WRITTEN BY: Chad Garner, Sentinel Enterprise
LEOMINSTER, Mass. -- Steve Colella's collegiate career hasn't gone exactly how he envisioned it would.
There's been plenty of rocky times for the 2011 Leominster High graduate, who was an ace pitcher for legendary coach Emile Johnson.
Colella has bounced around to four different colleges while chasing his baseball dream and also had to endure the dreaded Tommy John surgery.
But Colella finally found a home on the mound this spring at UMass Dartmouth, and the powerful righty also made an immediate impact after signing last Sunday with the Wachusett Dirt Dawgs of the Futures Collegiate Baseball League with a solid, five-inning effort to earn the victory over North Shore Friday night.
"It is a great story," Dirt Dawgs manager Kevin Barnaby said. "It just shows that with a lot of hard work you can be successful. Coming back from injury can not only be physically demanding, but also mentally demanding. There's setbacks and all those things, but Steve handled it very well and had a great year at UMass Dartmouth and had a good game here in his one start. Hopefully he can continue to work hard throughout the rest of his college career."
The struggles, hard times and the mental obstacles have made Colella a much stronger person and baseball player.
"I think I'm a better pitcher than I was before," Colella said after getting his running in before Saturday night's doubleheader at Doyle Field. "I used to throw a little harder, but I think I'm a better mental pitcher. I have a better approach to the game. I wish I could still throw as hard as I used to, but I hope to work back up to that.
"Being out of the game for a while -- I coached for a while (Babe Ruth in Leominster, head coach of the 13-year-old all-stars in 2013) -- and I think that helped me develop as a player more to see both sides of the field."
Colella caught the attention of his new Dirt Dawgs teammates and coaches after firing five strong innings for the victory at North Shore. Colella scattered six hits and allowed three runs (one earned) with one walk and two strikeouts.
"His slider and his changeup were his two best pitches the other night and he situationally threw his fastball very well," Barnaby said. "He had a good two-seam run on it, but his changeup and slider were lights-out."
Maturity as a player is a big key now for the 21-year-old Colella.
"When he was at Leominster High and Leominster Legion, he was a thrower," Barnaby said. "(On Friday night) he was a pitcher. In this league you can't be a thrower because everyone can hit a fastball really far. He's matured into a pitcher."
The key for Colella now is health.
The 6-foot-2, 225-pound righty says he feels outstanding with his "new arm."
"There's no pain in my arm, which is a lot different," Colella said. "I think that's good. I definitely feel better now than I did before surgery."
But there will always be a reminder of how far Colella has come after surgery. Just like any Tommy John surgery, there also is a lasting scar -- a very noticeable one on his right arm.
"It's huge. It's ugly," Colella said. "Everyone likes to see it because it's the grossest scar they've seen. It's worse than all the other Tommy John surgeries I've seen. I like it. It shows what I've been through and what I had to go through."
Colella said it took him about 18 months of rigorous rehab to get back to full strength.
"It was difficult," he said. "The leg rehab was probably worse because they took my hamstring out and put it in my arm, so walking for the first month was tough. That put a lot of doubt in my mind whether I'd be able to play again. Throughout surgery -- the whole 18 months -- that's a long time. It felt like I would never get it back, but I finally did."
Colella first went to Franklin Pierce University out of high school, but then transferred to Darton State College in Albany, Ga. That's where he found out he would need major arm surgery.
Colella went under the knife on Sept. 27, 2012.
"It was scary. I played a little bit to try and see if I could go without it, but eventually I couldn't really even throw a ball," he said. "At first the thought of having a couple of months off from baseball was good -- I thought it was going to be fun -- but once you go to the field and see all your friends playing and you're sitting in a cast and can't do anything, it's real depressing and it's hard to get through."
He went to his third college, Savannah State University, in the fall of 2013, before finally finding a home at UMass Dartmouth.
This spring, Colella regained his old high-school magic on the mound, going 5-1 with a 2.06 ERA in 52 1-3 innings pitched for the Corsairs. In the process, Colella was named to the 2014 Little East Conference first team.
"It was tough. Going to a lot of different schools, everyone started to doubt that I'd still go because people still don't know the reasons why," Colella said. "They think I wasn't good enough to play here so I went to a different school. It was hard to play against that, but my dad always had my back through everything.
"UMass gave me the chance to start and left me in when I was struggling and let me fight out of jams. When you go to big-time schools like Franklin Pierce and Savannah, when you start getting into jams, they're not going to leave you out there to see what happens. At UMass, they let me fight through and let me get a name as a pitcher there."
Colella, who started his summer in upstate New York in the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League, jumped at the chance to come home and pitch on his old high school field.
"I had the opportunity to come here and play at Doyle, so I wanted to do that," Colella said. "This could be my last time playing here, so I wanted to take advantage of it."
Now, Colella is just trying to do his part to help the Dirt Dawgs make a run at the playoffs.
"He's definitely going to get at least two or three more starts, hopefully four if we make the playoffs," Barnaby said.
With good health and happiness, Colella's collegiate career is finally back on the right track.