College baseball: How Tennessee walk-on Nico Mascia has inspired the Volunteers
Nico Mascia's favorite subject is calculus. But it takes much simpler math to figure out how much sleep he gets during baseball season.
Mascia is majoring in chemical and biomolecular engineering with aspirations of being a surgeon.
Trying to balance long days at the field with long nights studying to maintain his 3.99 GPA leaves little time for the redshirt sophomore catcher to rest.
During a recent three-day stretch, Mascia slept only four hours total. He pulled one all-nighter, taking a brief 35-minute break to visit his dog and watch the sun rise from the campus library.
Although the schedule is good preparation for hospital residency shifts, it's not the best medical advice to follow.
From a bullpen catcher who helped do the team's laundry to an essential cog in the lineup, Mascia's career at UT has been a study in hard work and perseverance.
The Knoxville native appeared in only one game last season, getting a single at-bat as a pinch hitter. This season, he's played in 39 games, is batting .277 and leads the team in slugging and on-base percentage.
"If you were around the park for an entire day, you would see nothing but smiles out of the guy," Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello said. "Nico affects other people's moods because of his natural personality and because he's always so positive. Even though he's got an incredibly intense schedule, he's able to have fun doing what he is doing all the time."
Mascia's teammates marvel at his academic prowess while admiring his work ethic and selflessness on the field.
"He is starting to become like the heart of the team a little bit. He is the kind of guy you weren't expecting to be something and now he has taken over," UT sophomore pitcher Garrett Stallings said. "He's the kind of guy everybody roots for no matter what, and he's really taught us how important academics are."
Meghan Anderson, the team's academic advisor, has worked closely with Mascia over the last three years to keep him on the pre-med track at UT while still playing baseball.
She'll sit with him in hotel conference rooms while he studies or takes tests, and is a sounding board for any of his worries about his workload.
"Nico is an exceptional kid. I tell the other players they are surrounded by someone who one day we are going to read about for some reason," Anderson said. "I don't know if it will be a cure for something or he is going to come up with a new lung. I don't know what it is, but I just know something will come from him that is not currently present in the world."
The 5-10, 200-pound Mascia thrives on the stress of meeting a deadline. He's intellectually stimulated by solving complex problems, whether it's a formula on a whiteboard or a pitcher painting the corners.
After the long hours in school each day, Mascia views the diamond as his refuge.
"I just love baseball and I love being around the guys. That is really kind of what does it for me," said Mascia, who will be taking the MCAT (Medical College Admission Test) this summer. "It forces me to take a break from school and forces me to talk to people, because I feel like there would be some days where I wouldn't talk to anyone if I was just studying. But I can come here and play baseball and have fun."
Mascia and Stallings stage frequent ping pong battles in the clubhouse to determine the team champion. Even after a grueling engineering test or a rough day at the plate, Mascia always arrives with a contagious smile and appreciation for his experiences.
"You never see him angry. He could go 0-for-5 with five strikeouts and you would have no idea in the world," Stallings said. "He is so competitive and hard-working. I think when you see him working that hard and not sleeping for days, you ask what could I be doing better? He is pushing guys without even knowing it."
Mascia grew up attending UT baseball games with his father. As they watched players like Chris Burke and J.P. Arencibia star for the Vols, they'd talk about what it would take for Mascia to eventually wear orange and white.
But once Mascia graduated from Farragut High, he didn't plan to play baseball at UT. He was ready to focus strictly on academics until former coach Dave Serrano offered him a walk-on spot.
Mascia readily accepted, and didn't mind catching bullpens, shagging balls and watching games from the dugout in his first two seasons.
"I really just made sure when I was in that role that I was never really complaining because you don't want to be around someone who complains," said Mascia, who helped Farragut win a state title in 2014 and earned all-state honors. "I made sure I tried not to seem like a victim."
As he waited for a chance to play, Mascia grew close with the team managers. He often traveled with them on the road, and even began helping them do the team's laundry.
"I was staying in the room with them and they asked me for my laundry. I don't know how I felt about somebody doing my laundry when I was literally right there," Mascia said. "Something about that bothered me, so I would help them do that or set up the field. I just always wanted to be doing something. I hate sitting around."
The arrival of the new coaching staff last summer gave Mascia a clean slate. To prove he deserved playing time, he worked to get stronger in the offseason and develop a better approach at the plate. In the fall, Mascia finished second on the team in quality at-bats.
"Normally that is a pretty good indicator you have a guy who can help you offensively," Vitello said. "At the same time, you kind of have your doubts because he's not a big scholarship blue-chip recruit and didn't have a history the previous seasons. But he got an opportunity to play this spring and has used the same approach as the fall. He keeps things pretty simple in the batter's box."
Mascia wanted to be an astronaut when he was younger, and declared as a physics major during his freshman year at UT.
But once he took an introduction to engineering course, Mascia knew he'd found his calling. He switched majors and began planning for a career in the medical field.
Two years ago, Mascia spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day shadowing Dr. Carmelo Venero, a cardiologist at the UT Medical Center. He was riveted.
"I watched a seven-hour surgery and it felt like 10 minutes. To be in the room and be as close to the action as I possibly could without having an M.D. was amazing," Mascia said. "I really fell in love with doing heart and brain surgery, the emergency stuff that is stressful. I think I do well in situations like that."
Along with his regular classes and baseball, Mascia serves as an undergraduate research assistant for Dr. Richard Komistek in the Biomedical Engineering Department. He analyzes kinematics and clinical data for patients having knee or hip implants.
"Nico is very, very bright and a lot of people that bright have a hard time communicating and hard time fitting in to all the crowds. But he doesn't. He fits in with anyone and everyone and he doesn't set himself apart," Anderson said. "He is very humble and very kind. He doesn't try to be anyone else. He is just who he is and is comfortable with that."
Mascia's family background helps. As one of six children, he learned how to adapt to any situation and deal with different personalities.
"It's kind of like being on this team. It's a competitive environment, but you want everyone to be successful. It was the same way growing up," Mascia said. "We are a loud Italian family and we were all yelling at the dinner table. You had to get your voice out there before you were interrupted."
The Tennessee coaches pronounced Mascia's last name "about 20 different ways" in the fall, according to Vitello, and he laughed right along with them each time. They have taken to calling him "Whammer" because of Mascia's old-school approach at the plate.
As Vitello attempts to turn the program around, much of the focus will be on the big-time recruits and All-Americans. But it's players like Mascia - a walk-on with no ego and unlimited ambition - that are the glue of the team and keep the clubhouse culture strong.
"At the end of the day, everyone wants more positives than negatives in their company, organization or team and Nico is the guy who brings a ton of that," Vitello said. "Regardless of if he goes down in history as having many hits or RBIs as a Tennessee baseball player, the legacy he leaves is one that will be overwhelmingly positive."