Azusa Pacific catches STHS grad Russo
By Steve Yingling
Tribune sports editor
Midway through his sophomore season at Yuba College, A.J. Russo was in the throes of a nasty hitting slump that was causing him to question his ability to continue playing baseball.
He agonized as his sultry .430 batting average had dwindled over 100 points to .318 after getting only one hit in 28 at-bats. The weather was contributing to his hitting woes, as games and practices were being wiped out by a series of wet, spring storms.
“It’s a mental sport and every day you are challenged,” Russo said. “You have to think positive. Once you think negative, you fail.”
The frustration was too much to handle alone.
However, Russo always had someone to call, whether it was his dad Joe, his older sister Leah, family friend Bob Engler or former South Tahoe High coach Doug Russell. They were there for him, just as they had been when Russo had seen his mother fall in with the wrong crowd during his freshman year at STHS.
“He and I have had some very deep discussions about life, about the difficulties that come up,” Russell said. “It’s just nice to know that we have done something positive for at least one of the players in program over the years. In a larger aspect, not just baseball, but in a life aspect.”
His loving and caring support crew chased away the negative demons and soon Russo was making pitchers look like they were throwing batting practice again. Russo’s batting average climbed back up to .366 over the final weeks of the season and he finished 80th out of 1,800 junior college hitters in California.
“These four people kept believing in me. Without them I think I would have stopped believing,” Russo said. “And probably quit. I’d hang up the phone and take what they said to heart.”
When his hitting stroke returned so did the college recruiters. Azusa Pacific University made a trip from Southern California to watch him play while scouring Northern California for talent. By then, Niagara (N.Y.), Avila (Kansas City, Mo.), Lipscomb (Tenn.), Mesa College (Colo.) and Chico State coveted the hard-working catcher.
To Russo, the choice became pretty simple. He really wanted to play in Southern California. What he didn’t want was to chase his dream across the country or into a harsh environment like South Lake Tahoe, where preparations for the season were routinely done in a gymnasium.
Azusa Pacific was the obvious choice. The Cougars were offering a full athletic scholarship, Southern California sun, plenty of exposure to scouts and a chance to work on his game year-round.
Could there be anything better?
Several days after signing with Azusa Pacific, Russo received a phone call that nearly floored him. Cal-Berkeley was on the phone and the Golden Bears were looking for a catcher since they were about to lose one in the amateur baseball draft.
Russo wanted to say yes, because playing in the Pac-10 Conference would be a dream come true. Before his daydream got out of control, Russo realized he already had what he needed to further his education and baseball career at Azusa Pacific.
The Golden Bears were too late and Russo remained loyal to the Cougars. He was pleased with his decision to join the NAIA’s Golden State Conference member. He had come too far to throw it all away for a risk that Cal really had plans for him behind the plate in 2007.
“Azusa is picking me up because I’m solid in all of the categories,” said Russo, who hit 12 doubles, two triples and two homers while striking out only 12 times in 145 at-bats during his sophomore season. “I’m not gonna be the guy to hit 15 home runs, but I’m not gonna strike out 40 times like most 15 home run guys do.”
Furthermore, Azusa Pacific really wanted the 2006 Bay Valley All-Conference first-team catcher … for more than his bat and glove.
“We’re excited about it,” said Azusa Pacific manager Paul Svagdis. “We know he has tremendous upside because of his work ethic. We were more impressed after we sat down and interviewed him. He’s a leader and we want that out of that position.”
What Svagdis didn’t expect was that all-conference catcher/first baseman Stephen Vogt would slip in Tuesday’s draft, causing the junior to return for his senior season. Svagdis is hoping that Russo can make an immediate impact so he can have both bats in the lineup.
“Vogt is one of best first basemans defensively, so if he’s not catching, he’s playing first for us,” Svagdis said. “On days he’s not catching, and it’s up to A.J., based on how he performs in the fall, we anticipate he’ll be in the lineup somewhere.
“We’re in a better situation. We’re always going to catch two catchers. If we have the ability to have three solid defensive catchers in our program, they are gonna catch pretty consistently.”
Azusa Pacific also signed catcher Mario Romero, who hit better than .400 for Los Altos High. Svagdis said Russo will likely fill the DH role when he’s not catching. But again, that role depends on how he develops during fall ball.
In any event, Russo has come too far to worry about a little friendly position competition.
Leah, a registered nurse, has helped the family financially, putting some of her personal goals aside in order to help raise A.J. and their younger sister Tina.
“She’s sacrificed 20 years of her life for me. I don’t think I can ever repay her. All I can think of to repay her is to give it my best shot at the next level. All I want to do is make her proud,” Russo said. “If I ever needed anything, she’d give it to me. She could have so much more if she didn’t have me around. If I wasn’t around, she’d have her own house, she’d have a family.
“When I succeed, I always look in the stands and make sure Leah is happy. If she’s happy, I’m happy. If I go 0 for 4 one day, I feel like I let her down.”
Russo also credits his dad for his success and for much more than coaching him through organized youth baseball.
“Mentally, he’s been my mentor,” Russo said. “The physical side we broke off my junior year of high school. We went our own ways on our philosophies of hitting.”
Joe, who coached him through Babe Ruth, didn’t have to motivate his son when they were on the diamond together.
“I didn’t have to push him at all. Even in Little League he did the work,” Joe said. “When he was 13 and in that first year of Babe Ruth we started realizing that he might have the talent to play ball after high school.”
Through camps and listening to baseball minds in Reno, the Russos learned that playing at a higher level meant meeting as many challenges as possible. Hence, A.J. played on traveling teams that often met teams in Reno and for one summer he played for the Reno Sun Devils (one of the elite summer teams in Northern California and Nevada).
“In order to improve you have to challenge yourself, and that means you have to play teams and players better than you,” Joe said. “You can’t get better beating up on somebody.”
As a result, Russo will be the only player from the area playing baseball at a four-year university next season.
“It’s hard to play baseball at the college level, especially coming out of a small town in the mountains,” Engler said. “I’ve watched A.J. work very hard over a very long period of time to get this opportunity. He has a combination of talent and work ethic that should be an example to all of the players in the STHS baseball program.”
Baseball, and it’s ups and downs, have prepared Russo to deal with the peaks and valleys that are often a part of life. As he enters his final two years of schooling, Russo knows that when his baseball has run its course, there is only one career for him – teaching.
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SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — South Tahoe High School is enjoying one of its best baseball seasons in the program’s history.