By Brian Rosenthal / Huskers.com
Angelo Altavilla first picked up hockey skates when he 3 years old – or about 3 years later than most Minnesotans.
“Being from Minnesota, you almost have to play it,” said Altavilla, a native of Lakeville. “My dad played college hockey, and my two older brothers played hockey growing up, too. Just kind of runs in our blood.”
Yet Altavilla discovered a love for baseball, too. From October to March he'd play hockey, and from April on, baseball.
By “on,” we mean through hockey, too.
“Even during hockey season in high school,” Altavilla said, “I'd sneak baseball in there on the weekends and work on my craft.”
He's glad he did.
For it was one of those weekends during hockey season when Altavilla attended a baseball camp where Nebraska coaches first saw him play.
Today, the shortstop owns the second-highest batting average for a Nebraska team vying for a Big Ten Conference championship, and more.
“Everybody says it – there's no place like Nebraska,” Altavilla said. “The coaches and facilities are top-notch. The fans are unbelievable. That's all I ever wanted, was to play in front of thousands people. It's awesome here.”
Hence, the reason he chose Nebraska over Minnesota and Iowa, who also recruited Altavilla in baseball.
What happened to hockey?
“Nobody hopped onto me for hockey until I guess my senior year, a little bit,” Altavilla said. “It made the decision easy that baseball was my better sport. It wasn't too hard (to decide), but it was definitely hard to give (hockey) up.”
Altavilla said he has hung up the skates for good, even though his head coach, a North Dakota native and hockey player himself, has ribbed him about not playing on his adult team.
“He's kind of got on me,” Altavilla said, smiling. “He's asked me to come out. But I don't really skate. My parents, they don't want me to get hurt, even though I played my whole entire life.”
Truth be told, Darin Erstad would probably rather not unnecessarily risk injury to one of his top players, either.
“The guy likes to compete, and you can get on him or you can love him or you can coach him,” Erstad said. “He just responds, and he really keeps a cool head out there in tough situations. The tougher it gets, the more he wants to compete, and that's a good quality to have.”
Erstad believes that's a trait first instilled in Altavilla through hockey.
“I think there was a level of toughness there that developed over time, but more importantly for me, he was the captain of the best team in Minnesota, and a lot of those qualities he brings to the field,” Erstad said. “He brings a little ornery side to him, too.”
The 6-foot, 184-pound Altavilla is batting .313 and boasts a .408 on-base percentage. Both numbers rank second on the team. Even when his batting average dipped a bit during the middle of conference play, Altavilla continued to find ways to get on base, move runners along and produce some timely hits.
“He can help you win in a lot of different ways,” Erstad said.
Yet Erstad is careful to label Altavilla – or anybody, for that matter – a team leader.
“I want him to be himself,” Erstad said. “I don't anoint anybody to be anything. I just ask guys to be themselves.
“But I will say this: Guys do gravitate toward his type of mentality.”
That's something befitting of both hockey and baseball – competitiveness and grit.
“Just that mentality, coming every day to practice, that, 'I'm not going to back down from anything,' ” Altavilla said. “You're going to take some shots. You just kind of have to deal with it and move on and learn from that.
“I mean, I wasn't a huge hitter in high school (hockey) or anything. I just kind of scrapped around. But just the big hits, and when the crowd gets fired up when you get a big goal or something, it fires you up.”
Altavilla said he hopes his gritty, do-anything-necessary mentality rubs off on his teammates, even if they don't say so.
“Any way you can get on base is huge, and I think my defense is starting to come around a little bit more,” he said. “But my biggest priority right now is getting on base, doing whatever you can do – hit, getting hit by a pitch, a walk or even reaching on an error. That's just as good as a single.”
He's yearning for a home run, too. The next one he hits will be his first.
Altavilla is also known for writing inspirational words on the inside bill of his baseball cap. They're fading through the sweat stains, but Altavilla said he's too superstitious to try to write over them.
Yes, Altavilla is as superstitious as they come, a common trait among baseball players.
Know how some players won't change a thing when they're playing well? Well, Altavilla is just the opposite.
“My biggest superstition is I have to change it up. I have to change it up,” he said. “It's like completely opposite. I've learned over the years that if I stick to the same thing, I'll play bad or whatever. It's all mental.”
“(Superstition) is very overlooked. People think it's a joke, but it's not.”
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