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Zaccardo ready to pitch in at UConn

The plan was for Michael Zaccardo to spend a post graduate year at the IMG Academy baseball program, and then stay down in Florida and pitch collegiately for a Division II program.

Instead, Zaccardo finds himself living a dream as the newest member of the University of Connecticut team.

Funny what growing two inches, gaining 20 pounds and nine miles per hour on the fastball -- all in the span of nine months -- can do for a right-handed reliever.

Zaccardo, a former all-FCIAC pitcher for Greenwich High School as a senior in 2007, has clearly taken his game to the next level. It all started when Zaccardo decided to get serious about baseball and attend the University of Miami satellite campus at the renowned IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.

"I really had never experienced something like that before," Zaccardo said. "I got to play with kids that had been drafted and everyone took it seriously. And getting a chance to play year-round in the warm weather, it was a whole new ballgame."

While at IMG, Zaccardo had plenty of time to hone his craft. Practice was five days a week, three hours a day, with two-hour sessions in the weight room after that. Games were played on weekends, and all the while, Zaccardo had the likes of Ken Bolek, the head of the Academy, and pitching coach Steve Frey to lean on for advice.

"I got the basic mechanics from high school," Zaccardo said, "But we were able to tweak a few things down there. I learned a lot, and those guys pushed me to be the best I could be. When I went to Florida, playing Division I baseball was a dream and now its a reality."

When Zaccardo returned home from Florida last May, he was still unknown to many of the East Coast's premier programs.

But that all changed over the summer when Zaccardo helped lead the Team Connecticut Baseball Americans, a select New England travel team, to a 41-4 record and a national championship at the SANDLOTT 18-and-under World Series in Nashville, Tenn.

"It was unbelievable," said Zaccardo, who made a name for himself by pitching a complete game in the Americans 7-1 semifinal round win over an all-star team from Georgia. "It was the most fun I've had in one summer. The kids on the team were the coolest ever (Greenwich residents LJ Mazzilli and Chris Kono were also on the squad) and our coaches inspired us a lot."

Zaccardo speaks highly of manager Mike McGuire and coaches Pete Zabroski and Brad Muldoon -- and vice versa.

"Mike was one of my favorite kids on the team," McGuire said. "He's got a fastball that sits in the high 80s and tops out in the low 90s and can throw four pitches, all for strikes. I think he can be special."

What McGuire really likes about the former Cardinals ace is his confidence.

"We were playing the New York Nine and a kid from their team who had been drafted in the 12th round hit a mammoth homer against one of our pitchers," McGuire recalled. "Zaccardo was facing him later on, and the message to him was be careful with this guy. But Mike said, 'How 'bout if I just strike his (blank) out instead. Four pitches later, the kid was walking back to the dugout with his bat on his shoulder. That shows you the kind of competitor he is. I told the UConn coaches you've got to see this kid, and I know they're tickled pink to have him."

Central Florida, UNC Asheville and Coastal Carolina -- to name a few -- also showed interest, but in the end, Zaccardo wound up with his homestate Huskies.

"I got pretty excited after talking to the UConn coaches," Zaccardo said. "We've got a brand-new year-round facility and its close to home, so it seemed like the perfect fit. So far, its been everything I could have hoped for."

Zaccardo signed a National Letter of Intent in the fall and was on the UConn campus in December, just in time for captains practice. The 6-foot-2, 200-pound freshman is currently one of 19 pitchers on the roster, and he plans on pitching in immediately.

"They want me to come in right away out of the bullpen," Zaccardo said. "Hopefully they expect a lot out of me because I want to have an impact on this team."

Although Zaccardo is already looking forward to the fall when he'll be joined at UConn by Mazzilli, his best friend whom he helped convince take the IMG Academy route, the primary focus is on the start of the 2009 season, which begins on Friday against Michigan State in Clearwater, Fla. The Huskies also play Big Ten opponents Ohio State and Northwestern next weekend.

"We have a really good squad and we want to come back 3-0," Zaccardo said.

The Huskies were picked to finish sixth in the 12-team Big East Conference. Zaccardo, for one, is aiming much higher.

"Our goal is to win 40 of our 56 games," he said. "That's what I keep hearing, whether its during sprints or in the weight room. It's about getting those 40 wins."

Zaccardo, who has already signed to play for the North Shore Navigators of the New England Collegiate Baseball League this summer, plans on taking advantage of all that UConn offers its student-athletes.

"We're on the road a lot which can make keeping up in the classroom a challenge," said Zaccardo, who is majoring in sports management. "But we have access to a private library and can sign up for tutors as much as we want. This is definitely where I want to be, and I really want to thank all my coaches from Greenwich and beyond for helping me get here."

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