Nick LaSpada stepped up to the plate Tuesday morning, the blazing, hot sun bouncing off his black sunglasses, surrounded by carefully drawn eye black.
The rugged 6-foot-2 Billerica High senior saw the pitch clearly as it approached, a fastball high and tight. LaSpada engaged his hips, swinging his shoulders through the motion to belt a laser over the left field wall at Merrimack College’s Warrior Field.
His homer capped a two-hit, three RBI afternoon in a 17-5 win over Merrimack Valley Conference foe Central Catholic. In the third inning alone, he made three diving catches in right, one taking away a home run.
Three months ago, when LaSpada was down to 168 pounds - 29 pounds less than when he was quarterbacking the Billerica High football team last fall - and working out for the first since November, this kind of performance would have been unfathomobile.
The 18-year-old was emerging from a yearlong ordeal that started with bronchitis, developed into colitis last summer, and ultimately was diagnosed as blood clots in November, ending a magnificent high school football career in which he was the state’s Player of the Year as a sophomore.
LaSpada remembers jogging off the field on Nov. 4 against Merrimack Valley Conference foe, Andover, with a heavy feeling in his chest - 20-yard sprints felt like marathons. In previous games, he had had trouble breathing - the Indians were calling timeouts to allow him to catch his breath. But the Andover game was more of a struggle.
“Nick had bronchitis in February of 2011, then developed ulcerative colitis, a form of Crohn’s disease,’’ said his mother, Laurie. “He was hospitalized twice, because they could not get it under control.’’
LaSpada was hospitalized in June, for bronchitis again, but as football season approached, there was improvement.
“In July and August he was feeling better, but in preseason he said he had difficulty breathing and when he says something isn’t right you know something is up,’’ Laurie LaSpada. He was treated with three rounds of antibiotics, but his breathing issues did not improve. However, he played on, directing Billerica to a 7-1 start. Before the Andover game (a 44-28 loss) at the urging of his mother, he underwent blood tests.
The following week “the doctors told us to rush Nick to the hospital immediately,’’ said his mother.
LaSpada went through the D-dimer test, which measures the flow of blood through the body. The average reading is under 10; he was over 1,200. He was diagnosed with pulmonary embolisms, blood clots in the lungs. He was put on blood thinners and was told that he could not take part in any activities that involved physical contact for six months.
“It was tough watching my teammates from the sidelines not being able to help them out, and it was a tough way to end my senior year,’’ said LaSpada.
It was a crushing blow for a gifted player who was planning to play football at Ivy League champion Harvard. But he was determined to make a full recovery, and prepare for the baseball season.
His best friend, Brian Thompson, a linebacker on the football team, is not surprised by LaSpada’s resilience.
“Nick always wants to be the best and he’s going to do what has to be done to achieve that,’’ said Thompson. “He’s very vocal and knows what it takes to be a leader. He’s a role model in the community and all the Pop Warner kids look up to him.’’
LaSpada’s toughness was on display at an early age.
“At 2 years old he . . . only played with kids five years older than him because those were the only ones that could keep up,’’ said his mother. “He was running at 9 months and some of the things he did, some mothers would’ve had a heart attack, but that’s how he is. Nick is Nick.’’
And this spring, LaSpada has been a formidable presence on the baseball diamond.
In the Indians’ first four games, LaSpada ripped six hits and knocked in seven runs.
“Nick came in with no preseason practice, and was just cleared to play about a week before tryouts and he leads the team in hits,’’ said Billerica coach Joe Higgins. “He’s a true leader and motivates guys to play better each day, and that’s why he’s special.’’
LaSpada knew that he would have to work hard to get back in playing shape.
“I’ve been working hard to get back in the shape I was in,’’ said LaSpada, back up to 187 pounds.
He is focused on a strong season, working hard every day, and preparing for the fall semester at The Taft School in Watertown, Conn., where he will play football and baseball.
“I try not to think about it,’’ he said. “The past is the past and I’m going to take it day by day.’’
Chotkowski off to strong start
In his first two starts for Chelmsford High, senior pitcher John Chotkowski threw complete games, striking out 17 while allowing three earned runs.
“John has . . . been dominant and consistent,’’ said Tewksbury coach Ron Drouin. “He’s a good testament for hard work and perseverance. He was a soft thrower his sophomore year, got stronger his junior year, but now has a curveball between 77-81 [miles per hour]and is a tough guy to hit.’’
The 6-foot lefty made three relief appearances for the Redmen last spring. But now that he’s in the starting rotation and working with junior catcher Cam Oliveria, Chotkowski is pitching with confidence.
“Oliveria is phenomenal behind the plate for us and he hides a lot of our flaws by identifying the pitchers’ strengths,’’ said Drouin. “We’re a young team . . . but if we continue to put in the work, I’m confident in what they’re capable of doing.’’
With the score tied 2-2 in the bottom of the 10th inning, Marblehead senior captain Kathryn DiGiammarino knocked in the winning run with a bases-loaded single to propel the Magicians past Danvers, 3-2. . . . Down 8-2 after two innings against Shawsheen, the Whittier girls’ softball team rallied to score eight runs and hold the Rams scoreless to grab the win, 10-6.