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Connaughton stays true to his two sports

By Lenny Megliola
Globe Correspondent / March 29, 2012
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When Pat Connaughton was a junior at St. John’s Prep in Danvers, Boston College baseball coach Mik Aoki offered the tall, fireballing righthander a scholarship.

But Aoki knew that there was more than baseball on Connaughton’s mind.

“He was pretty much committed to playing basketball at BC,’’ said Aoki. “I was trying to make the point that his future was in baseball.’’

There was no way, though, that Connaughton could leave one sport behind. And he hasn’t.

The 6-foot-5, 210-pound Connaughton just finished an impressive freshman season on the court at Notre Dame, averaging 7.0 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 24.1 minutes per game. He made 18 starts in 34 games.

“He did a great job for us,’’ said Notre Dame assistant coach Rod Balanis, noting that Connaughton took advantage early on when the Irish were hit with injuries and a suspension, hauling in nine rebounds against Detroit and hitting six 3’s against Sam Houston.

And last week, the Arlington resident jumped right into the starting rotation for the Fighting Irish baseball team.

His coach? Aoki, who left BC for South Bend two years ago.

“I’d just started here, and basketball coach Mike Brey asked me if I knew Pat,’’ recalled Aoki.

At that point, Connaughton was being recruited by roughly 20 Division 1 basketball programs. Aoki put in a good word, and Brey offered a scholarship.

But Aoki knew that Connaughton was determined to play both sports in college and asked Brey if he would let him play baseball, too.

Brey gave the OK.

“I called Pat and told him it could work out for him,’’ said Aoki.

Playing both sports has been an obsession for Connaughton.

“In the best of possible worlds, I’ll be going from one sport to another professionally,’’ he said. “I’m not daunted by that. It’s been done before.’’

Dave DeBusschere played for the Knicks and pitched for the White Sox. Danny Ainge started at third base for the Blue Jays and then suited up in the back court for the Celtics.

Basketball, though, was clearly their best sport; they were starters on NBA championship teams.

After registering 23 points and 11 rebounds in a 76-59 win over Marquette in early February, Connaughton got a quick bite to eat and went to baseball practice that night.

“He threw the ball 92, 94 miles per hour,’’ said Michael Bertsch, who coordinates media relations for the baseball team at Notre Dame. “That shows you how dedicated he is.’’

After Xavier bounced the Fighting Irish from the NCAA tourney on March 16, Connaughton got the start on the hill four days later in the home opener against Eastern Michigan. He was limited to 1 2/3 innings, but struck out five and allowed just one hit.

“My basketball teammates, coach Brey, and [former Notre Dame basketball coach] Digger Phelps came out to watch me,’’ said Connaughton. “It was great.’’

With his impressive heater, Connaughton initially attracted more interest on the diamond than on the court. But as a high school junior, playing for the Middlesex Magic in a national AAU tournament in Orlando, his game took off, punctuated with a 38-point, 24-rebound performance against Chicago, capped by a 45-footer at the buzzer to send the game into overtime.

“That’s when I started to get noticed,’’ he said. “I didn’t have any [scholarship] offers before that. It all happened in one week of my life.

“I had to prove I could do it at the highest level, against the best players in the nation.’’

Magic coach Michael Crotty recalled, “Pat said, ‘I want to know if I can play basketball at the highest level as I can play baseball.’ I called Notre Dame and BC first,’’ adding that it’s “rare to see a young man so humble with so much athletic talent.’’

Suddenly, a lot of schools were knocking on his door.

“Once one big school watches you, it draws more and more schools,’’ said Connaughton, who visited Stanford, Vanderbilt, UCLA, and Miami, among others. He considered BC because it was close to home. “I’m not picky about anything but food,’’ he said. “Whatever school I picked I was going to have a blast.’’

Sports meant everything to Connaughton growing up. “When I was 2 and could hardly stand up, my mother [Sue] used to pitch me plastic golf balls.’’

His father, Len, would toss a football across the living room when his son was 3 or 4. Pat would dive to make catches. “I came close to breaking furniture.’’

Connaughton, an only child, didn’t have a say in where he went to high school.

“I had an uncle and two cousins who went to the Prep. I didn’t look anywhere else,’’ he said.

He started his freshman year of basketball with the junior varsity, but after a terrific game against Boston English, he was called up to the varsity. His first game was at Waltham, where his parents grew up, and friends and relatives joined them in the stands. By his sophomore year Connaughton felt “a lot was expected of me in basketball and baseball. I expected more of myself than they did.’’

His senior year, he delivered 25 points, 15 rebounds, and nine assists in the state final against St. John’s of Shrewsbury, powering Prep to the Division 1 state basketball title.

On the diamond, his career mark on the mound was a rather nondescript 10-9, but as St. John’s Prep coach Pat Yanchus pointed out, “He pitched against the best teams, and always pitched well in tournaments. He was always a big strikeout pitcher with a great changeup.’’

His senior season, Connaughton had a blister problem, but still struck out 81 in 50 innings with a 1.80 ERA.

“The first time I ever pitched was in eighth grade,’’ said Connaughton. “I didn’t think I was good enough.’’

In his first semester at Notre Dame, the two-sport athlete managed to pull a first semester 3.2 GPA at Notre Dame. “It’s not hard if you manage your time.’’

He also credits his coaches.

Aoki, his newest coach, knows what he’s getting.

“I went back to see Pat pitch against Malden Catholic last year,’’ said Aoki. “He was throwing 95, 96. There were a lot of major league scouts there. I think at the end of the road Pat’s going to have opportunities [to play professionally] in both sports. My guess is baseball would be more lucrative for him.’’

For now, Pat Connaughton is just enjoying the ride. “I’ll always play two sports as long as I’m good enough,’’ he said.

Lenny Megliola can be reached at lennymegs@aol.com.

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