Why Zach Aehlert is the ‘Stud’ Player Every Coach Wants

“I don’t like talking about my stats and stuff. It’s not worth it, they’re just numbers to me,” 18-year-old catcher Zach Aehlert said. Although he graduated high school in May, he’s still playing as a Lancer because his team is state bound.


Aehlert was named the DuPage Valley Conference catcher of the year. He also broke Lake Park High School’s home run record with 15 and the single season RBI record with 45. But none of that fazes him.


Along with those Lake Park record-breakers, Aehlert and his team marked Lake Park Baseball history on Monday by winning the Illinois High School Association’s Class 4A Super Sectional championship, being the first Lake Park baseball team to go to state.


“Zach is the quintessential team player that also happens to be the best player on our team,” said his varsity baseball coach, Dan Colucci. “He has both physical and mental skills, and a tremendous work ethic. He is only focused on helping the team win in any way possible. He has been a special player since he has arrived at Lake Park.”


On Friday, May 25, Aehlert sat beneath the glowing sun at Starbucks in Roselle, Ill., wearing a Belmont Abbey College hoodie. He was officially no longer a high school student. “It’s definitely a weird feeling,” He said. “In the last period of the last school day I was like ‘what! Why! This is already happening?’ Its crazy.”


Aehlert lives in Itasca, Ill., and attended Lake Park High School in Roselle, Ill., where he plays on the Lancers varsity baseball team.


His passion for baseball began when he started playing T-ball when he was four years old. “My dad coached me, it was fun,” Aehlert said. “We always got snacks afterwards, too. My dad didn’t play baseball, he wrestled and played football.”


Aehlert played football his freshman year as a wide receiver, but he didn’t have the passion for it like he did for baseball. He chose baseball because of the intense level of challenge. He said, “It’s a game that evolves. You’re always switching something and trying a new strategy.”


The game isn’t the only thing evolving and switching things up.


Aehlert will be going to Belmont Abbey College in Belmont, N.C. in the fall. “I had a couple other schools looking at me,” He said. “But it really just came down to where I felt the most comfortable. It’s baseball in the South. It can’t get any better than that. In all honesty, it was just that feeling of home. That’s why I picked it.”


His mother, Beth Aehlert, was encouraging throughout his college selection process, along with the rest of the Aehlert family. She said, “When we visited all the schools and got into the car after visiting all the coaches, there was only one school that he instantly called his father to talk about. That was Belmont Abbey. He’s always talked about going down South and playing baseball there so I told him to go give it a shot. I don’t want him to look back and wonder what would’ve happened.”


His father, Kurt Aehlert, was relieved after his son decided on a college. He was comfortable because his son was comfortable. “In the end, we’re all happy,” He said. “Ever since he made the final decision last year of going to Belmont Abbey, he kept making good decisions after that. He’s matured—from a boy to a man.”


Coach Colucci said, “It has been a tremendous pleasure of mine to watch him grow into the player he is today. I am very confident that Belmont Abbey is getting a player that will be able to come right in and contribute as a freshman.”


The soon-to-be freshman found his home away from home.


He loves that the campus is small and that everyone there welcomed him with open arms. His roommate is from Florida and plays shortstop.


But Zach Aehlert’s roommate can never compare to his 15-year-old brother, Nic Aehlert. “The person I’m going to miss the most is my brother, Nic,” He said. “It’s going to be hard because I’ve been around him my whole life. But we can FaceTime. Plus, it’s time for me to become an adult. My mom and dad have prepared me, but it’s still going to be hard because my brother’s my best friend and I’ll be away from him. But I’ll always come home and visit.”


On Tuesday, June 5, Nic Aehlert sat gently at the end of the dinner table and said, “Zach has been my best friend my whole life. I tell him everything. I look up to him, his decision-making, and how he knows what feedback to give me. It’s going to be weird because I’ll have to go to my mom now. Maybe she won’t like that about some stuff but hopefully she’ll get over it. I’ll miss Zach. I just wish him success and big achievements in life.”


What he hopes to achieve at Belmont Abbey is getting an education, graduating and winning a national championship with his class of 2022.


Zach Aehlert is the coachable, humble and family-oriented student athlete that every coach seeks for. He is a team player.


Wherever he goes, his team goes.


Here are what his closest friends and teammates had to say about him:


His childhood best friend and teammate, Ryan Behling, said, “As a player, Zach is just an all around stud. He has the arm to throw out anyone and is a wall behind the plate. He knows how to pick everyone up; he is the heart and soul of our team.”


The two have gone to school together for basically their whole lives. Behling said, “He’s always there for me whenever I need a pep talk; he always knows how to brighten someone’s day. He’s the most unselfish person I’ve ever met. Over the years, Zach and I have basically become brothers. I wish him the best of luck next year and I know he’ll kick some a— in baseball.”


Thomas Ross and Anthony Baturin, two of his best friends and teammates, didn’t know Zach Aehlert before going into high school. Ross barely talked to him freshman year, so he didn’t get to know him until their sophomore year.


Ross said, “Zach as a player is obviously a stud. He leads by example and vocally. He carries our team and puts it all out there every game. As a person he’s even more of a stud. He’s the nicest and most innocent kid you’ll meet, easy to talk to. He has become one of my best friends and I know he’ll be successful with whatever he does in life.”


Baturin instantly clicked with him freshman year and they became great friends. He said, “Over the past four years, Zach and I have grown to be real brothers. Zach is the guy that every coach and teammate would love to have. He’s that player that stands out over everybody. Every time he goes up to the plate, you know he’s going to do some damage. He’s the one you want up with bases loaded in the bottom of the seventh. Zach puts in more work than anyone I’ve ever seen and that’s why he’s so successful.”


He chose to miss out on parties. When he’d come home from practice, he’d go down to the basement and work out some more. Zach Aehlert said, “Pretty much everyone knows I live under a rock—but no one knows why.”


After he decided on Belmont Abbey, he wanted to stay home as much as possible. He said, “I wanted to spend as much time as I could with my family before I leave. But once in a while I’d go out and I’d ask my brother to come out with me and he’d usually say no—but I would use him as my excuse to leave early.”


There’s so much below the surface with Zach Aehlert. Anyone who has seen him play would never guess that he has allergy issues and asthma that he had to overcome.


“I pretty much have allergies to the outside world,” He said.


Grass, trees, pollen, horses, cats, and dogs…the list goes on. But he’s been taking allergy shots annually for the last seven years to help alleviate the symptoms significantly. “The allergy shots help me, so I’m not that allergic now. But the allergies were the most difficult thing I’ve had to face.”


Allergies or not, he pulls through for his team.


“His goal was always to go to state,” His father, Kurt Aehlert, said. “That was everything to him.”


Well here he is now, leading his team to state.


By Bella Michaels


The IHSA CLASS 4A BASEBALL STATE TOURNAMENT is Friday, June 8 at Joliet Route 66 Stadium – Lake Park vs. Huntley at 3:00 p.m.


Assistant Coach Kevin Johnson’s Intense Energy Ignites Lancer Varsity Baseball

“Baseball is the most boring sport—of all. It’s amazing that I chose it, but I think I chose it because I was fascinated by the amount of failure that’s in it,” said assistant coach Kevin Johnson, 44, in an interview Monday at Lake Park High School in Roselle, Ill.


“That’s why I think I was attracted to it. I loved the other sports—like football and wrestling—because you can take your aggression out and just unleash it on the field, but in baseball you can’t do that,” Johnson said. “You have to have your head leveled. That was always a challenge for me as a kid.”


Growing up in Michigan, Johnson was an active kid who loved challenges. “Obviously the whole ADHD thing has kept me busy my whole life,” he said as he sat there, swiftly shuffling his legs around. “When I was younger, I played every sport you could imagine.”


Johnson played hockey, golf, cross-country, soccer, baseball, football, wrestling, and just about anything that involved him staying in motion.


His high school allowed students to participate in multiple sports during the same season. Johnson didn’t pass up that opportunity. He played hockey up until about the eighth grade. His high school didn’t have hockey so he switched over and played wrestling. In the fall, he ran cross-country and also played Friday night football. In the winter, he was in diving and wrestling. He just pretty much played baseball in the spring.


“I always dreamt of being paid to play when I was younger,” he said. “What’s funny is—here I am today—getting paid to play. I just didn’t think it was going to be in this way, but here I am coaching and being around sports still—and I get paid to do that.”


Johnson started coaching baseball and teaching physical education in 1998 at Lake Park alongside his friend and colleague, Dan Colucci, the head coach of the varsity baseball team.


Colucci described himself as passionate, whereas Johnson described himself as energetic.


Colucci drives. Johnson ignites.


“[Colucci] and I always joked through the years that it’s like good cop, bad cop,” said Johnson.


Colucci gets to deal with all the stuff that Johnson doesn’t want to touch. Whether it’s parents, or kids skipping out on them. He said, “I just get to be the fun uncle that shows up and comes up with wacky, intense games and stuff like that.”


“We work so well together, because I can read when the team’s losing it,” Johnson said. “He’s so driven. He’s driving the boat and he knows where we got to be. And there are times where I see the sailors on the ship are kind of drifting and not doing their job. While he is so focused on the goal, that’s where I think I have a pretty good pulse on how they feel in that moment. So it’s my job to reel them in.”


Each coach brings forward certain strengths to the team’s dynamic, but Johnson admitted that he has some weaknesses.


“My weakness by far is my ability to focus,” he said. “But that’s where [Colucci] is great. He has that goal and he knows how to get there. I could lose directions on how to bake a cake in five minutes. But I know we have to make the cake somehow, and I may scrape together some ingredients last second to figure it out.”


“But my strength as a coach is I have that ability to give a crazy amount of intensity in one moment or duration. I will not give up on something,” said Johnson. He doesn’t believe in quitting. That’s from years of sports but also his parents’ upbringing.


Intensity is essential to his coaching philosophy. He pushes players to do more than what they think they can do. He wants them to be comfortable being uncomfortable.


When the players get into strained mental spaces, Johnson switches up the dynamic with personal and communal strategies to loosen them up.


“The other day I spoke to you briefly about the fine line between joking around and working hard. I have a pretty good sense of that,” he said. “I can mess around with these guys today and they can get a little loose cause at the end of the day this is still a kid’s game and they should have fun.”


He teaches them how to switch the on and off buttons to differentiate when it’s time to be serious and loose.


“One thing you learn as a coach is that every player, just like every student, has their own learning style,” Johnson said. “ Some kids you can yell at, and they’ll respond. Some kids you can’t—I mean if you yell at them and raise your voice they’ll shut down,” he said.


Johnson takes pride in emphasizing the importance of communication, especially in the outfield.


Johnson said, “If you’re talking in the outfield—I’m happy. I don’t care if you drop the ball or not—at least you’re communicating. If guys aren’t talking, they’re going to collide and get hurt.”


Suddenly, a flashback struck him.


“Years ago, I had this kid who was an unbelievable athlete. Imposing figure. 6-foot-4 inches tall, 225 pounds—great athlete. There was this one fly ball to the outfield and he was running in and he didn’t say a word. The second baseman missed him by inches and he made the catch. As he was running in I just started yelling. I never called him names but I was bolting the moment. Then all of a sudden I looked—and that imposing athlete was crying. Just tears coming out. Couldn’t stop. And it caught me off guard like what?”


In that moment Johnson realized that each player needed to be approached differently, by building a relationship with them and knowing their personalities.


In his first year coaching the sophomore team at Lake Park, Johnson learned that there are situations where a coach needs to separate the sport from the relationships with the players or parents.


He said, “If there was ever a year where kids had an honest chance of making the team, it was that year because I didn’t know anybody. I judged them on their baseball talent and I saw what I saw. I didn’t have a history.”


“So I cut this one kid and as I was in the locker room after cuts were over, some man came to the door shaking and crying. It was his father. His voice was quivering and he was crying that I cut his son. I had no idea who he was in that moment,” Johnson said. “He had a bat in his hand or something, and I remember I grabbed a fungo bat ‘cause I didn’t know what was going down—like what was happening here. He was pointing his finger at me and said ‘you’ve got people breaking Lancer code right now in the parking lot and you cut my son.’ And I responded like ‘sir I have no idea who you are.’ Then I found out who he was. He didn’t come at me or anything like that. But that was an awkward moment as far as coaching and dealing with cuts.”


Even at the high school level, players must get cut if they don’t match up to the athletic capabilities of the team.


Communication, chemistry, and dependence are imperative in team sports, as opposed to individual sports.


“I always tell young players that are out there, that if they ever get a chance to play a team sport—they must,” Johnson said. “We’re a car—one guy is the engine, one guy is the tire, one guy is the steering wheel. Without them we’re not getting anywhere, but together we can. And baseball—it’s truly a team sport. If the pitcher is off one day, see what happens. If hitters aren’t hitting, someone else has got to do the job.”


Johnson’s intense workouts and conditioning sessions with his players consist of strong team-building activities to highlight the team’s sense of harmony and brotherhood during the hustle.


“Every year I ever played a sport, I was voted the hustle award winner. That’s not God-given ability, that’s just you and how you work. I think that I’m truly most proud of that achievement in my entire career,” Johnson said. “I was all-state in sports in high school, but that doesn’t matter. The hustle one does because that was what my team voted me.”


In his high school yearbook, Johnson was voted two things: most athletic and class clown. He said, “That’s my personality. Athletic clown.”

By Bella Michaels