Athlete Spotlight: Sam Lara ‘17 - Central Catholic Baseball
By Nate Weitzer for Mass Prep Stars
Ten days before Central Catholic's first game this season with Merrimack Valley Conference rival Lowell, Sam Lara approached his head coach.
The senior righthander made it clear that he wanted to pitch against the first game against the Red Raiders and he let his intentions be known in the early-season showdown.
“When you have kids that don’t shy away from big games, that’s a recipe for success,” said Central Catholic head coach Marc Pelletier. “[Lara] is one of the nicest kids, but on the mound his competitive juices flow. He’s just a pleasure to call a game for and watch pitch.”
True to his word, Lara struck out nine, did not walk a batter and scattered nine hits while going the distance in a 3-2 win over Lowell on April 13 to reassert Central’s status as the defending Merrimack Valley Conference champions.
Always one of the better athletes in Lawrence growing up, Lara first used his talents primarily as a hitter. Like most kids, he wanted to make waves offensively, but recalls how he fell in love with certain aspects of pitching by the time he was 12 years old.
“I felt like I had more control at that age and more pitches to work with,” Lara explained. “I threw hard at an early age and I knew if I wanted to keep playing that was going to by my way.”
Sure enough, Lara turned enough heads during an impressive sophomore season to earn a scholarship offer from St. John’s University, and he chose to attend that prestigious school prior to his junior campaign.
“It was early, but I visited the campus and everything felt right to me,” Lara said about his decision to attend St. John’s. “I’m a city boy from Lawrence and everything felt right.”
As a 6-foot-3, 220-pound young flamethrower, Lara went 5-1 with a 2.28 ERA and 39 strikeouts over 43 innings pitched back in 2015.
Now he’s grown into his body even more, but the mental aspects of his game may prove even more valuable in his pursuit of another MVC title and a potential berth in the MIAA Division 1A “Super Eight” Tournament this year.
“Small things used to bother him,” Pelletier said about Lara. “But now he let’s a bad pitch or bad count go and it’s helped him immensely. The beauty of watching him pitch is his maturation. He’s a big game player and he’s done it in two sports.”
Lara became an MVC champion in basketball as well last season and helped the Raiders advance to the Division 1 North finals, where they would fall to eventual state champion Cambridge.
But his true passion remains baseball, where he can focus intently on the task at hand and produce for his teammates.
Central Catholic is 13-4 overall and 11-3 in the MVC Large so far this season because of Lara’s attitude and his performance, beginning with his dominant outing against Lowell on April 13.
“I wanted to pitch in that game because Lowell’s a great team and I wanted to set a tone early in the season,” Lara said.
He continued to describe his conditioning this year, which allowed him to go the distance in that contest.
“I feel a lot healthier and stronger, not only velocity, I feel like I can pitch deeper into the game, Lara added. "My team was getting me excited and I had my adrenaline going.”
While Lara is a huge factor in the Raiders success, he’s quick to credit teammates that are every bit as important to the program.
Secondary ace Steve Hajjar is sporting a sparkling 1.11 ERA ERA with 58 strikeouts and just 9 walks, earning 4 wins and a save over 34 innings pitched this season.
Lara is 5-0 with a 1.44 ERA, and a 1.10 WHIP over 6 starts, to go with one clutch save. Lara's save took place in Cetral's second win over Lowell, closing the door on a Hajjar win. Both Lara and Hajjar are interchangeable in the sense that one always plays first base when the other is pitching.
“We have a lot of chemistry and a lot of faith in each other,” said Hajjar, a junior.
“Every time we play there’s going to be people coming for us, so you have to have great pitching,” Hajjar asserted. “Our staff is doing great and we have guys in the bullpen we trust.”
Coming in one year behind Lara, who made his way onto the varsity roster as a freshman and cracked the starting rotation as a sophomore, Hajjar learned from his trailblazing teammate.
“[Lara] has shown me a lot and ever since I was a freshman he’s taken me under his wing and I always considered him a type of role model,” Hajjar added. “He’s made me the player I am today.”
With key wins over Lowell, North Andover, Methuen and St. Peter-Marian, the Raiders have built a resume that is worthy of Super 8 consideration and they will likely go as far as their two-headed monster on the bump can take them.
Junior catcher Dom Keegan is also a very key piece for Central Catholic and the Virginia Tech commit has been working with Lara over the last three seasons.
“Sammy is spectacular when he’s on the mound and it’s tough to get the ball out of his hands,” said Keegan, who also starred on the basketball team. During basketball season, Sammy was one of the guys who didn’t want us to think about what we lost, or who could beat us, he just had the attitude that we were the best team out there and wanted to compete every time we took the floor. And he’s brought the same attitude to baseball season.”
It’s one thing to be competitive, but in order to get the most out of their talent an athlete has to be willing to work.
From his teammates, to his coaches, everyone reports that Lara’s work ethic is unequaled.
“This didn’t happen overnight,” Pelletier said about Lara’s continued excellence. “He’s put an awful lot of work into his craft. He knows when he pitches well he gives us a chance to win and there’s no question the kids raise their game when he’s on the mound.”
Now that he’s in the midst of his final season at Central Catholic, Lara is gaining some perspective on a brilliant two-sport career.
“I am going to look back at all the great times and most importantly, winning,” said Lara. “The coaches and players have been a huge help and I feel like I’ve matured a lot since sophomore year and accomplished a lot of my goals, but there’s still work to do.”
There’s only box left to check for Lara and the Raiders corps of excellent upperclassmen, the first Super 8 berth in program history.
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