Bishop Carroll starter Zach Nielsen was in the zone Tuesday afternoon at Westurban, and it was a feeling he'd missed for far too long. The 6-foot-1, 230-pound right-hander stood atop the mound and seemed to be in a state of perfect calm, and with good reason. He was ahead in the count — one ball and two strikes.
In an instant it was over. The heater was low and inside, and the batter's swing was a few inches too high and a split-second too late. Nielsen had done his job — five strikeouts in the first two innings. He made his way back to the dugout with the slightest hint of a grin on his face.
He'd put more work into preparing for his start against West — a suspended 17-0 lead through two innings — than he had for any other start in his life. In past years Nielsen had been instructed put on his best poker face, but after recovering from a torn anterior-cruciate ligament and tears in the lateral and medial meniscus in his left knee within four months, he'd just pitched nearly two perfect innings of baseball. He couldn't help but to let it show.
"I was really excited to pitch, but I was always told not to show your emotion when you're out there," Nielsen said. "I just tried to not get too high or get too low, but I definitely had fun out there."
Nielsen suffered the injury in Carroll's football game against Emporia on Nov. 13. The defensive end chased Emporia's quarterback, who darted away. Nielsen reacted but his knee buckled as he planted his foot. His body continued going one direction while his knee popped out in the other.
Following the accident, Nielsen kicked into recovery mode thanks to support from his family, team, trainer and surgeon. He has plans of playing college baseball, so the coaches association's all-5A designated hitter knew it wasn't a possibility for him to miss a large part of his senior season due to injury.
"I knew I could do it. I was working hard for it," Nielsen said. "Everybody else said no, I was coming back too fast. I think my surgeon, my trainer and my family were the only people that thought I could do it."
Nielsen passed his physicals and was used as a designated hitter for the first time in Carroll's April 1 matchup against East. In most cases Eagles coach Charlie Ebright uses a pinch runner for Nielsen. Ebright plans to continue this pattern until he thinks Nielsen is mentally ready to trust the strength of his knee and run the bases with conviction.
"On the mound he's probably at 85 percent," Ebright said. "He's going to improve at fielding his position. Also running the bases is something he's going to have to do mentally. He's going to have to learn to trust himself and his knee."
Ebright said Nielsen's recovery is big for his team. He's the clean-up hitter and the No. 1 returning pitcher bundled into one convenient package.
Carroll athletic trainer Lori Burton, who helped Nielsen rehabilitate the knee, agrees there is a mental aspect to overcoming serious knee injuries. However, she said that his personality and will to compete won't let Nielsen succumb to doubt. She said he's a person that she will refer future patients to for advice because of his approach.
"He was ready to come in and work from Day 1," she said.
"There's definitely a mental aspect that accompanies that type of injury," Burton said. "Few kids have come back that soon from those injuries in the fall and then can come back in the spring and compete at the level he wants to compete at. It just doesn't happen that often."