Above photo of Jeb Zolman by CJ Halloran/@cjhall_photography
BELTON, Texas- UMHB baseball’s Jeb Zolman is the definition of a leader and a team player, both in word and action.
His selflessness is striking, perhaps more than his on-field play. It is obvious he is one of those players the rest of the team looks to as a leader, yet he does not boast, brag, and hardly talks about himself.
“Just make sure you put something in there about the other guys, because it’s not me,” Zolman said in a recent interview with True To The Cru.
He is certainly right. A program does not turn around this quick, just two years into head coach Mike Stawski’s tenure, because of one player.
But there is also a reason why Stawski noted Zolman as one of the team’s most valuable players, both prior to the 2021 campaign, and prior to Tuesday’s 12-3 loss to Texas Lutheran.
“I told you at the beginning of the season that I thought he could be our most valuable player,” Stawski said this week. “I don’t think that has changed because of how much he brings to the table.”
Jeb Zolman almost never played at UMHB. He almost never played college baseball. And here he is, entering the final home series of his collegiate career against McMurry this weekend.
Throughout high school, Zolman’s goal was to attend the Air Force Academy, something he fulfilled upon graduation. He only made it six months there, however, before realizing it was not the right fit. While in a holding pattern, trying to figure out where to continue his education, he returned home and took classes at a community college, where also played club baseball.
“I played club ball for one year at the community college,” Zolman said. “My first cousin was the coach and he said, ‘We need a guy to come play first base. You don’t have to throw a whole lot, just come play first base and hit’, because my arm had been bothering me since high school. I was like, ‘Alright, sounds fun’, because I really just needed a group to go hang out with.
“I went and did that, enjoyed it, and that’s what led me to think I might be able to go play college ball somewhere for a few years. Here I am, still at UMHB.”
He remembers visiting UMHB later in that year, and instantly knowing that it was the school for him. Yet, the offer to play baseball did not come until later, and not until Zolman reached out to the coaching staff, which was then led by Ben Shipp.
“I was just trying to figure out what the next step was going to be,” Zolman recalls. “All through high school, I had wanted to go to the Air Force Academy, so when I left, I was stuck. I hadn’t given a whole lot of thought of what I wanted to do next. So I started looking at colleges all over.
“I came here [to UMHB], got a tour of the campus, loved the town, it had a big school feel in a small school setting. I figured, ‘What the heck, I could play baseball here.’ I sent coach an email and next thing I knew, I wound up here.”
It took a little while for Zolman to see consistent time on the field due to an injury in his first season in 2018, but he made significant strides during the following season, battling back from the injury. He hit in just two games, but saw nine appearances on the mound, throwing 10.2 innings and striking out 10 batters.
His two way ability was put on display when Stawski came to Belton from Concordia Chicago in 2020, and used Zolman both as an infielder and pitcher. With Stawski making the most of Zolman’s value as a two-way player, the Humble, Texas native played in 14 of the Cru’s 15 games, hitting .382, and throwing 22.1 innings with 20 strikeouts.
“Luckily, Coach Stawski is understanding,” Zolman said,”and allowed me to [be a two-way guy] because he could’ve easily said, ‘No, you’re just going to pitch because that’s all you have time for’, but he left it up to me to show that I can.”
Zolman has proven he can do both, but it has not come easy. As he noted Wednesday, plenty of sacrifice and extra practice time is involved, so having a solid group of teammates around him has been critical.
“Well I have good teammates,” Zolman said when asked what goes into being a two-way player. “Harrison [Sims] and I both have class at 6 pm, three times a week, so we have leave practice early. When you’re a two-way, you already have double the work to do. So it helps to have good teammates who can ask in the middle of the afternoon, ‘Hey, do you want to go hit for 30 minutes?’, because you got to get something done outside of practice.
“It’s really nice to have good guys on the team that are willing to work with you, and push you and keep you accountable.”
There are several positives to being a two-way player, as Zolman noted, because it forces players to focus on what’s ahead, with little time to dwell on the past.
“It helps you reset,” Zolman said. “If you have a bad outing on the mound, and you turn around and know your role is different the next game, it helps you refresh. So you’re not dwelling on a couple bad innings the day before, because you have to go and swing.”
Stawski sees the challenges of being a two-way player, and how it can impact statistics, but appreciates Zolman’s versatility and team-first attitude.
“He’s in a tough spot with being a DH, being a third baseman, being a pitcher so there’s lot on his plate,” Stawski said. “I think that his pitching numbers would be a lot better if he was just a pitcher, if he just focused on that. But he doesn’t. He hits three games a week. Instead of today doing some stuff when we get to TLU, and working on his craft, and some slid-step stuff from the mound, he’s got to get ready to play a game and hit. However, I don’t think he would trade it for anything.”
As Zolman heads into the final home games of his collegiate career, he cannot help but look back on what the Cru has accomplished this season, especially when you consider that he has never experienced a winning season or played in the conference tournament.
“Probably this season,” Zolman said when asked if there was a specific moment or memory that will stick with him from his UMHB career. “This is will be, knock on wood, assuming I don’t get hurt, the first full season I’ll get to play. My first year here, I got hurt halfway through the season. My second season, I got back from that injury halfway through the season, and last year got cut short [because of Covid].
“Also, being able to see things through. Knowing that, if we’re able to make the ASC tournament and achieve some level of success, I will have achieved my purpose and what we set out to do. This year as a whole will be what I’m most proud of.”
Stawski has equal pride when talking about all that his team has accomplished this season, and does credit the veteran leadership of Zolman and the other upperclassmen as a key component of the Cru’s success.
“While I don’t think guys are waking up saying, ‘We need to win this weekend for Jeb, I think that in the same sense, they have that subconscious feeling of, ‘These guys have put a lot into this program and this is kind of the last run. We’re not doing this for Jeb, we’re doing it for all of us, but just work a little harder so Jeb can have a good ending, because he has poured a lot into this thing.'”