By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Most members of the UVa community were introduced to Steven Proscia in 2009, when as a freshman he started 64 games at third base and hit .333 for a team that advanced to the College World Series.
Ryan Cobb goes back further with Proscia. They were teammates for two seasons at Don Bosco Prep in Ramsey, N.J.
In football, not baseball.
“I can’t remember a game when he didn’t have an interception,” recalled Cobb, a redshirt freshman fullback for UVa’s football team.
Proscia, who was two grades ahead of Cobb, started at wide receiver and cornerback for the Ironmen. Theirs was no ordinary high school program. In each of Proscia’s final two seasons, Don Bosco went 12-0 and was crowned state champion.
The Ironmen ended the 2006 season ranked No. 7 nationally by USA Today. They finished No. 12 the next year.
Don Bosco is an all-male high school with about 800 students, and “everybody there’s an athlete,” Cobb said. Even in that environment, though, Proscia stuck out.
“Steve was a crazy athlete,” Cobb said. “He locked down everyone we played. And he was tough. He was a big hitter, too.”
In 2007, in New Jersey’s Non-Public Group 4 state title game, Proscia had a 20-yard touchdown reception and a 30-yard interception return for another TD in Don Bosco’s 42-14 rout of St. Peter’s Prep at Giants Stadium.
“He always seems to make a big play just when you need one,” Ironmen coach Greg Toal told reporters after that game. “Steve’s a great competitor. He’s one of my favorite players ever.”
Ask UVa baseball coach Brian O’Connor about Proscia, who was named to the All-ACC first team last month, and similar praise follows.
“This kid’s tough, and that’s what I always loved about him,” O’Connor said. “At the most important times, he’s at his best, and that’s what winners do. When their team relies on them the most, they’re at their best. As long as he’s on our side, whether it ends after this year, or moves into next year, I’m sure glad we have him. Because his mentality, his toughness that he plays the game with, has certainly impacted our program over the last three years.”
Proscia, a 6-2, 215-pound junior from Suffern, N.Y., was selected in the seventh round of the Major League Baseball draft Tuesday by the Seattle Mariners, who previously had picked his UVa classmates Danny Hultzen and John Hicks.
Whether his college career ends this month or in 2012, Proscia will leave UVa as one of the greatest players in the history of a program that dates to 1889.
Virginia (52-9), the No. 1 national seed in the NCAA tournament, hosts UC Irvine (42-16) in a super regional that begins Saturday afternoon at Davenport Field. Heading into this best-of-three series, Proscia ranks sixth in career hits (251) and second in career doubles (59) at Virginia. He’s tied for sixth with 28 career home runs, and his 181 career RBI are the most ever by a Cavalier.
“Think about it,” O’Connor said last weekend. “The kid’s junior year’s not over, and he already broke the UVa all-time RBI record. It’s a pretty special record to have in your back pocket and still have a year of eligibility left. He’s come a long ways.”
Proscia leads the team in total bases (130), RBI (58) and homers (8) this season, and he’s second in batting average (.341). He’s always been able to hit, though. His biggest improvement as a Cavalier has come with his glove.
He made 14 errors as a freshman and 15 as a sophomore. Through 61 games this season, he has only five.
“When he went up to the Cape Cod League last summer,” O’Connor said, “I challenged him to really, really concentrate on his defense up there, and he sure did.”
Proscia played for the Harwich Mariners, and he took countless ground balls before and after games.
“I just tried to work on my defense as much as I could,” Proscia said. “I hadn’t really gotten a full year under my belt taking ground balls, whether it be with the surgery or football or something like that. It was something that this year Coach O’Connor wanted me to put some emphasis on, and I told him I would do that, and I’m just trying to keep doing it.”
It helps that Proscia has been healthy. He broke his wrist playing football for Don Bosco but didn’t realize the extent of the injury until it was diagnosed at UVa. Proscia figured the soreness would eventually fade.
“I didn’t really pay any attention to it,” he told The Record (N.J.) newspaper last month. “I don’t like to go in the training room.”
That’s the toughness that his coaches love. Proscia played with the broken wrist throughout his freshman year. He had surgery after the season, and a screw was inserted in his wrist. The bone healed, but the lengthy rehabilitation kept Proscia from working on his defensive skills in the fall of 2009.
That wasn’t an issue after the 2010 season ended, and when Proscia returned to UVa last fall, O’Connor said, “his mobility was better. He was getting to more balls. He makes the play on the ball in as good as anybody that we’ve had, other than there was one guy that made it better, that wore No. 11.”
O’Connor smiled. Former UVa great Ryan Zimmerman “made it a little better,” O’Connor said, “but Steven makes it pretty darn good. And he’s just developed as a complete hitter.”
It’s not unusual for a college baseball player to have played the sport year-round during his high school years. Proscia had some catching up to do when he arrived at UVa.
“I’d never really seen a really good slider until I got to college, and so I saw a heavy dose of those my freshman year,” he said. “It’s something that hitters have got to adapt to … It’s a learning process. That’s the whole reason why college is such an advantage.
“For me, I didn’t play on many summer teams, because I played football, so I didn’t [face] a lot of guys that had great sliders, as a lot of other kids did over the summer. I was at a disadvantage coming in.”
His experience with football, though, paid off in other ways, Proscia said. It helped him handle adversity.
“I think that was the biggest thing for me,” he said. “If you get hurt, or if you make a bad play, you gotta move on to the next one right away. You gotta be mentally tough and physically tough. And being from a football background, that’s helped me this year and throughout my years.
“I think as a kid and in high school there’s certain things you take from certain sports that you can use for the future in your own sport, whatever sport you choose. That’s been my case with football. I think it gives you a certain aspect to your game that you can’t receive only from baseball.”