Baseball: Toppa ready for new start at UConn

The UConn baseball team is all smiles in the dugout in a game last year at J.O. Christian Field. (File photo)

The end of the summer is a baseball fan’s least favorite time of the year. The temperate seventy-degree nights slowly begin to turn colder. The smell of fresh cut grass fades into the smell of falling leaves. Little League ends, and school starts up again. No more hot dogs and summer nights spent on the diamond underneath the lights.

This, however, was never a problem for freshman utility player John Toppa.

Once Little League was over and his teammates were packing their undershirts into their bags for fall ball, Toppa was trading his baseball cleats for football cleats and exchanging his batting helmet for something a little more protective.

“My favorite sport has always kind of been football. I didn’t start really getting serious about baseball—really liking it—until I was about 11 or 12,” Toppa said.

Toppa had always been a multi-sport athlete throughout his life. In the fall, he would play football. In the winter, it was basketball. The spring and summer were always for baseball. Growing up in Newport, RI, it was easy to switch between sports depending on the climate.

In a relatively wealthy community, it was also easy to find specialized programs to help develop skills in a sport of choice. For Toppa, the Newport Gulls summer collegiate team gave him the perfect opportunity to fall in love with baseball.

A non-profit, summer collegiate baseball organization, the Gulls are nationally acclaimed as the number one summer collegiate baseball program in the country by Perfect Game USA. In addition to playing a full schedule, the team would hold summer clinics for younger kids and help them hone in on their baseball skills.

As Toppa recalls, it was his first memory of wanting to play baseball. Though it never stopped him from pursuing his passion of football, he began to play for different reasons.

The mental aspect of baseball is one of the staples of the game—and probably the toughest thing for a player to learn. At times, Toppa said, it became so draining that putting down the bat and picking up the pigskin was the very thing that helped him excel in baseball.

The purely physical nature of football not only helped Toppa mentally, but it made him stronger physically.

“It was a good getaway for me to play other sports and do different things, you know, physically and stuff. I always felt like I was in better shape coming into baseball season after playing football. It just made me a better baseball player,” Toppa said.

Although he enjoyed playing football more, baseball was the sport he was able to develop longevity in. As a varsity baseball and football player at his high school, Toppa received multiple scholarship offers from schools for both baseball and football.

However, he received many of the football scholarships much later than the baseball ones, further prompting Toppa to choose baseball.

In many respects, football and baseball require the same physical and mental attributes to succeed at the collegiate level. But to Toppa, there is one thing that sets baseball far apart from any other sport he’s played.

“In baseball, when you really hone in on something and work on it, the results come out more visibly,” Toppa said. “If you really work on one part of your game and you do succeed at it, and when it takes its shape, it’s more obvious. Picking something, putting a lot of work into it and seeing it come out… I like that.”

Toppa’s own personal barrier has been his base running and his ability to pull the ball—things very specific to baseball. He’s always been fast and a good hitter, but the strategic aspects of being a good baserunner and being a smart hitter are entirely different beasts that Toppa was struggling to progress in.

Having to balance coursework in addition to making yourself a better baseball player is not an easy transition to balance. In the one semester that Toppa has attended UConn, however, he has already seen leaps in his baseball progress, as well as experiencing a surprising ease in his life as a student; something he attributes heavily to his veteran teammates.

“I think the upperclassmen on our team are unreal as a whole. They were all really, really welcoming to myself, as well as the other freshman… they made the transition as easy as I think it could have been,” Toppa said.

In every aspect, UConn was the perfect school. It’s a big name athletic school with “unbelievable” practice facilities, an incredible coaching staff and a top-notch academic program; not to mention its proximity to Rhode Island is more than ideal.

But at the end of the day, after classes have been dismissed and the practice facilities go dark, Toppa knows that his status as a freshman won’t affect his attitude towards the game or his team. More than anything, he wants to help the Huskies become victorious any way that he can.

“It’s tough coming in a freshman sometimes. You’re not sure what your role is going to be,” Toppa said. “I’m not too focused on that… I’m excited to help the team win any way that I can.” 


Stephanie Sheehan is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at stephanie.sheehan@uconn.edu