Brothers overcome adversity to play D1 Baseball

Christian and Zack in Little League

Growing up in the US Elite organization since they were 12 years old may sound like an easy path for Christian and Zack Helsel to get D1 scholarships. And, having their dad (Mark Helsel) as the National Director may seem like a huge advantage. As it turns out, they both had to overcome formidable obstacles to play college baseball. Zack is a sophomore RHP at Liberty University and Christian is a senior infielder at Penn State. Both will be in uniform next weekend when the D1 college baseball season opens.

Christian diving catch

Christian was a highly recruited player out of high school and accepted a scholarship to Ole Miss. He played in 39 games as a freshman and started in 23. It was a good start for a PA kid playing in the SEC. Then, things took a turn for the worse. In just his 12th game of the summer while playing in the Northwoods League (summer collegiate league) Helsel felt a pain in his elbow. Shortly thereafter he was told he would need to have Tommy John surgery. That was bad news. But, it got worse. Just a few days later he got a call from Ole Miss head Coach, Mike Bianco. He was told that Ole Miss would not be renewing his scholarship (scholarships are one year renewable contracts). Bianco explained that he could return to Ole Miss and try to earn his scholarship back when he was able to play again. “At the time, that was one of the worst days of my life”, said Helsel. “Prior to committing to Ole Miss I visited over 20 schools. I loved everything about it down there. But, I was naive to how things worked at that level”. Helsel said it was a rough couple of days after getting such devastating news. “My dad helped me through it a lot. He helped me understand that handling adversity is what makes us stronger. He told me I was at a crossroads in my career and I could choose to let it defeat me, or I could choose to let it motivate me”.

Christian with web gem at Ole Miss

Helsel chose the latter. He opted to not return to Ole Miss in the fall, and instead enrolled in Bucks County Community College outside of Philadelphia where he could continue his education while he rehabbed. “That was a very different type of experience. All of my teammates were back at Ole Miss enjoying college life and I was renting a one bedroom apartment in the basement of a lady’s house, taking classes and rehabbing my elbow”. Helsel said he met some amazing people who were instrumental in helping him through a very rough time. “I rehabbed with Dr. Chris McKenzie. He was just incredible at helping me rehab and we actually became very good friends. He kept me on track. I also worked out with Chris Kurtz, at CK Performance. He was very inspirational for me. Kurtzy would never allow me to feel sorry for myself. He kicked me in the butt when I needed it and that really helped me”.

ChristianPSU

Eventually, things turned around for Helsel. He became newly appointed Penn State head coach, Rob Cooper’s first recruit. “It was special. Coop needed to get his recruiting class jump started because he took the job kind of late in the year at Penn State, and I needed a place that was willing to give me a chance to jumpstart my career. It’s turned out well for me. I absolutely love it here at Penn State and am grateful for the opportunity. Helsel, who begins his final year of college baseball, recently won the first ever “We Are” award. See related story HERE. Penn State opens the season against #1 Ranked TCU in Fort Worth, TX next weekend.  “This team has worked really hard to get better every day and we are all very excited about getting the season started”.

ZackChristianLaNeve

Zack Xray colarbone

Helsel’s younger brother, Zack, had a different, but equally challenging path, to college baseball. “I was a lot different than Chrisitan, said Helsel. “He was very good at a young age. He was physically mature and started getting recruited as a freshman in high school. As a sophomore in high school I was thin (145 lbs). I wasn’t fast enough to play a position at the D1 level and my velo was well below D1 standards (75-76 mph) to be a pitcher. Then, Helsel fell even further behind. In the first tournament of the summer following his sophomore year of high school he collided with a teammate and was knocked out cold. When he awoke in the Roanoke hospital he was told he had a concussion, his jaw was broken, his collarbone was broken, he lost two teeth and he had 7 stitches in his lip. The doctor actually found a piece of his tooth embedded in his cheek. “I was pretty beat up. At first it didn’t dawn on me at how far behind my accident would put me. All summer long I just watched my teammates play and allowed my body to heal. My jaw was wired shut and my arm was in a sling. I wasn’t able to play again until the end of the fall of my junior year”. Then, something dramatic happened.

Zack injury 2

zack with bunny at hospital

“Because my jaw was wired shut, I lost a lot of weight. At one point I was 135 lbs. When I was finally able to start eating real food again, and lifting weights I realized I had a lot of catching up to do. It was like a light bulb went on in my head. I felt like I was on a mission. I had no time to waste. I started working out like a maniac and pounding weight gain shakes and protein. I was consuming over 5,000 calories a day”. Helsel said Coach Brian Murtha and Donnie Watson, founder of The Complete Athlete Program, helped him make an amazing comeback. “Coach Murtha drove to Altoona and showed me a whole series of scientifically supported exercises. He told me they would help me so I did them religiously and they made a huge difference. Coach Murtha monitored my progress and even added new stuff along the way”. Helsel’s body responded in dramatic fashion. “I gained 40 lbs in one year. Everything changed for me. My confidence soared. I looked good in the mirror for the first time in my life, I went from mid 70’s velocity to low 80’s by the summer after my junior year. I’m a side arm pitcher so getting my velocity up was not easy”. That summer Helsel made another dramatic jump. His velocity hit 85, which was good enough to catch the attention of a few D1 schools. “Penn State showed some interest, but they already had a sidearmer. Liberty offered me a scholarship and I visited there. I committed on the spot and I know now that this is where I am supposed to be. God had a plan for me. This is it”.

Zack Helsel hanging on bar

Since arriving at Liberty Helsel set a goal to be one of the hardest workers on the team. He got some innings as a freshman and is ready to get his sophomore year started out of the pen for the Flames. His velocity has continued to improve and he now sits 88-91. “It’s been an amazing ride to get to this point. My coaches at Liberty have done a great job helping me prepare for this season. I can’t wait to compete at this level”. Liberty opens their season next weekend against UVA at the Citadel Tournament. 

US Elite Director, Mark Helsel, says he uses both of his son’s stories to motivate and inspire players in the organization. “Unfortunately injuries and adversity are a part of this journey. For most, it’s not a question of “if” but rather “when” an injury will occur. The power of these stories lies in the will to overcome. It’s where desire becomes bigger than the setback. It’s not easy, but when an individual learns to actually embrace the challenges, and realize that they can actually use them to find another level of determination that they didn’t even know they had…that’s where the real personal growth takes place. It gives me chills to talk about it”.