Matt Vautour: Joe Popielarczyk was as good as anyone in 2012

Last modified: Saturday, January 26, 2013
For most freshman, not making it through walk-on tryouts is the end of their college careers.

They gave it a shot at being a college athlete. After being deemed not quite good enough, they hang ’em up, content to move on. Some will try to join a club team. Some will play intramurals. Most will just become regular college students, going to class during the week, parties on weekends, gaining weight and knowledge, while moving toward a degree and a job, and further away from their athletic careers.

It would have been hard to blame Joe Popielarczyk for following that route. The former Northampton High School baseball star was carrying a challenging major (civil engineering), while commuting to the University of Massachusetts every day from his home in Florence. Most people would have been tempted to just throw themselves into their studies and forget baseball.

But Popielarczyk wasn’t ready to do that, and just making the baseball team as a sophomore after his second shot at walk-on tryouts made Popielarczyk a good story.

Stardom seemed like a long shot when he got a uniform, never more so than going into his senior year. Pitching out of the bullpen, he posted ERAs of 6.16 as a sophomore and 7.86 as a junior. Everybody from his coaches to his professors liked “Joe Pop” but not even he liked his results to that point.

But Popielarczyk’s senior year is one reason people become sports fans. For one magical season, everything came together for the affable right-hander.

He finished with a 6-2 record and a 1.66 ERA that put him not only atop the Atlantic 10, but among the nation’s leaders in the category. He struck out 65 and walked 29 in 87 innings. Opponents hit just .232 against him as he helped lead the Minutemen back to the conference tournament.

The player who once wasn’t good enough to even be on the UMass roster, was named the Atlantic 10 Pitcher of the Year.

He did all of it while maintaining a 3.42 GPA in civil engineering.

If this was a fairy tale, Popielarczyk’s success would have led to his name being called, and perhaps mispronounced, at the Major League draft. But the lack of velocity on his fastball meant MLB teams turned elsewhere. Instead, Popielarczyk, who was a walk-on during his career, earned a prestigious scholar-athlete scholarship that will allow him to continue his engineering studies in grad school.

Popielarczyk’s 2012 season will be the one that Minuteman coach Mike Stone can point to when encouraging future UMass players to dig a little deeper in search of untapped potential.

For Popielarczyk, the 2012 season should live in his memory as the year he was as good as anybody.

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com.