In this new age of college athletics, patience is no longer a virtue. For many student-athletes, riding the bench during their freshman year can be a deal-breaker, often resulting in the player transferring elsewhere.
However, there are still those who ride out the storm, trust the process and those who in turn, get rewarded. It might just take a little longer for some.
For Lynchburg Hillcats outfielder Angel Zarate, his baseball journey took a different route than most. Scott Forbes, the current head coach of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said Zarate’s mindset is one that is rare to see in today’s ever-changing landscape of college athletics.
“In a world where kids jump ship and transfer really fast when they don't play, he had his mind set on finding a way to get on the field at UNC,” Forbes said. “That's credit to him, and to the work that he put in.”
Zarate was someone who bled Tar Heel blue ever since he was a little kid. The top-25 prospect committed as soon as possible once UNC offered him a spot. It was a dream come true for the Reidsville, North Carolina native.
As talented as he was, Zarate knew playing for a renowned program meant there would be a waiting game before he stepped onto the field. However, at the end of his freshman fall, he realized he might be headed toward a state of complacency as opposed to one of success.
“Looking back, I think I was just happy to be there,” Zarate said. “I wasn't actually trying to get better every day or trying to be a part of that starting lineup. I just thought I'm at a D-I program, I'm good now.”
Mike Fox, the former head coach of UNC, recalled a meeting with Zarate before his first season began. Fox informed his outfielder that it was going to be very difficult to find playing time due to the nature of their talented roster.
“I told him, hey, we don't want to waste a year of your eligibility,” Fox said. “You're gonna need to keep working. You're not ready yet.”
After being informed by Fox that he would have to redshirt, Zarate quickly realized earning his spot on the field meant he would have to change his mindset completely.
“I had a purpose to get better every day,” Zarate said. “Not just, be out there to be out there.”
While a redshirt season did mean another year of waiting, it also meant more time to work on his game while improving his strength and conditioning. Even if he was riding the bench and learning the ropes for another year or two, Zarate knew it would be worth it.
Under no circumstances would he consider transferring either, he was not going to leave his dream school after working so hard to get there.
“I didn’t want to leave because, I mean, UNC is where I wanted to go for my whole life,” Zarate said. “So, I just put my head down, and I went to work.”
When Fox was leaving his office in Boshamer Stadium late that same night of the meeting, there was only one other person left in the entire facility. Since talking earlier that day, Zarate had been practicing his hitting in the batting cage.
“Instead of pouting, he just went to work,” Fox said. “He didn’t need any prodding from me or anyone else. Angel Zarate has always wanted to be good.”
Fox believes Zarate’s growth mindset and belief in himself are key components that propelled his former player to have a strong career at UNC. He was a self-made player who wanted to add another layer every day to improve his game.
Zarate said once he started applying intent toward every rep, it helped do away with bad habits that had festered over time. He explained that anybody can hit 100 balls off a tee, but if there is no purpose or intent behind the swings, the time spent is essentially useless.
“I feel like that’s what I was doing,” Zarate said. “Just doing stuff to do it, creating bad habits. But once I changed that, I thought, if I can take 20 good swings, create good habits, then that good habit will transfer over to the game.”
To help him break these “bad habits,” Zarate looked to fellow teammates at UNC. While he took after routines similar to those of teammate Michael Busch, it wasn’t until the next crop of young players arrived in Chapel Hill that he would find his other mentor.
“It’s funny I say this because he was a grade younger than me,” Zarate said. “Our shortstop, Danny Serretti, came in and started. Just the way he went about his everyday stuff. Even though he was younger than me, he's in the lineup so why not watch somebody from the starting lineup?”
Zarate has never been afraid to look towards others for guidance. Whether it was through his teammates, coaches or others, a reliable support system has been essential for the North Carolina native.
“You can try to do it on your own, but from my experience, I needed people to help me in college and even now,” Zarate said.
Since arriving in Lynchburg, Zarate has doubled down on the idea that no one should have to deal with such a mentally taxing sport on their own. By working with the Hillcats’ mental health coach, he found that with a simple breath, anxiety about an earlier mistake would fade away, allowing him to focus on the moment.
“Having people calm me down, they make you realize it is a hard game, and then I can just relax,” Zarate said. “It takes some of the pressure off. A month ago, I was letting each pitch affect me. The last pitch affected my next pitch, my last at-bat affected my next at-bat. But now, the main thing for me is just trying to stay present.”
As Zarate continued to surround himself with “the right people” at UNC, the coaching staff witnessed him develop a high level of discipline and commitment to improving his game. Coaches and teammates alike expected him to take a leap forward. It just became a matter of when.
Forbes recognized early on that Zarate’s work ethic could propel him to great heights. He believes the perseverance his left-handed slugger displayed was advantageous for Zarate’s development.
“For some kids, it just takes a little bit longer at a school like North Carolina because of the competition and ability of everybody else,” Forbes said. “And that benefited Angel, you know, he learned from that and worked his way into being who he was.”
While he did score the game-winning run against the University of Miami en route to the Heels’ 2019 Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament semifinal berth, his redshirt freshman year ended relatively quietly.
Despite a meager one hit to his name going into the offseason, Zarate had developed a newfound confidence. Following a successful summer ball stint, he returned to Chapel Hill eager to make an immediate impact.
Over the next three seasons, Zarate was consistently one of the best hitters in the ACC. Even at the abrupt end of his sophomore year thwarted by COVID-19, he led the conference with 29 hits in just 19 games.
As a redshirt sophomore, he led UNC with an AVG of .324 and an SLG of .424 while recording 58 hits.
Forbes believes Zarate’s power behind his hitting success in his redshirt sophomore and junior seasons stemmed from his dedication to strengthening his body.
“His bat-to-ball skills were always good,” Forbes said. “But when he got that strength and got stronger, the ball started jumping off that barrel even better.”
During his final season in Chapel Hill, Zarate became one of just nine players in Diamond Heel history to reach 100 hits, all en route to an ACC Championship and a Super Regional berth. On top of reaching the century mark for hits, the third-team All-ACC outfielder posted 58 runs, 40 RBIs, 7 HRs and a .352 AVG.
When reflecting on his career at UNC, Zarate refused to claim the spotlight. He gave all the credit to his teammates and coaches as the driving force behind his success. Fox said a mindset like this is what made him one of “the great stories out there.”
“He's who we want college athletics to be about,” Fox said. “Loyal, hardworking, maybe struggle a little bit and then succeed and get a degree and get rewarded and get a chance at professional baseball.”
As one of the premier hitters in the country on a squad that hosted a Super Regional, one might have expected Zarate’s draft buzz to be higher than it was. By the third day of the 2022 Major League Baseball Draft, there still was no word on what the next step for his career would be.
Fortunately, the waiting process was nothing new to Zarate. He had done it before. He could do it again. It was clear no matter where he ended up next, his humility, work ethic and character would all remain the same.
As the draft dwindled down to the last rounds, he finally received that coveted call he had been waiting for. The Cleveland Guardians would be selecting him in the 17th round with pick 511.
While his first season in Minor League Baseball has been a grind, Zarate is just thankful to be in a position where he gets to live out his dream daily. There have been evident flashes of talent from the former Diamond Heel so far.
Zarate has shown early signs of success during his time in Lynchburg. With just over two months remaining in the regular season, he has hit an impressive .377/.506/.541 while also maintaining a .292 BA. He also is batting .367 with 1.119 OPS against lefties. He’s 9/9 in stolen bases and only one error through 264 innings played, his high level of discipline is evident.
With his dedication to the game, Zarate seems destined for a lengthy baseball career. Fox believes if his former player continues to capitalize on the opportunities thrown his way, just as he did at UNC, his contributions to the Hillcats or any other team in the future will be invaluable.
“If you keep watching Angel like we did, day after day, game after game, that's when he’ll rise to the top,” Fox said. “He’s not gonna wow you, he’s not gonna blow you out of the water with any great attribute. But he’s just steady. He just finds a way to help your team win.”