Zack Helsel has always dreamed of playing collegiate baseball for an NCAA Division I college in the southern United States.
The first phase of that mission has been accomplished.
Helsel recently verbally committed to play for Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., which has a Division I college baseball program that competes in the Big South Conference.
Liberty University's Christian educational philosophy, and its location in the South, were two of the school's main appeals for Helsel, who will be a senior at Altoona Area High School this fall.
"It's the college of my dreams,'' said Helsel, who is being recruited as a righthanded pitcher. "I was raised in a Christian family, and it means a lot to me to go to a Christian university. I knew that I wanted to go down south and play baseball, and the Big South Conference is a great conference.''
Helsel - whose older brother, Christian, is a member of the Penn State University baseball team - also drew interest from several other collegiate baseball programs, but he was set on Liberty.
"I had offers from Radford, VCU (Virginia Commonwealth), and VMI (Virginia Military Institute),'' Helsel said. "Penn State and Pitt showed interest, but Liberty was where I wanted to go.''
Helsel is a member of the Altoona Area High School baseball team, on which he is an outfielder and pitcher. He was a middle reliever for Altoona's Wise Trailer Sales entry in this summer's AAABA national tournament in Johnstown, and he also pitched for U.S. Elite travel baseball squad that plays in venues up and down the East Coast.
Helsel - who stands 6-foot-1 and weighs 190 pounds - drew the attention of the Liberty University baseball program while pitching this past summer for the U.S. Elite team in Virginia and Georgia.
Helsel carries a grade-point average of above 4.0 in the classroom, and works just as hard on the pitcher's mound, according to Brian Murtha, who is Helsel's pitching coach with the U.S. Elite team.
"He's a great kid who is driven to the highest level of success in everything that he does," Murtha, who resides in Williamsport, said of Helsel. "He's a competitor, and he's extremely athletic in fielding his position. He's still learning, and he's going to get a lot better.''
Helsel uses a submarine-type pitching delivery that Murtha said is still a work in progress.
"He's starting to learn what he's doing throwing (from) down-under,'' Murtha said. "Nobody outworks him. He works out three times a day. He's going to be a force to be reckoned with.''
Helsel's work ethic enabled him to come back from severe injuries sustained in June 2013 while playing shortstop during a travel-league game in Virginia. He broke his collarbone and jaw in a collision with an outfielder while chasing a fly ball.
"It was horrible,'' he said of the incident. "I had four surgeries, and it took me until May of this year to come back 100 percent. I had my mouth wired shut, and I lost all this weight.''
Yet Helsel was able to discern a silver lining in the incident.
"After I came back, I had this unbelievable drive, and that helped me earn my scholarship,'' he said. "It was a blessing in disguise, because I don't know where I would have been had I not been hurt.''
Helsel plans to major in sports science at Liberty, which won 23 conference games last season.
"I love to win,'' Helsel said. "And going to Liberty, I thought, 'I'm going to play here and I'm going to win.'''