Former college teammates reunited on Reno Aces
June 23, 2018
A friendship that evolved both on and off the field at the University of South Carolina almost nine years ago has taken two baseball players across three time zones to Northern Nevada.
With the College World Series in full swing in Omaha, Nebraska, this week, it's a time for two Reno Aces players to reflect on the true meaning of their friendship.
First baseman Christian Walker and outfielder Evan Marzilli began to develop their friendship in an unlikely location — Columbia, S.C. Both Walker and Marzilli were Yankees coming to the Deep South and playing baseball for a legendary coach who transformed the Gamecocks into a national powerhouse. Walker played his high-school ball at Kennedy-Kenrick Catholic High School in Norristown, Pennsylvania with PG Crosschecker rating him as the 88th best high-school player in the country and the top high-school player in the Keystone State. On the other hand, Marzilli grew up in New England leading Bishop Hendricken High School to 2008 and 2009 Rhode Island high school state championships as a junior and senior.
CROSSING PATHS IN CAROLINA
Their separate paths converged in the oppressively humid summer of 2009 in Columbia where they would play ball for Ray Tanner, who ended his career in 2012 after leading South Carolina to two College World Series titles in six appearances, three Southeastern Conference championships and six division titles before becoming the university's athletic director.
The thrill of playing for a national winner remains for both players, especially since South Carolina won the 2010 and 2011 College World Series and was a contender in 2012. Walker was direct with his description when playing for Tanner and South Carolina.
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"It was awesome," said Walker, a first baseman for South Carolina.
Since his playing days for the Gamecocks, Columbia remains home for the 6-foot Walker, who tore up the Pacific Coast League in 2017 with his bat and a .309 average with 32 home runs. He was named to the PCL All-Star game in July and as the PCL's Most Valuable Player in September.
"My wife and I bought a house out in Columbia," he said. "The city is great, the people are great."
Tanner said Walker was a highly recruited player since his 10th-grade year.
"His hand-eye coordination is really good," Tanner pointed out. "He had power to all fields, a polished hitter."
Tanner said Walker came out of the South Carolina program challenged and ready for the next level since both players declared for the draft before their senior year.
"He turned into an impressive player for us," Tanner said, adding Walker was known more for his power hitting, home runs and RBI. "I always thought he was a big league player."
Both Walker and Marzilli became big factors for South Carolina's string of three World Series appearances in what still seems as yesterday. The South Carolina team of 2011, though, steamrolled to the title by winning its final 10 games including a 5-2 win over Florida in the deciding game. Advancing to the CWS championship games against the Gators took strong pitching and timely hitting, especially in four one-run games. In the first game against Florida, the Gamecocks eked out a 2-1 victory with Walker scoring the winning run in the 11th inning. The decisive game put South Carolina on top of the college baseball world. Both Walker and Marzilli earned spots on the CWS All-Tournament Team in both 2010 and 2011 and also in 2012 although South Carolina's quest for a third title ended in a 2-0 loss to Arizona.
THE SECOND TIME
Tanner's presence as both the manager and a person impressed Marzilli.
"He was a class act, always did the right thing," Marzilli said. "He knew how to get out the best of everyone whether they liked it or not. He knew how to do it, and that's what made him a good coach. Obviously, the on-the-field decisions he made or where to move players was a Godsend."
That string of season-ending victories contrasted to the 2010 title when South Carolina came into the regional tournament and then the CWS as the underdog. After winning the Super Regional, South Carolina headed into Omaha not knowing what to expect. After losing its opening game, 4-3, to Oklahoma, the Gamecocks had no room for error. To advance to the championship game against UCLA, South Carolina defeated fierce in-state rival Clemson, 4-3. The Gamecocks battered UCLA, 7-1, in the first game of the best two out three series. South Carolina, though, had to reach deep in the second game against the Bruins, taking a 2-1 win in extra innings on Whit Merrifield's RBI single to right field.
"We weren't expecting to win and honestly, that really helped us," Marzilli recalled. "We were happy to be there and wanted to take everything out of it to be successful."
The following year, though, was different.
Other teams zeroed in on the Gamecocks, knowing they were one of the top teams to beat in the CWS.
"That year was really different … we knew what to do," Marzilli said. "After doing it the first time, we knew what it took for the second time. We expected it of ourselves that second time around."
Tanner remembers Marzilli fondly.
"Evan came to the program as a kid out of Rhode Island who had a bounce in his step," Tanner reflected. "He was eager to learn to work and learn, a really good college player."
Tanner said Marzilli's presence in the clubhouse was positive and motivational for his teammates.
"He showed up for you every day," Tanner said. "I was fortunate to coach him."
Tanner keeps tabs on Walker and Marzilli and his other players who are playing in the pros. While Walker has bounced back and forth between Arizona and Reno this year, Tanner is also rooting for Marzilli to make an impression at the next level.
"I hope there's a spot in the Major Leagues for him, too," Tanner said.
Walker said the camaraderie among the players and the relationship with Tanner and the coaches was unbelievable.
"We both went all three years to the championship, and the first two we won. You only dream of that in high school," Walker said of him and Marzilli. "We were really close, both being from the Northeast."
The first time the Gamecocks won the CWS title, Walker said the people of Columbia embraced the team and came out by the thousands to thank the team. All Walker can remember are the people lining the streets, waving signs and the school colors.
"It was a dream," he said.
Every spring, those World Series memories return for Tanner and his players. Never did he imagine the Gamecocks would make three straight appearances and winning a title seemed out of reach, especially the first year. Yet, Tanner deflects all credit to his players, many of whom who went onto play professional ball like Walker and Marzilli
"I was blessed to coach these teams and the good players," he said, reflecting on his golden years in the dugout. "We had a great clubhouse with great teams."
His thoughts then turned to Walker and Marzilli: "They were complete players … tangibles."
THE DIAMONDBACKS' DUO
Before his senior year at South Carolina, the Orioles selected Walker in the fourth round of the Major League Baseball draft, and the Diamondbacks drafted Marzilli in the eighth round. While Marzilli has remained in the Diamondbacks organization, Walker was claimed off waivers by Arizona on March 28, 2017 after the Reds waived him.
Greg Gross, Reno's second-year manager and former hitting coach, praises both players highly.
"Walker means a lot," Gross said. "With the guys getting on before him, he gets the RBIs. He hits for average."
Gross said he was pleasantly surprised with Walker's overall game and approach.
Although Walker's average from last year has dropped to .270 with seven home runs, he still remains a dangerous batter.
Likewise, Gross said Marzilli brings a good, professional attitude to the game and showed more promise during the spring until an injury sidelined him.
"He had a pretty good spring, a good swing," Gross added.
Since he returned a month into the season, Marzilli has been playing regularly in centerfield and is now batting .267.
"For me it's all positive knowing these guys," said Gross, who many players refer to as a father figure.
That friendship between Walker and Marzilli has been a mainstay for both players, who were born within weeks of each other in March 1991. They have shared lockers next to each other, roomed together in college and at spring training and now play together for the Aces … and yes, lockers next to each other.
"The chemistry is good between us. Something clicked, but it's hard to gauge what it is," Walker said. "We keep in touch, our families know each other."
And for the past two years, these two college roommates and good friends have been one of the main reasons the Aces won the division title in 2017 and advanced to the PCL playoffs.
Walker slightly turned his head, growing silent for a moment — "What are the chances of crossing paths with a teammate and friend from a college championship team?"