Rappleyea extra Charged as UAH defenseman, pitcher
In late October of 2016, the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians did more than assure vindication for one long-suffering fan base. They also reignited a hard-dying hardball interest for Alabama-Huntsville hockey freshman Sean Rappleyea.
Less than two years ago, Rappleyea was playing junior hockey in Ottawa, his baseball days ostensibly behind him. Before that, it looked like the reverse would hold true, as he planned to stay in his native New Jersey for college.
Instead, he is playing both for UAH after spontaneously deciding to join the dying breed of multi-sport Division I athletes.
For Rappleyea, born in South Amboy, N.J., baseball was easier to get into growing up. It also had more higher-education options closer to home. He originally considered pursuing the sport as his sole collegiate athletic endeavor. He had his eye on Rutgers University in Piscataway or Rowan University in Glassboro before being convinced to play hockey at UAH.
But during last year’s World Series, Rappleyea got baseball fever again. He asked Huntsville hockey coach Mike Corbett if he could juggle the two games for the Chargers. He was told that as long as hockey took precedent and he was always in the gym with the hockey team, he would have permission.
“It’s easy to get burned out with hockey all of the time. With baseball, it gets my mind off of things.” – Sean Rappleyea
Spring — the stereotypical wind-down period for a college student — has come to be the most rigorous part of Rappleyea’s year. With hockey in its homestretch and baseball heating up, he is essentially doing three-a-days in practice, in addition to his studies.
But Rappleyea believes that playing both sports gives him a mental advantage over his competitors.
“It’s easy to get burned out with hockey all of the time,” Rappleyea told Pucks and Recreation. “With baseball, it gets my mind off of things.”
Rappleyea plays defense on the ice and is a relief pitcher on the diamond. The lefty has an 86 mile-per-hour two-seam fastball, which he considers to be his best pitch.
After only throwing four innings last year, he expects to assume a bigger role in 2018 now that he has adjusted to playing both sports. But it did not come easy for him.
“It was tougher than expected,” Rappleyea recalled. “There were times when I thought I bit off more than I could chew, but I’m glad I did. Now I just have to my keep arm in shape.”
One of the differences this year comes in his training. After just getting back into shape to play baseball last year, he has been able to train all baseball offseason and get his arm in peak condition well ahead of the spring.
Prioritizing hockey means missing the first few games of the baseball season, which inevitably makes Rappleyea slightly less than a full-timer on the latter squad. But he does not see much of a difference between himself and his teammates.
“Once in a while they’ll give me a little bit of trash talk,” he said. “But they’ll come out and watch me. Same with my baseball teammates.”
Despite the obvious differences between the sports, the coaches are not quite as different as most people would expect either.
“They’re both very demanding,” Rappleyea said. “I think the baseball coach is more likely to get in your face, but I deal with the pitching coach mostly. But the hockey coach can get loud too.”
Intensity, stress and rigor inherent to competitive sports can only feel natural after a hectic athletic upbringing. Travelling for multiple sports, particularly hockey, was tough on Rappleyea’s parents, but they made it work.
“They were great,” he said. “The travel was more with hockey, and I don’t know how they managed it. I have two sisters that dance, and a brother who plays hockey. And they took me to Cooperstown for baseball, which was incredible.”
Rappleyea’s hometown of South Amboy is 785 miles from Huntsville, and 348 miles from Ottawa. Given that he had always wanted to stay close to home, this makes his junior hockey and college path an unexpected twist.
“There were times when I thought I bit off more than I could chew, but I’m glad I did. Now I just have to my keep arm in shape.” – Sean Rappleyea
“I never imagined doing it, I had never lived away prior to Ottawa.” he admitted. “I stayed in my room the first two weeks, until my family there said that I should come hang out with them.”
Growing up in the Mid-Atlantic region, Rappleyea is used to experiencing all four seasons, a stark contrast to life in the Southeast. Part of his decision actually came down to the weather as he is much more of a fan of warm weather.
“It was too cold in Ottawa,” Rappleyea said. “I had never actually visited Huntsville before arriving, but I love the weather here. Yeah, the travel to games can be rough, but I love it here.”
The Chargers will only fly to games that require exceptional mileage, like Alaska and Minnesota. Otherwise they are taking the bus everywhere, including Michigan. The longest ride within the WCHA, namely to Michigan Tech, can take nearly 16 hours.
But one of those journeys back to cold-weather regions could grant Rappleyea a one-time merger of both sports. More college hockey games are taking place outdoors, including some in baseball stadiums.
There is no telling whether the Chargers can get on the docket for one of those in 2018-19 or 2019-20. But if they do, Rappleyea would naturally be one of the first among them to embrace the unique opportunity.
“Some of my teammates have played in them, and they all loved it,” he said. “It would be a great experience, and if I ever get the chance to do it, I’d love to.”