Frank Tortella Jr.'s nickname should be "Doc." He wants to be a surgeon someday. And during the past two years he's helped cure three ailing sports programs at Howard High.
Tortella saw the worst of times for the baseball program when he started as a freshman and the team went 1-18.
Now the junior catcher is enjoying the best of times, as the No. 18-ranked Lions (4-3 overall, 3-1 league) are challenging for the county championship this season.
"I had always heard these nightmare stories about how bad the Howard baseball program was, and it is exciting to be part of a new era," said Tortella, who played football in the fall and wrestled in the winter. "A couple of years ago no one thought we'd be contending this season."
Tortella is part of a powerful offense that is averaging eight runs and batting .366 as a team.
He has had a fast start, going 10-for-22 (.455) with eight RBIs. That compares favorably with last season when he batted .311 )) with 11 RBIs.
Tortella has played every inning this season, after playing 130 of 134 innings last season.
Not only has he improved offensively, but his defense has shown marked improvement -- especially his throwing.
"He lost a lot of weight in order to wrestle this winter, and that has made him a more agile defensive player," coach Matt Forsyth said.
Tortella (5-foot-7) dropped from 215 pounds to 171 during wrestling season. He's now about 180.
"We worked on his throwing mechanics this year so that he's throwing hard and on a line," Forsyth said. "Last season he would bounce a few. This year during pre-game opposing teams are watching him and telling themselves they won't be able to run on him."
The story of how Tortella made his entrance onto the varsity baseball team has become a legend at Howard.
"He bugged me and bugged me his freshman year to play on the varsity, but he started out on junior varsity," Forsyth said. "Then one day we [the varsity] were playing Thomas Johnson at home and he was watching the game after having finished JV practice. I only had one catcher and needed that guy to pitch. So I told Frank to run up to the office and get a uniform. Then he went into the game. His first at-bat was a scratch single. He went 2-for-3 and started every game since then."
Tortella said: "It was kind of a weird experience."
He's played baseball for seven years and has always caught. Last summer he played for the Sabres, an independent team coached by Centennial varsity coach Ron Martin.
"Mr. Martin is a very good coach who taught me a lot about defense and knowledge of the game. He's one of the reasons I've had success this season," said Tortella.
Tortella also credits a baseball camp he attended at Hampden-Sydney (Va.) College last summer for teaching him a lot about hitting. "It was run by Frank Fulton, who is highly respected in Virginia but not that well known around here," he said.
L Tortella leaves no doubt about which sport he'd rather play.
"Baseball is my favorite sport because one of the first things you get as a kid is a baseball glove. It's mentally one of the most fascinating sports you can play. I just used to wrestle to get in shape for baseball, but we got two new wrestling coaches this season and our team had a lot of success, so I wanted to do well, not just stay in shape."
Tortella finished second in the county wrestling tournament, won a regional title and finished fifth in the state tournament. He was 30-5 overall and won his first 19 matches. His team also won a regional title.
He was first-team All-County in football at center and was a big part of Howard's revival in that sport during the past two seasons.
Two years ago Howard won its first county football championship since 1975. And last fall it finished second, one game away from the title.
As a student he carries a 3.83 GPA and the majority of his courses are advanced placement or gifted and talented.