the recent history of the Cascade Christian...
The jokes keep coming, but all Austin Zavala can do is laugh. After all, he's heard them all.
Valedictorian of his class "» a shoo-in for prom king "» the list goes on and on for the 18-year-old senior.
When you're the only homeschooled teenager in a baseball program brimming with personalities, you're going to take a little good-natured grief.
But it's what Zavala gives back that has mattered most for those at North Medford.
The affable catcher showed up among the Black Tornado regulars as an eighth-grader after a childhood in Ashland and, through hard work, has developed into a cornerstone of the team's success in recent years.
A first-team all-Southern Oregon Hybrid selection one year ago, Zavala is batting .385 and joins Jared Evans to lead the Black Tornado (9-1) with 13 runs scored. He also anchors a pitching staff that has a 1.23 overall ERA.
"Austin's a great kid," says North Medford head coach Brett Wolfe. "The very first thing you look at is character and he's outstanding in that area. He's blended in just like everyone else and is just a great teammate and does everything you ask of him."
"It's outstanding the way he plays the game," adds Wolfe. "He's one of the top catchers I've ever had."
That last endorsement carries as much weight as anything you could say about the 6-foot, 190-pounder. The catcher position is steeped in tradition at North Medford, including recent first-team all-state standouts Rob Folsom, Darren Bruhns and Colin Sowers, and Zavala is simply proud to be doing his part.
"At one point last year, Sowers and Bruhns were right by me and coach Wolfe came over saying how cool it was to see all three of us together," says Zavala. "It's been kind of cool to know that I've been able to share something with all these great catchers like Folsom and Sowers and Bruhns. Hopefully someday I'll come back and somebody will say it's cool to be standing by me."
The way he's going, that seems an almost certainty. Zavala is one of the main building blocks for a North Medford team considered one of the top challengers for the Class 6A state title this season.
"He's one of the hardest workers in this program and the best catcher in the state in my opinion," says Black Tornado senior pitcher/first baseman David Crofton. "I wouldn't rather throw to anybody else. There's nobody behind the plate that does a better job than him."
And nobody on the team quite like Zavala, whose homeschooled background provides some levity among the players but continues to be largely misunderstood.
"People on the team think I wake up at 10 or some crazy thing like that and then I just do nothing all day until baseball practice," says Zavala. "But I wake up at 7:30 and have all my courses of math and English and writing and all the stuff normal school kids do, I just have it here (at home) in normal book form."
Zavala's mom, Heather, has the task of picking out his curriculum, as well as the unenviable challenge of helping him through his least favorite subject of math. His dad, Joe, helps with subjects like reading, writing and history, and the overall goal is simply to get him fully prepared for taking the SAT college entrance exam.
"I enjoy reading more than I enjoy writing and math," admits the teenager, "so whatever I go into when I go to college, hopefully it doesn't involve any math."
A normal "school day" consists of schoolwork at home from 8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., and then he joins teammate Josh Berman and his personal-trainer brother, Noah, for about an hour of weightlifting. Then it's off to practice for about 3 1/2 hours, where he has been embraced by his teammates as one of their own.
"He's a pretty quiet kid but also a really good kid and a great teammate," says Berman, who leads North with a .423 batting average. "He's probably one of the top three teammates on the team, really. He's a good person to joke with and a fun kid to be around."
"He just puts in his work, day in and day out," says the senior, who's 2-0 and batting .281. "He's everything you'd want in a teammate and one of everybody's favorites."
Wolfe says he and his staff certainly appreciate Zavala's commitment to his craft and willingness to be coached, and there doesn't seem to be any issue with him not going through the school day with his peers. As a tight-knit bunch that caravans across the state during the summer season, a family bond is created after a while that won't let anything get in the way.
"That homeschool thing has no impact," says the coach. "If anything, it just helps him appreciate being out here with his teammates and enjoy the game even more."
The bus rides, however, are another thing. While his teammates sit and talk about the daily drama that envelopes just about any teenager, Zavala admits it can be frustrating to sit and not know what anyone is talking about.
"It's funny because when I'm on the bus and we're going places," he says, "they always talk about people from school or show each other pictures of people or maybe read what they tweeted and I always have to ask who they are because I never know who they're talking about. It's just weird because I don't know anybody, but I've gotten kind of used to it over the years. I just pretend like I know what they're talking about."
The group has always been good about including Zavala in their off-field endeavors, whether it's going to a movie or to miniature golf or simply hanging out at someone's house.
"I try to hang out with them as much as I can," he says. "It's really a great group of guys."
The appreciation is mutual, which is why most of the homeschool jokes have run their course by now.
"It's hard to make fun of him because he's such a sweet kid," says Crofton. "Everybody loves him."
That said, Zavala is just as prone to jump right in and tease his teammates as they are with him.
"He'll get you if you say something wrong," adds Crofton. "He's always right there to chirp at you."
He's also always right there for his teammates, willing to sacrifice himself for the betterment of the team at every turn.
"I would recommend him anywhere," says Wolfe. "I've talked to (college) coaches all over looking for places for him to play and I keep telling them, 'If you miss out on this guy, you're missing something special,' because he's a great student, great character kid and very coachable."
"And with the way he plays, he's tough to run on and just knows the game," adds the coach. "He can read hitters and he knows the pitcher's strength so well that I don't have to call very many pitches. He's just nothing but a blessing as a person and a pleasure to coach."
For his part, Zavala credits his teammates and North Medford's coaches like Wolfe and assistant Ron Fawcett, who moved him to catcher as a freshman, for where he is as a baseball player.
"Everyone has been so great," says Zavala. "I couldn't ask for anything more."
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, email@example.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry