The Long Road Home

Mental strength helps Massardo reach Latin dugout one final season

by Aaron Garcia

Charlotte Latin senior shortstop and University of North Carolina signee Michael Massardo is making up for lost time after missing his junior season with a serious knee injury. Aaron Garcia/SCW photo

The ultimate compliment that can be paid to a young baseball prospect is to label him a “five-tool” player. It’s a designation reserved for the chosen few seen as possessing top-flight measurements of speed, arm strength and fielding, plus the ability to hit for both power and average.

They’re the five tools that make up a complete player, and the characterization is so rare that even many major-leaguers typically fall a few tools short.

But there’s a vital sixth component of a good player, one that doesn’t show up in a box score, one that’s perhaps assumed but far from ever-present. It’s the thing that allows a player to succeed in a game built on failure.

It’s the thing that’s allowed Michael Massardo to battle through the past 15 arduous months while recovering from a serious knee injury – the thing that put him in position to suit up for Charlotte Latin one final season and, perhaps most important, end his high school career on his terms.

“I really found out I have a good mental approach to things,” Massardo said. “That’s one of my strong suits – keeping on the bright side of things. That’s one of the things I didn’t know I had because I never really paid attention to it.”

A prodigious beginning

From the time Massardo first stepped onto Charlotte Latin’s campus as a freshman, he seemed destined for big things. As a student at Weddington Middle School, Massardo starred in both football and baseball. On the gridiron, he was diminutive but lightning quick as a running back, and those tools seemed to transfer to the baseball diamond, where he was a hard-hitter with a sure glove. As a freshman, he starred on the JV football team and earned a starting role on the Hawks varsity baseball team as a middle infielder.

His performance in baseball was promising enough that former Charlotte Latin baseball coach Sammy Serrano recommended him for a high-level summer showcase team, the Impact Baseball Dirtbags.

In a little more than a year, Massardo had gone from middle school to high school varsity to high-level showcase baseball.

“The whole thing was sobering at first,” Massardo recalled. “Every pitcher was good, not just one or two guys per tournament.”

But he said he adjusted, and quicker than expected.

“That’s when you start to have fun: when you’re playing good teams and you’re doing well against them,” he said.

The success was a significant confidence boost. At that point, Massardo was beginning to favor football, but his summer with the Dirtbags “rejuvenated my love for the game,” he said.

However, Massardo still had quite the future ahead of him in football, and it began to take form as a sophomore, when he starred at tailback, slot receiver and defensive back.

“I personally felt myself growing throughout that season,” said Massardo. “I learned the little nuances of the game: where to cut off my route, how to find the soft spots in a defense.”

The confidence Massardo gained seemed to snowball into the baseball season, when he blossomed into one of the area’s bright young stars.

“I don’t know what it was,” said Massardo. “I stopped looking at myself as having to fit in (with the older players) and adjust, and I started feeling like I needed to take over the game. There was no more role playing.”

Massardo hit seven home runs that year and estimates that his batting average was somewhere just south of .500. During the annual Jack Sink tournament at Myers Park, Massardo hit two home runs and went 8-for-10 at the plate, which got the attention of University of North Carolina assistant coach Scott Jackson.

“That got my foot in the door (with North Carolina),” said Massardo.

And as the spring turned to summer, other suitors popped up, including Clemson and i

“I had built such a good relationship with the Carolina coaches by that time that I was really favoring Carolina,” he said. “I just loved it so much.”

An unfortunate milestone

Massardo’s plans for his junior football season never detoured, even in light of his scholarship offer in baseball.

“I was expecting to break every record that I could (in football),” he said. “I was out there to take over the game, in a sense. I kind of knew I was a key part of the team. And with the sophomore season I had, I felt like I had a good foundation to take it to the next level.”

And so did the Hawks. In their first four games of the season, Charlotte Latin topped 50 points three times and was one of the most explosive teams in the city, and Massardo was playing a big role.

Then the injury occurred.

“Quite honestly, if he wouldn’t have gotten hurt, I think he would’ve been one of the premiere slot-receiver-type guys and kick returners in the (Charlotte Independent Schools Athletic Association,” Hawks football coach Larry McNulty said. “He might’ve been the best. If not the best, he would’ve at least been right up there near the top.”

But thanks to a hit he took against Providence Day in the Hawks’ sixth game of the season, Massardo wasn’t able to prove it.

All Massardo remembers of the incident is that the screen pass coming his way was a bit wide. He tried to get a hand on the ball, and his right foot was planted awkwardly when he got hit. After just 15 to 20 seconds of pain, he thought he could go back in the game. He tried to test his knee by running and cutting on the sideline.

“My leg just gave out,” he recalled.

It didn’t take long for trainers to suspect a torn anterior cruciate ligament, and a magnetic resonance imaging test the following day confirmed their fears.

But in what has proven to be a pivotal moment in Massardo’s recovery, the then-junior found something to laugh about.

“It was kind of funny because when we found out it was a torn ACL, I kind of thought to myself, ‘Well, you can’t be a great athlete without tearing your ACL because everybody does it now,’” recalled Massardo. “That was kind of my light-hearted moment in the whole thing.”

A ‘new chapter’

Three weeks before the injury, Massardo received an official scholarship offer from the Tar Heel baseball program. When he got hurt, the Carolina coaches were quick to alleviate any fears Massardo was having about his future with their program. Massardo said they told him the injury was common and many of their players had returned stronger after the surgery.

“That was really nice to hear,” Massardo said.

Massardo was sidelined for the rest of the football season and into the spring, where his eight-month recovery time caused him to completely miss the baseball season, though he was still voted a captain by his teammates.

“That season was about improving my leadership skills off the baseball field,” said Massardo, who still dressed for games and attended most practices.

Massardo finally returned to action last summer while playing for the Summer Showcase Canes. It took time to regain his former level, he said, especially when it came down to the particulars such as footwork and timing. But he had also dropped some of his bad habits during the forced respite.

Because of the injury, however, he decided to play it safe and forego his senior football campaign, instead opting to continue to prepare for the baseball season. It was a difficult decision, he said, especially when sitting on the sideline watching with the football fans.

But that decision has also made this spring that much sweeter because, for the first time since Oct. 3, 2010, Massardo has had the opportunity to don a Charlotte Latin uniform and represent his school.

“Some of my best friends are on this team,” he said. “Just being able to stand at shortstop on my own field has been really nice to experience.”

And according to first-year Hawks coach Kim Cousar, Massardo is making the most of the opportunity. So far, he’s hitting roughly .375 with two home runs, nine RBIs and around seven doubles while also averaging more than one walk per game.

“He’s very mature, well beyond his age,” said Cousar. “I don’t know how to describe it, but he’s an old young man.”

And true to form, Massardo isn’t focusing on his injury or his lost time but rather what’s ahead.

“It’s been quite the long journey, but I like to think of it as one that’s just starting again,” said Massardo. “The injury was a good segue to a new chapter.”

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