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Zack Zehner glances back at his teammates slouched behind him in the dugout.
“Do we have any funny stories?” he asks.
“We have a lot of funny stories, but none of them are appropriate,” one of them replies.
They banter back and forth as Zehner searches his mind for a story to tell. He turns around, ready with an answer.
“One time … I’m in charge of a pitching chart bag — it’s like a briefcase (filled with baseball statistics) I have to bring every day,” he said. “I left it in the hotel room and my mom had to bring it to the field, and now all the coaches think I’m a mama’s boy.”
The minute Zehner finishes his sentence, a roar of laughter and snarky comments erupt from behind:
“That’s irresponsible and stupid.”
“What a loser.”
But his teammate’s jabs are all in good fun.
“Being thrown in a mix of 30 guys you don’t know … it’s crazy how you just end up being best friends with those people and just making those life-long friends,” he said.
Based on their comical interactions, you’d never guess it was Zehner’s first year on the Cal Poly baseball team. The left fielder transferred from Santa Barbara City College (SBCC) this past year — a move that took some adjusting.
He struggled in the beginning of his first season with the Mustangs, but eventually played his way into the starting lineup. Zehner finished the season with a .316 batting average — third best on the team.
In early June, the 6-foot-4 player was hitting in the cages at Baggett Stadium when he was selected by the Toronto Blue Jays in the seventh round (204th overall) of the 2014 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft. Zehner had been talking to scouts and figured he had time to bat before hearing his name.
“I went into the locker room just because I was done and I think my name got called right when I walked in the door and a couple of freshmen were in there, one of our coaches were listening (to the draft) and they dogpiled me like right at the door,” he said. “We were all jumping around; it was pretty cool.”
Zehner expected to get drafted, just not that early.
“(It was) out of the blue, pretty much,” he said.
Zehner’s increasing recognition, however, shouldn’t come as a surprise.
The outfielder had 44 starts this season, notched three home runs — including one in the San Luis Obispo Regional — and 16 RBIs. He credits his success at the plate to time spent with the team’s veterans.
“(Right fielder) Nick Torres is my roommate on the road and just picking that guy’s mind all the time, you know, we’re together a lot,” Zehner said. “Just getting to learn stuff from him, (designated hitter) Brian Mundell — guys who’ve had success at this level already — and just kind of taking bits and pieces from them and just knowing what works for me.”
But Zehner hasn’t always wanted to play baseball. Out of high school, he quit the game and pursued academics before attending junior college. Zehner didn’t think he “had it in (him).” But the hiatus didn’t last long.
“I found it again, and I found that I wanted to play and I love the game,” he said. “(I) realized I was bored out of my mind and needed the game to keep me sane, pretty much.”
His return to hardball didn’t come without misfortune, though.
During practice at SBCC last year, the San Diego native took a fastball to the face, blowing out his sinus wall. Zehner was forced to sit out for a week with a concussion and came back wearing a protective mask for six weeks, he said.
Today, Zehner talks about it as if it was just another bump in the road.
On and off the field, Zehner keeps a light-hearted demeanor. His teammates view him as a clown — notably, senior catcher Chris Hoo. The catcher recalled one story Zehner wouldn’t let go of for a while:
This past winter, Zehner was in a hallway getting a drink of water when a girl he didn’t know — a senior who just finished her last college final — walked out of a classroom, grabbed Zehner and went in for a kiss, Hoo said.
“He loved every minute of it,” Hoo said. “(Zehner) was scared but at the same time, he couldn’t not talk about it for over two weeks. It was just one of those things where it was just so funny to witness and hear him talk about it every day. We were all busting up like, ‘No way this actually happened.’”
Though Hoo wouldn’t consider Zehner a ladies’ man, he does have one word to sum him up: goofy.
“I can’t really take him serious that much because everything he says, he just laughs about it,” Hoo said.
On the field, Zehner is no different. He takes his carefree attitude to the plate — a personality that can be beneficial in baseball.
Coming from junior college ball, Zehner joined Cal Poly for a milestone year in baseball. In June, the Mustangs clinched their first-ever Big West Conference title.
Adding fuel to the fire, Zehner shook hands with his first NCAA Tournament in early June when the Mustangs hosted their first NCAA Regional in school history. He would be lying if he said the Mustang’s appearance in last year’s Los Angeles Regional didn’t influence his decision to attend Cal Poly. But this time around, Zehner was a part of the action.
From a collision with outfielder Jordan Ellis in Saturday’s game against Pepperdine to a home run in the following game to keep Cal Poly afloat in the tourney’s loser’s bracket, the outfielder had his ups and downs in the postseason.
“(I’ve) never been on that stage before, never had that many fans come to a game, that environment — pretty electric,” he said. “Butterflies at first for sure, but once the game starts, you’re focused on playing and getting the job done.”
Though the team’s season is over, Zehner has another year of college ball to look forward to. Rather than head to the professional ranks with the Blue Jays, he will return to Cal Poly for his senior year.
“I just feel like there’s a lot of unfinished business and I thought we definitely could have made a longer run in the playoffs last year,” he said.
Zehner’s decision was mostly his, though his parents were supportive either way, he said. His return also means a second chance for him to help the Mustangs advance further in the NCAA Tournament.
“With school being really important, I wanted to finish,” he said. “I hope we make it to Omaha (next year). I think the sky’s the limit with this team.”
Zehner’s return is one head coach Larry Lee hoped for, as it would give the player time to improve his skills on the diamond and get more schooling out of the way.
“He’s been great,” Lee said. “He’s been a very key component to our success. He’s continued to develop and get better as a player, both from an offensive and defensive standpoint.”
Lee describes the left fielder just as any other guy on the team would: “very free-spirited, clown-like.”
One afternoon, as the team gathered at the end of the dugout awaiting the day’s practice, coaches and players flooded the area near where Zehner was sitting.
“I’m a sensitive, free-loving man,” Zehner says. “I’m actually really shy.”
His words trigger laughter and a string of sneers from his teammates:
“He is around girls.”
“Look at him, he’s blushing right now.”
A smile crosses the outfielder’s face upon hearing his teammate’s remarks. Still, Zehner sits in the dugout like he’s been there for years — like he belongs there.