Keizer native Aaron Zavala is expected to be one of the best players in the Pac-12 Conference this season (Samuel Marshall/Goducks.com)
At the start of the 2020 season, no player on the University Oregon baseball team was swinging a hotter stick than sophomore Aaron Zavala.
Through 15 games, the Keizer native was leading the team with a .418 batting average. Zavala also was leading the squad in both multi-hit (8) and multi-RBI (9) games and had the most RBIs in the Pac-12 Conference (22).
But once the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March of last year, the collegiate baseball season was canned, and Zavala’s gaudy numbers ended up being all-for-not.
Zavala was still named a third-team All-American at third base for the shortened 2020 season, but the disappointment in the cancellation still lingered.
“I just want to keep playing and finish out the season. It was the most frustrating not to be out there every day with my teammates. That was the hardest part,” Zavala said.
After many months of not playing ball, the Ducks began winter workouts in January to prepare for the spring season. Even though it will look different, Zavala couldn’t contain his enthusiasm for returning to campus for his junior campaign.
“I was really excited to get going,” Zavala said. “There has been a lot of anticipation. It’s been a while since a lot of us have played last.”
Just six games into the year, Zavala and his team have already gotten off to a great start. After splitting a four-game series with the University of Seattle in late-February, the Ducks went on the road last weekend and swept a four-game set with UC Santa Barbara — who were ranked as high as #7 in some college baseball polls.
Proving that he was worthy of being named to the Bobby Bragan Collegiate Slugger Award watch list, Zavala has already picked up right where he left off from last year, going 13-for-29 (.448)) with a pair of homers and 10 runs scored so far this year.
Zavala was a serviceable player as a freshman for the Ducks in 2019, batting .273 in 43 games, but said that he really made a leap in his ability between his freshman and sophomore seasons.
“I feel like I just grew up a lot between my freshman and sophomore year. I got my feet under me and was playing with a lot more confidence on a day-to-day basis and I wasn’t caring who I was facing. I was just playing ball,” Zavala said.
Zavala grew up playing youth baseball in Keizer — his father, David, was the student resource officer at McNary High School — but ended up attending South Salem High School to take part in their International Baccalaureate (IB) program. Zavala played alongside Gabe Matthews — a fifth-year senior on the Oregon Baseball squad — during his sophomore year on the Saxons.
While he played in Matthews’ shadow in his first year on the Saxons varsity team, Zavala says he really came into his own during his junior year at South Salem. In his senior season, Zavala was named the Oregon 6A Player of the Year after batting .561 with a .656 on-base percentage and a .939 slugging percentage.
“Everything just started coming together. I was playing the game a lot better and I matured a lot mentally and physically. I was able to slow everything down and play at my speed,” Zavala said.
While the Ducks haven’t qualified for the postseason since 2015, Zavala has aspirations for his team to make a run at the College World Series — the Ducks are currently ranked #21 in the Collegiate Baseball Newspaper Poll.
“My goal is for this team to win as many games as possible and get to Omaha,” Zavala said. “I just want to go out and play the best that I can and let the chips fall where they may.”
Even though Zavala, who is majoring in business, has two years of collegiate eligibility left at the end of the season, Zavala is also eligible to be selected in the 2021 Major League Baseball (MLB) Draft in July. While he is far from making a decision about leaving school early, Zavala is elated about the prospect of playing baseball professionally.
“It’s definitely something to consider. It’s a situation where I will need to weigh the pros and cons. Only time will tell, but regardless, it’s an exciting opportunity to eventually play pro ball,” Zavala said. “It’s always been a dream of mine.”
Oregon will open up conference play on Friday, March 12 when they begin a three-game set with Oregon State.