Zazzali juggles life as a dual-sport athlete

Dual-sport athlete Christian Zazzali poses for a portrait on Bello Field on Nov. 13. (Evan Sayles / The Tufts Daily)

These days, senior Chris Zazzali is a highly successful collegiate athlete — a key member of Tufts’ men’s soccer and baseball teams. Growing up in Scotch Plains, N.J., however, Zazzali strove simply to keep up with his two older siblings, Eddie and Allie, both of whom also went on to play soccer in college.

“My brother played soccer in the fall, basketball in the winter, baseball in the spring and anything under the sun in the summer. My sister … was a 1,000-point scorer in high school for basketball [and] went on to play soccer at Johns Hopkins,” Zazzali said. “Growing up in that environment of always competing definitely was integral for me to keep playing sports.”

Not to be outdone, the youngest Zazzali has maintained a dual-sport athletic career since his sophomore year at Tufts, making him one of only a handful of Jumbos currently doing so. Zazzali doesn’t just occupy a roster spot, either. He plays significant roles on and off the field for both teams.

In the fall, the senior patrols the midfield and defense for the men’s soccer team, which has won two national championships in his career. Zazzali appeared in 16 games for last season’s title-winning squad, often providing important contributions off the bench. One such outing came in September 2016, when he notched the first goal of his college career to defeat the Brandeis Judges 1–0 in double overtime. The game proved to be a turning point for coach Josh Shapiro’s Jumbos, who entered the match with a middling 2–2–1 record. After the clutch overtime win, the team finished the season on a 12–3–1 tear.

“It was a monster goal,” Shapiro said. “[Zazzali’s] always a guy that will show up in big moments. He’s competitive, and he’s confident. Those are the guys you can look to when everything’s on the line, and he’s got that quality about him … He’s someone you want in that situation.”

Zazzali also featured twice in the team’s postseason run to the NCAA championship, making substitute appearances in wins over the Springfield Pride and the UMass-Boston Beacons.

After battling injuries early this year, Zazzali has appeared 10 times in the last 11 games — including twice in the starting lineup — for the No. 3 Jumbos, who have conceded just one goal all season and recently captured the NESCAC Championship. With a host of injuries on the team, Zazzali filled in at the back instead of his usual midfield position, but he has made strong contributions to one of the stingiest defensive lines in Div. III.

“He’s a good two-way soccer player, he’s got some craftiness in his game and he’s a defensive player with good attacking qualities,” Shapiro said. “So he brings a lot to the team going both directions.”

Zazzali shifts his focus to the diamond in the spring, where he is a key contributor for Tufts. After playing sparsely in 2015, Zazzali — who is known to his teammates simply as “Z” — broke out during his sophomore season, appearing in 31 games in which he batted .237 with 11 RBI. Zazzali also posted a .398 on-base percentage, in part thanks to his impressive walk-to-strikeout ratio (15:14). Last year, he improved his batting average to .289, a mark that included a two-for-three outing in Tufts’ season-ending loss to the Oswego State Lakers in the Div. III Regional Tournament. Zazzali may be most valuable to the Jumbos, though, for his ability to play multiple positions: he has appeared at second base, shortstop and all three outfield spots during his career.

“To have that versatility in [the] lineup is huge,” coach John Casey said. “[It] lets us keep him in the lineup without messing everything else up. If we’re playing five games, we can get him into four of them at different positions and give one guy a rest each time. He can be a defensive guy, he can start and do a lot of great things or he can come in and run the bases late in the game. He just offers so much.”

Zazzali’s positional versatility is but one manifestation of his athleticism. He starred on both the soccer and baseball teams at Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School, foregoing basketball only because his middle school teammates went to a different high school. Playing shortstop for the Raiders, Zazzali was a two-time First Team All-County selection for baseball. He was also voted to the New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) All-State Third Team in his junior and senior seasons for his performance on the soccer pitch.

At a time when young athletes are often pressured to focus on a single sport, Zazzali recognizes the benefits of his choice to reject that path.

“I did the same thing as my brother: I played soccer in the fall, basketball in the winter, baseball in the spring and tennis in the summer … all the way until high school,” he said. “The way I looked at it, you see so many kids today [who] specialize in a sport, and every time I saw a kid specializing … they were getting injured. They weren’t working the muscles [in] every other part of their body. Does it hurt your skill level to not play the sport year-round? Probably. But is it better for your body? Yeah, it is.”

After being recruited to Tufts by Casey, however, Zazzali intended to turn his full attention to baseball. He struggled through his first season with the team, earning just eight at-bats and striking out in five of them. While many players would treat such a performance as a signal to simplify their approach, Zazzali read it differently. He decided to try out for the soccer team the following fall.

“[It] was the first time in my life playing baseball year-round. I’ll be honest, it wore me down,” Zazzali said. “My freshman season was definitely the most disappointing of my sports career, so I decided to go back to what I knew best. It was better for my psyche for sure. Instead of living and breathing baseball, which can be an intense environment, I was able to play a more athletic, free-flowing sport in soccer.”

Casey echoed this sentiment.

“When he [joined the soccer team], I think he got back in sync because he’d been used to playing more than one sport his whole career,” he said.

Zazzali has realized a host of intangible benefits, psychological and physical, thanks to his decision to play both soccer and baseball.

“Conditioning [and] taking care of my body is the number one thing that overlaps between the two,” he said. “Strategy-wise for both of them, slowing down the game is the most applicable thing in order to succeed.”

According to Casey, while teams try to imitate an intense atmosphere in practice, there’s no substitute for game experience. As a result, he believes that Zazzali holds a unique advantage over other athletes.

“You can never underestimate how important being competitive is,” Casey said. “It’s the same juices when you have to make a penalty kick as it is when it’s 3–2, bases loaded. You can perfect skills, but you still have to compete and play. The more guys are out there, the more they learn to … deal with adversity. You can’t replicate that, [and] Chris is getting a double-dose of it.”

Of course, being a dual-sport athlete also poses many challenges, and its physical demands are just one aspect of a nuanced balancing act. The time that varsity teams spend together extends well beyond the field, as they often train, eat and study together throughout the year, as well. Zazzali must balance his two spheres, and he often misses large chunks of offseason programs and team bonding as a result.

“When I’m in soccer season, I’m not a part of any [baseball programs]. On the flip side, when [it’s] baseball season, I’m not a part of the offseason soccer stuff,” Zazzali said. “I do my best to keep in touch with everybody.”

By all accounts, Zazzali has managed to navigate this difficult situation with poise, seamlessly jumping between his two teams as required and sometimes even bringing them together. Moreover, his intermittent absences don’t preclude him from adopting a central role within either group: Zazzali is respected by his coaches and teammates as much for his no-nonsense brand of leadership as he is for his talent.

“You might not like it, but he’s going to be dead honest with you. I think everyone respects him for that,” Shapiro said. “He’s good at keeping other guys grounded [and] being supportive when he needs to. He’s a really important personality in our team.”

At the end of the day, Zazzali, who studies economics, is still a college student. While balancing a dual-sport schedule with academics is taxing, it has forced him to develop a strong work ethic.

“I manage time better, I am more efficient and I focus more when the time comes to do work,” he said. “I’m a competitive person, which carries over to the classroom, but I also understand what needs to be done to maintain a healthy life.”

One thing is clear: Whatever path Zazzali pursues after his time at Tufts, he certainly won’t hesitate to take on any challenges. After all, he never has.