Kayla Wong/Daily Collegian (2023)
Kayla Wong/Daily Collegian (2023)

‘It’s like a piece of Minnesota being here with me;’ Minnesota friends back together half way across the country

How Carter Hanson and Zack Zaetta’s five years of baseball with each other helps to achieve success on and off the diamond

May 26, 2023

Zack Zaetta slammed his helmet into the ground after sliding into home plate.

He looked up to see his teammate Carter Hanson sprinting towards him.

The two embraced each other, among the rest of their teammates, jumping up and down and celebrating.

In the final inning of the game down by two runs, Zaetta stood at first base hoping his team could find a way to bring him home along with his teammate from second. The Minnesota MASH Baseball team out of Eagan, Minnesota was looking to take home the win in another one of their tournament pool-play games.

Hanson looked on from the dugout, preparing to see some late game magic. The entire team was left waiting to see what would happen next.

With one swing of the bat, it was time for Zaetta to hustle. A line drive landed just inside the left field line and was rolling to the wall.

“I knew there was no way [Zaetta] wasn’t scoring,” Hanson said.

Zaetta rounded third, and headed for the plate. He slid into home without a throw. Safe. The run gave his team the lead and the win.

This was just another one of the many memories that Hanson and Zaetta would create over the years. The pair traveled all around the country going to Indianapolis, Oklahoma, Kansas City or wherever their next baseball tournament would take them next.

Whether it was hanging out in the hotel rooms, walking around the cities or the nightly run to the local Hooters after each tournament game, the two were around each other a lot and became very close.

The players met back in 2018 when Zaetta joined MASH Baseball. He was looking to take his baseball career more seriously and decided to join the club team in an attempt to do that. There was a period of time when Zaetta struggled to break his way into the team’s inner circle as Hanson, along with a majority of the team, had been with MASH since they were 12 years old.

Zaetta’s new teammates noticed how awkward the transition was for him. Hanson and the other players found it difficult to ask him to go out to eat with them. As the summer went on, the team got to know Zaetta more and they all became better friends.

There was a one-season gap where the pair weren’t on the same team. In 2022, Zaetta was trying to figure out his next steps, while Hanson was acclimating with a new situation at the University of Massachusetts. At this time, their futures were still both somewhat in the air.

“If you would have told me two and a half years ago that I’d be playing with [Zaetta] again, I’d probably laugh at you,” Hanson said.

After a season of junior college baseball, Zaetta needed to decide on where he’d spend the next three years of his baseball career. Offers were coming in and there was a lot to think about and a very important choice to make.

Zaetta viewed himself, as did his coaches, a Division I athlete all along. The COVID-19 pandemic made the recruiting stage difficult. He took the advice of everyone around him on what to do out of high school and decided the JUCO route would be his next step.

This path was not one that was foreign to him as his older brother was also in the process of trying to get back to D-I baseball. Zaetta chose that one year in JUCO would be his next move.

While all of this was happening, Hanson was embarking on a new chapter of his life as well. He had committed to play for UMass and was struggling to find a place for himself on and off the field.

He was far away from home and knew nobody at the school. He also was a first-year player trying to find playing time on the field while being surrounded by older teammates. It took a while but getting on the field more and being around his new teammates allowed him to grow a liking to his new situation.

For Zaetta, picking the JUCO route meant not playing at a D-I program initially and instead going to North Iowa Area Community College. The idea was that the year in junior college would give Zaetta the opportunity to compete at a high level while searching for a D-I university to offer him a new home for the last three years of his collegiate career.

The biggest thing that Zaetta was looking for when deciding where to go after high school was how much playing time he would get. Being buried on a roster with more than 50 players on the bench was not in the cards for him.

One of the offers came from UMass,a familiar name to him, as he knew one of his best friends and former teammates, Hanson, had just completed his first season there. Hanson got a grasp on how day-to-day life was with the Minutemen as a player, but also just as a person.

“It was important for me to get an actual players standpoint,” Zaetta said. “The coaches obviously had a lot to say but to hear my best friend’s perspective, and how much he loves it was definitely a factor in coming.”

Hanson’s conversation with Zaetta touched on topics ranging from how the dining halls were all the way to how close knit the team was.

As a very family-oriented person, it was a big move for Hanson to leave Minnesota and live across the country in Amherst. The fact that he was happy out on the east coast gave Zaetta a great feeling about the situation he’d be getting himself into.

Hanson was also approached by coaches of his to see what he thought about the team bringing in Zaetta to join them in 2023 and how well he would fit in with the guys.

After five years of being teammates, the two considered each other brothers and their families had grown close. The player’s parents went out as couples together at times, and are sure to catch up whenever they cross paths to this day. Zaetta trusted the opinion of his friend and decided to commit to play for the Minutemen.

This was an exciting moment for the two, as they knew that they had the chance to spend the next three years together playing baseball at UMass.

Kayla Wong/Daily Collegian (2023)

“[Hanson] kind of set an expectation that the guys were really going to like him and that he was cool,” Zaetta’s mother Deneen said. “That definitely made [Zaetta] feel pretty good. He didn’t quite have to prove himself maybe as much as if he had gone somewhere where nobody knew him.”

The pair were on board with the idea of the chance to be together again, but even more than that, the people around them were excited about the opportunity, pushing for them to make it happen.

“When I heard that [Zaetta] was going to UMass, I honestly thought for him, it was the best move because [Hanson] was there,” former MASH coach Tony Vocca said. “Honestly, for the both of them, it was the perfect fit.”

Known by their peers to be on the quieter side, Hanson knew exactly what Zaetta might have been going through at the start. The people around them noticed how difficult it was to really get into their inner circles.

“It took me a while to kind of crack [Zaetta] open especially,” Vocca said. “When he first met me, I wasn’t his head coach, but then when I was his head coach it took me probably around three weeks to kind of crack him open and earn his trust.”

It wasn’t just Zaetta that needed time to grow comfortable in new situations. Hanson struggled to put himself out there when first getting to UMass, also being timid himself. Not knowing anyone ahead of time made it hard for him to quickly get comfortable. Over time, teammates his age pushed him towards new things and talking to new people in order to find his place.

Hanson did the same that his teammates did for him for Zaetta when he arrived, bringing him around at the start of the year to wherever the team was hanging out. He knew that the team would like him, but just wanted to put him in those situations where he could get to know them early.

The first night that the two were at school they went over to the baseball house to hangout with their teammates. Hanson introduced Zaetta to them right out of the gate to begin the acclimation process as soon as possible.

Once Zaetta is comfortable, he can really open up and show his true self. He gains trust slowly, but after a while, the humor begins for him.

“[Zaetta’s] personality, honestly was, I think molded by watching the office,” Deneen said. “He was doing the ‘that’s what she said’ jokes before he ever knew what that meant. It was hard not to laugh at him.”

What could have been a daunting situation fizzled into an opportunity for more friendship and growth. Zaetta, once a new guy with MASH, found himself in a similar situation at the beginning of the 2023 baseball season. The familiar face that welcomed Zaetta to Minnesota now seamlessly guided his transition to college baseball in Amherst.

“It was definitely a great part of coming here is having [Hanson] to make me feel comfortable right away and help me fit in,” Zaetta said. “Coming to a bigger school than I was at last year was a little bit different at first but having him here was super helpful.”

The two faced off against each other in high school as well. In their senior year, Hanson and Zaetta’s teams faced off against each other to see who would move on to the state tournament.

“Whether I’m throwing them [batting practice] or their hitting off machines, it’s always some sort of competition between those two that we always do to help them compete and get better,” Vocca said.

Over the summer of 2022, they continued playing together after leaving MASH. They found a men’s league back in Minnesota to have fun with while keeping their baseball skills sharp.

“I think their relationship is pretty special,” Vocca said. “They’ve been playing together for so long and even played their summer ball together. It’s crazy how their worlds kind of collided again and they got back together.”

Small moments proved bigger once Zaetta arrived on his new stomping grounds. Little things like living on his own felt unfamiliar but Hanson was once again there to ease the transition. Part of the acclimation process came when deciding where to live for the upcoming year. Hanson was looking to move off-campus, and Zaetta, new to the area, was contemplating where to reside.

“It’s definitely different living on your own like that,” Hanson said. “You have to grow up super fast when you’re living out on your own, without resources like the dining halls or that sort of thing. Having somebody like [Zaetta] that I’ve grown up with for so long has made that a lot easier.”

The housing decision process was easy once Zaetta had committed to UMass. Hanson offered a spot to live with him and some other players on the team, and Zaetta saw this as a no-brainer to live with the person he knew the most at the university.

Kayla Wong/Daily Collegian (2023)

The living situation has given Hanson and Zaetta even more of a chance to grow closer with one another, but also to the rest of their teammates. In the fall the two invited their teammates over to watch football all day long and become closer as a team.

The classroom is another area of collaboration for the two as much as possible. The pair have different majors with Zaetta in Political Science and Hanson in Business, but they try to take classes with each other whenever they can. They’re in some together this year and both agree that a health class that they’ve taken would’ve been “unbearable” without the other to get them through it.

The combination of the two helped increase production on the field, with Hanson having an increase in almost every single hitting statistic in his sophomore season, along with becoming a full time starter for the team.

“The confidence that [Zaetta] holds for himself kind of bleeds into everyone else,” Hanson said. “Having him come in at shortstop and be the leader of the infield and the leader of the team in general and just seeing that he’s confident kind of just helps everybody else with feeling confident and feeling that they have the ability to produce. I think he’s helped out a lot with not just me, but with everybody else.”

Zaetta found success for himself as well on the field, batting leadoff for the majority of the season, leading the team in stolen bases and being the starting shortstop for the first 30 games of the season before suffering an injury.

“Baseball’s a game of failure and not everything’s going to go perfectly,” Zaetta said. “Having a brotherhood and having your brothers around you keeping your head high and keeping you confident through the lows is definitely one of the most important aspects of baseball for sure.”

Over the course of the 2023 season, they have both taken on a bigger leadership role with the team. As they get more comfortable and get more in-game experience, the pair became role models for the rest of the team.

Their leadership comes in a quieter way, leading by example rather than barking orders at teammates. If someone makes an error you won’t see Hanson or Zaetta getting upset or yelling. The two try to keep their heads held high as much as possible.

“[Zaetta’s] like a brother,” Hanson said. “We look out for each other and push each other to be our best. I’m so grateful for him. I’m super excited that he’s here.”

Plans for both players seem to be somewhat solidified for the near future. They will continue with their academic and athletic careers at UMass for the next two years. With all this change though, the value in having that familiar face by their side has been a necessity.

“It’s like a piece of Minnesota being here with me,” Hanson said.

Mike Maynard can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @mike_maynard_.

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    Jack PrillerMay 26, 2023 at 12:20 pm

    This is a great feature story! Great work to the author!