Life’s challenges and its subsequent lessons often come without warning and can leave us derailed, confused and angry.
Former Diamond Jack Greg Bozzo had every right to embrace all of the above as his 2020 calling card.
Bozzo had witnessed his senior baseball season wiped out by the COVID-19 pandemic last spring. Then, before he even stepped onto the LaSalle University campus in September, the school handed down the cruelest of cruel decisions. It decided to drop its baseball program.
The 6-0, 205-pound catcher and Ridge High School grad, already relegated to a virtual college experience because of the pandemic, had been dropped into a college baseball no-man’s land.
“Our pitchers and catchers were working out at an indoor facility in Norristown, Pa.,” said Bozzo. “And we were playing in a college fall sandlot league in South Jersey on the weekends. Twenty-four LaSalle players were in the league.”
Bozzo’s September was going as planned when he received a text from LaSalle head coach Dave Miller. “It was late September and coach sent us a text at like 11:30 in the morning,” said Bozzo, “saying he needed us in a group Zoom in 30 minutes. We knew something was up but figured it was something with COVID.”
Miller was on the Zoom call with LaSalle athletic director Brian Baptiste, who delivered the news that the university had decided to drop baseball and six other sports programs at the Philadelphia school. LaSalle had sponsored 25 varsity programs before the cut, the most in the Atlantic 10 Conference. The athletes were told the program cuts had to do with a restructuring plan for the department, while COVID related revenue issues were mentioned.
“Our coach found out about a half-hour before the Zoom call,” said Bozzo. “All athletes affected were on the call. People were straight out balling. They were just devastated.”
College athletes don’t want to know anything about athletic department structures or cost analysis or whatever goes on behind closed doors to make things tick at their universities. They only want to know where the field is and what time you want them there.
“The A.D. just kept repeating himself,” said Bozzo. “I guess you don’t get much practice at that kind of thing.”
Bozzo, meanwhile, was a few weeks into his college career and he’d been dealt an athletic shot to the belly that ranked even worse than the one the pandemic had delivered in the spring.
“My immediate reaction was, well, let’s go,” said Bozzo. “I was so used to bad news at that point, sad to say. I was thinking, ‘I’m not letting this bring me down like COVID. This is my future. If I’m not proactive here I’ll be left out.”
The positive attitude Bozzo exhibited was not surprising. It was one of several attributes that drew college scouts to him. His high school coach, Tom Blackwell, had paid him this tribute last winter. “In my 20 years of coaching at the high school level, I have come across some special young men who left their mark on our program and went on to do great things in life. None, and I honestly mean none, have made more of an impact on the Ridge baseball program than Greg Bozzo.”
Outstanding athletic ability and uncommon maturity at his disposal, Bozzo remained attractive to other college programs, despite a tighter-than-ever roster crunch inflicted by the pandemic.
Bozzo jumped back into what he called, “another rollercoaster recruiting ride.” He was drawing attention from schools at every level, including junior colleges. “I knew I’d be going into a totally new environment but I wanted to go somewhere where I’d be on solid ground, where I could learn the culture and be around the same players and coaches for four years.”
Division 3 Babson College in Wellesley, Mass. was one of the early front-runners for Bozzo’s services. “Babson was a strong possibility,” he said, “and UNC-Asheville and UMass were the other schools I was interested in.”
Bozzo had professed his desire, prior to committing to LaSalle, to attend a university based in a city.
“I realized I liked city schools,” Bozzo said after touring LaSalle.
One of those city schools was on Bozzo’s trail this fall courtesy of a coaching connection. Nick Puccio was the head coach at Nichols College (Mass.) when he saw Bozzo play at Diamond Nation. Puccio moved to Northeastern as an assistant two years ago and remembered the New Jersey catcher when he suddenly became available.
“Northeastern was one of the last schools to reach out to me,” said Bozzo. “I knew right away that’s where I wanted to go. It’s amazing to me. It came down to my connections at Diamond Nation and my other baseball networks. Coach (Nick) Puccio recruited me earlier and remembered me.”
The academic side was always a critical ingredient to Bozzo’s college experience, so Northeastern’s dive into his recruiting pool changed things drastically.
“I visited there last month,” he said. “My dream has always been to use baseball to get into a greater academic school. Northeastern is a dream school for me. It still hasn’t sunk in that I committed there. It’s almost surreal.”
Bozzo has successfully completed his first semester of college at LaSalle and expects the credits for at least four of the five classes he took this fall to transfer to Northeastern. He will start behind on a team that has a full fall season already behind it.
“That’s the biggest thing,” he said. “I’m behind. There’s other catchers on the team. I’ve been talking to the coaches a lot, asking questions and figuring out what I need to do to catch up and compete.”
So, for the next few weeks, Bozzo’s life will be centered around preparation for his first college baseball season.
“I feel like I’m in a different mode right now,” said Bozzo. “I have my work cut out for me. I just need to work hard. There will be competition. I’m excited to start. I’ve switched from what was a stressful time to a motivated time.”
Bozzo moves into his college dorm at Northeastern on Jan. 15 and takes the field immediately as head coach Mike Glavine and his charges begin the urgent work associated with preparing for a mid-February start to the 2021 season. Classes begin on Jan. 19.
“Baseball starts right away,” Bozzo said. “So, the preparation the next five weeks is huge for me.”
Unlike LaSalle, and many schools in the northeast, Northeastern University has been in session, in-person, all fall. “They test for COVID three times a week,” said Bozzo. “They have a testing center on campus. They had a great first semester. The baseball team had no problems. I went up to watch a scrimmage.”
Extra innings: Northeastern coach Mike Glavine is a former major leaguer and brother of Hall Fame pitcher Tom Glavine. … Mike Glavine begins his seventh season as head coach and owns two Colonial Athletic Association regular season titles and was twice named the conference’s Coach of the Year. … Three other players hailing from the Garden State are on Northeastern’s 2021 roster. They are; Dave Howarth, a redshirt freshman catcher from Wall Twp., Delbarton grad Mark Darakjy, a freshman outfielder, and Kyle Hoog, a freshman outfielder from St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City.
Great Story and that’s so nice to hear after the year most people have had .