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When Zach Novoselsky showed up for his first football practice as a freshman at Stevenson, he drew some looks, eyebrows raised.
Sure, he was 6-foot-1 and as solidly built as most of the upperclassmen. But as much as he was ahead of the curve, he was also behind it.
"I didn't even know how to get into a stance," Novoselsky said with a laugh. "I was big, so that kind of made up for it, but I really had to learn everything from scratch."
Novoselsky had never played football before.
That was a surprise, given not only his size, but also his bloodlines. Novoselsky's father is former professional football player Brent Novoselsky, who played seven years in the NFL, including one as a tight end with the Bears in 1988. He grew up in Skokie and starred at Niles North before playing at Penn.
"That first game, those first days in football were pretty funny," Brent Novoselsky said of watching Zach learn on the fly. "At that point, I knew I had to take him into the driveway and start showing him some of the basics.
"I had never wanted to push him or pressure him about football. It wasn't about me and what I did. I wanted it to be about what he wanted to do. Once he decided he wanted to try football, I was ready to help him. He got better very quickly."
The 6-foot-5, 290-pound Novoselsky continues to be a quick study. Now a junior, he earned a starting spot on the varsity football team just a year after getting into his first stance, beginning as a tight end during his sophomore year and then moving to left tackle last season. Meanwhile, this spring on the baseball team, he has found a way to overcome an injury and reinvent himself in what seems like the blink of an eye.
Novoselsky grew up playing baseball instead of football, mostly because he was as big as the eighth graders when he was in just fourth grade, and he would have been forced to play with much older kids all through youth football. Baseball became his focus and his love and he's been an everyday player for most of his career, stationed in the infield, usually at first base.
But he aggravated a football injury to his shoulder about a month before the current baseball season began and that has made fielding the ball almost impossible.
In fact, Novoselsky hasn't played at all in the field this season. Instead, by shifting his focus, he's made valuable contributions as the team's designated hitter as well as its biggest voice in the dugout.
"I'm not happy about not getting to play in the field," said Novoselsky, who sports a .459 batting average with 4 home runs and 29 RBI. "But my dad's always taught me that not everything is always going to be perfect and you just have to deal with that and make the best of it with mental toughness. I'm trying to look at it as the glass is half-full. I can still hit and I can make a difference in the dugout by being a leader, cheering on my teammates and helping them stay loose.
"I'm just trying to do my best to help the team and live with what happened."
Novoselsky has had chronic instability in his right shoulder after dislocating it years ago. Over the winter, he was at a football showcase in Westmont and was doing a 1-on-1 pass-blocking drill when he got his arm caught up over his head. It went too far back and he re-aggravated that old shoulder injury.
"Getting surgery would have put me out 8 months, and that would mean missing baseball and most of football (next fall)," Novoselsky said. "So I decided to try to rehab this spring to get my shoulder stronger."
Doctors told Novoselsky that he could resume baseball activities this spring as his body saw fit.
"I found out pretty quickly that I was able to still hit, but for some reason, it really hurt to throw the ball," Novoselsky said. "I know my body pretty well, and the throwing motion was really tough."
And yet, Novoselsky still hoped for a full recovery as the baseball season quickly approached.
"Then at practice, about two days before our first game, I just went to pick up a bat, that's all I did, and I aggravated my shoulder again," Novoselsky said. "At that point, I wasn't sure if I'd be able to do anything this season, including hit."
Novoselsky missed the first five games of the season as he recovered, and the Patriots struggled, starting out an uncharacteristic 5-6.
"I was very concerned when I first heard about Big Z's shoulder injury," Stevenson coach Paul Mazzuca said of Novoselsky. "He was swinging the bat real well before the season started. We are a different team with him in the lineup.
"While he was out, he was still real vocal with the other guys and doing anything he could to help in practice. His leadership emerged from his injury."
Like father, like son.
Brent Novoselsky spent part of his season with the Bears on the injured reserve list. But he stayed as active as he could.
"You try to give the other guys a good workout as part of the scout team. I also remember going up into the press box to help the coaches," said the elder Novoselsky, who has been a financial planner for the last 25 years. "When you're not playing, it's easy to feel like you're not part of the team. I just tried to do whatever I could to help out. I know that's what Zach has tried to do."
With only two seniors in the starting lineup, and two sophomores in the infield, the Patriots have certainly needed help from all angles, especially early on when they were making a lot of fielding errors. The younger Novoselsky has made providing constant encouragement, support and advice part of his new job with the team.
"When we're struggling in the field, I want to be able to get out there and help and be a leader. But since I can't do that, I try to keep everyone up in the dugout," Novoselsky said. "I've noticed that when we've got a positive vibe going there, our attitude in the field is better and we tend to play better."
The young Patriots improved as the season went on and are 18-10 heading into today's regional semifinal against Rolling Meadows. Last year, Stevenson won a regional title.
"This team has a lot of talent, a lot of good athletes," Novoselsky said. "We've shown promise and potential to beat some really good teams. I feel good about our chances (in the tournament)."
Novoselsky also feels good about his chances of playing baseball next year with a clean bill of health. Beyond that, though, his future in baseball is anyone's guess. Already, Novoselsky has scholarship offers for football from multiple colleges, such as Western Michigan, Wyoming, Toledo, North Dakota and Miami of Ohio.
With his size, quick feet and high ceiling, he expects more offers to roll in after next football season.
Likewise, Novoselsky is hoping the same will happen with baseball, especially after he gets the chance to play in some elite tournaments this summer.
"I definitely love both baseball and football," Novoselsky said. "It's hard to lean toward baseball right now because I'm getting more attention for football, but it would also be hard to give up on baseball because I've grown up with it and I've played it my whole life.
"I'm just going to have to hope for the best and see what happens. I think time will decide."
Either way, you get the feeling Novoselsky will be ready to quickly turn on a dime and roll with it.