OREM — Utah Valley University senior Zac Willis has spent the most memorable moments of his baseball career in somewhat of a divided state between agony and ecstasy.
Baseball has a unique way of celebrating the game’s biggest moments.
Traditionally, when the final out is recorded, the catcher will meet the pitcher near the mound for an embrace and within seconds, the other seven players on the field and players in the dugout are piled on top of the pitcher and catcher in an uncomfortable celebration.
Discomfort? Sure. But there is nowhere else Willis would rather be.
Willis is a graduate of American Fork High School. He was a three-year starter for the Cavemen and helped them win a state 5A title in 2012.
Willis caught Riley Otteson in the 5A championship game and was on the bottom of the dogpile near the mound when American Fork recorded the final out against Taylorsville to win the championship.
He went to Salt Lake Community College for two years. SLCC uses wood bats. As a sophomore, he was named first-team All-Conference after hitting .335 with 15 doubles and 33 RBI.
Willis started last year at Utah Valley. He was behind the plate when the Wolverines won the WAC tournament with a 4-0 win over Seattle. In that game, he went 2-for-4 with a triple and drove in a run. He ended up in the dogpile again. It’s a place Willis loves to go.
This year he leads UVU in home runs with six. He’s hitting .271 and is second on the team in RBI with 32 RBI.
UVU coach Eric Madsen saw a lot of Willis when he was in high school. Madsen’s son Mick (graduated last year) was a shortstop and pitcher for American Fork.
“He’s definitely a hard worker and he’s shown a great work ethic in our program. He hits and does so much stuff on his own. He’s kind of created his own success by his hard work,” Eric Madsen said. “He handles the pitching staff so well. He does a pretty good job staying connected to the pitchers. He’s a tough kid. The great thing about Zac is his desire to win and his competitiveness.”
The best reference check for a catcher is a member of the pitching staff and junior pitcher Jake Mayer can vouch for Willis.
“It doesn’t matter what you ask him. He will never say no. He will catch a bullpen on the weekend. He’s always willing to be there if you need him,” Mayer said. “He helps me stay locked in and sometimes that can be tough for nine innings. He will talk to you in the dugout between innings. We talk about how to pitch to certain hitters and bring up the scouting report.”
Willis has been battling a knee injury for the last month but has been in the lineup as a designated hitter. He’s hoping to get the gear on for the WAC tournament that will begin on Wednesday in Arizona, when the Wolverines will face Northern Colorado in the first round.
“The season has been a roller coaster. There have been a lot of ups and downs. We just haven’t been consistent,” Willis said. “I don’t think the seeding matters because we have already beat the best teams in the WAC. If we play like I know we can and if we are at our best, we can win the tournament.”
The winner of the tournament will get an automatic invitation to the NCAA tournament. All of the members of the WAC know that winning the tournament is the only way they will get an invite, so that makes each game an intense battle for teams desperate to keep their season alive.
Winning the WAC tournament last year and earning a NCAA playoff berth for the first time in school history provided Willis with a memorable experience. The Wolverines opened up the tournament at No. 8 LSU.
“Oh my gosh, I’ve never played in a better atmosphere,” Willis said. “Our game was delayed by rain for a couple of hours but there were still 10,000 people in the stands. It was an incredible experience.”
When the season ends, Willis’ said he plans on turning his attention to his other passions — fishing and hunting.
He will then return to UVU in the fall to finish up with his last semester before he’s expected to graduate in December with a degree in public relations.
“I still feel like I’m getting better every day. I’m just going to go out and try and enjoy the rest of the season,” Willis said. “I’ve been happy with the way I’ve played. I take pride in my defense and the way I receive the ball.”