SEE & SKI: Schonberger's considerable talents have served him well in two extraordinarily different arenas.
From Hitting the Slopes to Frozen Ropes, Amherst's Schonberger has the Bases Covered
By Kevin Graber, Sports Information Director
May 2, 2005
AMHERST, MA - After Eli Schonberger survived the Great Depression and later made his mark in advertising, he took up many of the pursuits that once riddled the daydreams of his youth, when poverty was prevalent and he was sometimes forced to live on the street. One such boyhood fantasy was skiing, and on weekends he packed his sons in the family car and fled New York for the rolling hills and snowy inclines of Vermont, where they invaded the slopes for hours on end, a family united by its thirst for adventure and fascination with speed. As the years passed, they bought a place near Mt. Snow, and soon there were three generations of Schonbergers carving the expert trails on the mountain's north face. The youngest of the fold, Zach - son of Mark and grandson to Eli - took to the powder like a rabbit takes to running, and eventually he would become...one of the best shortstops in all of college baseball?
As unlikely as it seems, the same Zach Schonberger '06 (Rye, NY/Rye Country Day), who today leads the Amherst baseball team in almost every offensive statistical category, was once Zach Schonberger the nationally ranked downhill ski racer. Beginning in kindergarten, in what must now feel like a past life, he spent every winter weekend in youth skiing programs similar in structure to Little League baseball. As he progressed, Schonberger won races with regularity and was among the top skiers in his age group in the state of Vermont, one of the most competitive skiing environments in the nation. His athletic potential was readily apparent, and in the ninth grade Schonberger enrolled at Stratton Mountain School, a full-time ski and snowboard academy located in the heart of southern Vermont's Green Mountains. In addition to its demanding slate of college preparatory courses, the school's main focus is its holy trinity of winter sports - alpine ski racing, snowboarding and cross country skiing. There, Schonberger endured 6 a.m. distance runs, morning and afternoon dry-land training, limitless exposure to expert instruction and countless hours on the slopes and in the weight room. When winter hit, students traveled regionally, nationally and internationally in pursuit of the highest level of competition. In fact, the training was (and is) so proficient and so intense that 26 Stratton Mountain graduates have gone on to represent four countries in Olympic competition, while 72 of the school's former students have qualified for six different national teams during its 31-year history.
Schonberger toiled arduously and tasted considerable success, but his desire soon fizzled, sapped by the grueling training regimen and a series of discouraging spills. "I worked hard but I was burnt out, and then I crashed in a bunch of events," he says. "A couple of guys I was competitive with all season ended up winning and going on to worlds, so I was not happy."
He was also put off by the sport's emphasis on individual achievement. "It's a different community. People are not always nice. You get into state and national events and it's cutthroat. You're on a team, a ski racing team, but they don't have points for team scoring or anything like that. It's completely different."
Longing for more of a team dynamic, Schonberger revisited another childhood love, baseball, and returned to his hometown Rye (N.Y.) Country Day School just in time for the start of his first high school season. He went on to become a four-year starting shortstop, a three-time all-conference selection and the team MVP at Rye Country Day, but in truth, he'd only scratched the surface of his burgeoning baseball talent.
He then came to Amherst like a hunk of modeling clay - the raw material was there, but it needed molding. Although he cracked the lineup almost immediately and was athletic enough to post a .282 average with three home runs as a rookie, leading the Jeffs to a NESCAC West Division title, his style was somewhat wild, like one of his skiing crashes. He was hyper-aggressive at the plate and in the field, jumping at pitches and attacking ground balls with reckless abandon.
Enter Amherst head coach Bill Thurston, a former pro player and a forty-year veteran of the collegiate game with a worldwide reputation as the white-haired patron saint of baseball mechanics. Together, they reined in Schonberger's aggressive nature, and the improvement paid off in spades. As a sophomore, Schonberger upped his average to .296, paced the team with five home runs and 26 RBIs and helped secure the first conference championship in program history. This year he's exploded, leading the Jeffs in batting (.423), base hits (30), home runs (5), doubles (7), RBIs (27), total bases (52), runs scored (22), slugging (.732) and on-base percentage (.469) through the first 18 games. More importantly, behind Schonberger's otherworldly play, Amherst jumped out to a stellar 15-3 start, including an 8-0 record at home and an unblemished 4-0 mark in divisional games.
The turnaround took hold when Schonberger adopted and perfected a more disciplined approach. Where he once lunged like a fencer at anything approaching the strike zone, he now sits comfortably in the batter's box, rock-solid and semi-crouched, waiting for a pitch over the plate. He sees the ball, cocks his bat, plants his lead foot and BOOM!
"As a hitter, he's blossomed," says Thurston. "He had five home runs last year, but he's a more mature hitter now, and he hits the ball harder and more consistently than anyone in our lineup. He understands the game and hitting a lot better than he did as a freshman and sophomore."
His current hot streak commenced when he drilled two home runs and had four multi-hit games during the Jeffs' spring trip to Fort Myers, Fla. He then plated five runs in a 7-0 win over Westfield State, went 4-for-5 with four RBIs in a 9-3 win over Keene State, doubled three times and drove in a trio of runs in a 9-5 win over fourth-ranked Trinity and added five RBIs on a pair of gargantuan round-trippers in a wild 17-16 win over Brandeis.
While his offensive numbers are eye-popping, his defensive play has been equally, if not more, impressive. "He's an outstanding defensive shortstop," Thurston adds. "He fields slow-rollers and makes plays to his left as well as any kid you're going to see in our league, and he has a very good arm and a quick release."
It's an uncommon connection in the sports world, that an athlete could transfer skills from the ski slopes to a totally foreign environment like the baseball diamond, but it immediately shines through in Schonberger's play. The first thing that jumps out at you is his size. At six-feet-tall and nearly 200 pounds, with quads that would make Governor Schwartzenegger blush, he's by far the largest shortstop in the conference, yet he's supremely balanced and surprisingly nimble, thanks to years of darting in and around slalom gates. Moreover, his reactions are lightning quick, his reflexes impeccable and he sports the courage of one accustomed to flying down a mountain at 60 miles per hour.
"Zach's one of those guys where you watch him play, and it's amazing how much his natural ability takes over," says teammate Josh Santry '05, Schonberger's partner on the left side of the infield for the better part of three seasons. "He makes plays at shortstop and hits pitches no one else on our team can even come close to. He's pretty special in the way he goes about the game and the way he plays it."
His grandfather's influence, which ultimately led to his skiing career, has seeped into Schonberger's academic and personal life as well. He has designs on a career in finance, but for now, Schonberger is an African history major - an interest gained while accompanying his grandfather on a month-long trip to Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda as a seventh grader. And every summer Schonberger pays tribute to his late grandmother Lois, who succumbed to cancer on his birthday, helping organize the Pan-Massachusetts Challenge, a bike-a-thon that's raised and contributed more than $122 million to lifesaving cancer care and research at the Dana-Farber Institute.
Through it all he remains aw-shucks humble, as if he has no idea how skilled he's become or how good a baseball player he truly can be ("If he continues at this rate, he'll get a chance to play some pro ball," Thurston says). Perhaps it stems from the twinge he felt during his final year of competitive skiing - the inner voice that told him the welfare of the team is more important than the accomplishments of an individual. Whatever the case, his unselfish play and meteoric improvement have made him one of the more interesting sports success stories in recent memory. From hitting the slopes to hitting frozen ropes, this downhill racer has all the bases covered.
-Kevin Graber, Sports Information Director