May 29, 2015
After his second shoulder surgery within a seven-week period, picking up his backpack to go to class was a painful ordeal for University of Notre Dame baseball player Zak Kutsulis.
Kutsulis underwent surgery on his left shoulder in May 2014 and then underwent surgery on his right shoulder in July.
"The backpack was tough," Kutsulis said.
Even today, if Kutsulis wants to two-strap his backpack, it's a struggle.
"Getting both straps on is not the easiest thing, unless they are very loose," Kutsulis said. "It's a very interesting process to get my backpack on to go to class."
Now the struggle belongs to opposing teams. Kutsulis has his strength back, and he's been a driving force to help the Fighting Irish reach the NCAA Championship for the first time since 2006. The Irish junior is hitting .265 with 32 RBI this season.
Notre Dame (36-21) takes on Wright State (41-15) at 1 p.m. EDT in Friday's opener at the University of Illinois.
"This means the world to me," Kutsulis said of playing in the NCAA Championship. "We gathered at Club Naimoli in Purcell Pavilion. We saw different projections that had us going to Vanderbilt, LSU, UCLA, and then there was one that had us going to Illinois. We saw the UCLA field, and it was like, `Aw, we didn't get in that one.' Then we saw LSU, and we didn't get in that one either.
"Finally, Illinois rolled around, and we were like, `This might be it, this might be it.' All the sudden we saw our name pop up on the TV, and the place went wild. Everyone was screaming, everyone was hugging. It was an awesome feeling."
Kutsulis started his Irish career as an outfielder and pitcher. He worked his way from spot relief to mid-week starting pitching assignments. In his second start, against Michigan State, he blew out his left shoulder. His right shoulder had been injured in high school, but he wanted to play college baseball so badly he put off surgery.
When surgery became the only option for his left shoulder, he decided to go ahead and have his right shoulder repaired as well, in order to minimize the time he would be away from the game.
"After a long process of rehab, I was able to get back on the field for my sophomore year," Kutsulis said. "I was in the outfield. The difference was, I didn't have the arm strength I used to have."
Pitching remained out of the question and, with diminished arm strength at the time, Kutsulis switched to first base. Although he only had played a few games in high school at first base and had no previous collegiate experience at that position, he has thrived at first base for the Irish.
"I think Zak playing at first base has been a huge part of why our infield defense has been as good as it's been," Notre Dame head coach Mik Aoki said. "Our guys really trust throwing across to him."
Kutsulis is one of the Irish leaders defensively with a .991 fielding percentage.
"What you have is a kid who is a playmaker at first base," Aoki said. "I don't think people really think of first base when they think of guys who go out there and are real playmakers--they think of the centerfielder or the shortstop. Zak has taken a really high level of athleticism and brought that to first base. Our infield defense has been the beneficiary of it all year long. For someone who hadn't played first base in college before, he has done a remarkably good job. He has been outstanding defensively."
Kutsulis said he was able to endure the adversity of two surgeries and a lengthy, painful rehab process due to the support and encouragement of his teammates. He had to sleep in a recliner chair rather than a bed for nearly two months after his surgery, and he had to be hooked up to an ice machine in order to reduce swelling.
"I was rooming with Scott Kerrigan when I had the surgery. He'd hook me up to my ice machine. If he wasn't around, Kyle Rubbinaccio and Nick McCarty were one room over, so they would hook me up to the ice machine. All of my teammates were awesome about making sure I was OK.
"This baseball program is a family. We call each other brothers. We look out for each other. You can definitely see it throughout the team. Everyone is always there, picking up each other. If something bad happens, they're right there. If something good happens, one of your teammates will be right next to you congratulating you."
Kutsulis said the bonds of baseball brotherhood are reflected in the way the Irish play and have helped the Irish stand tall on the national scene.
"When you play a game where you fail more than you succeed, that support means everything," Kutsulis said. "Some of the lows are very low. There are times when you haven't had a hit all week, but everyone still thinks you're good and you can do the job."
Aoki said the Irish look at Kutsulis as a potential major contributor for NCAA success.
"I think Zak can really be a spark for us offensively," Aoki said. "He brings a lot of skill sets to the table that you don't typically associate with a first baseman, including an incredibly high level of athleticism. And the kid can really run.
"Zak has a number of base hits bunting, and he has 10 stolen bases. Those are things you don't typically associate with first basemen, but those are things he's capable of doing. He's also capable of, with one swing of the bat, changing the outcome of the game because he's got some juice in that bat."
After not hitting a homer in any of his first two years, Kutsulis has five round trippers as a junior.
Irish infielder Lane Richards said Kutsulis put in a tremendous number of extra hours taking grounders in order to handle the transition to first base from the outfield. Richards said Kutsulis has displayed an exceptionally positive attitude in terms of dealing with adversity and dealing with a position change.
"Zak has had to face a lot of adversity with the injuries, and he's still battling today," Richards said. "It's hard to come back 100 percent. He still battles, and he handles it really well. Going into the surgeries, he was always very positive. The following year, when he was in the recovery stage, he was still the same teammate, he was always working hard and we had no doubt he would come back healthy.
"He sets a good example for the team. Having to go through surgeries like that, it puts things in perspective for us. If he can do that, we can handle minor injuries and minor setbacks. People learned from him having such a positive attitude about things."
That positive attitude will help put the fight in the Irish when they embark on the road to Omaha.
"What I love best about this team is we're scrappy," Kutsulis said. "We're going to go out there and compete, no matter what the situation is. We're going to do whatever it takes to score more runs."