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Q&A Shane Gustafson: Picking baseball over water polo and thriving at Nevada

Shane Gustafson
Shane Gustafson has been one of the Wolf Pack's top relief pitchers the last three seasons. (David Calvert/Nevada Athletics)

At age 4, Shane Gustafson had life-changing heart surgery, which has allowed him to play baseball today, along with water polo and basketball during his youth. The Rocklin, Calif., native attended Folsom Lake Community College prior to Nevada. During his time in junior college, he broke the school's single-season strikeout record while posting a 1.55 ERA with 56 strikeouts in nearly 75 innings. After transferring to Nevada, Gustafson pitched nearly 55 innings with four starts in 25 appearances. This season, Gustafson has posted a team-low 3.23 ERA through 18 appearances and 39 innings.

The Nevada baseball team is on the brink of its first NCAA regional bid since 2000, which would require just two victories against last-place San Jose State during this weekend's four-game series (Friday-Sunday) at Peccole Park. As a result, Gustafson is Nevada Sports Net's Wolf Pack Athlete of the Month for May, an honor presented in partnership with Champion Chevrolet. You can watch our full interview with Gustafson below, or check out our Q&A underneath that.

Q&A with Shane Gustafson

What has the mood been like in the clubhouse lately?

Shane Gustafson: "I'd say we're ready and we want to win. We want more than just conference. We want to go as far as we can."

What's it been like to be playing with this group of guys?

SG: "This year has been something completely different with all the (COVID-19) rules that we've had to follow and different regulations, so getting to know guys only being at the field. It's been great just to slowly dive into each person and get to know each person in what they like to do off the field and what they're like with their families."

Being one of the older guys on this team, how do some of the younger players and pitchers look up to you since you have been on the team for awhile and went to community college beforehand?

SG: "I would like to think that they see me as an example of how to go about your work and how to keep pushing forward when things may not be as easy as it should be or as easy as it seems so I hope they see me as somebody that can just keep moving forward no matter what happens."

What have you learned from some of the pitchers in the past and currently on the team?

SG: "I think I've learned a different type of mentality of how to go about pitching. In junior college, I had rage or pent-up anger for some reason against the other team. But I think guys in the bullpen, Grant Ford, Bradley Bonnenfant, they’ve taught me how to just relax and it will be OK, and how to pitch at a neutral level."

What knowledge have you taken from (pitching) coach (Troy) Buckley during your time with him?

SG: "There’s a mental side of the game, and more about how to go about pacing different levels of the game. You can talk to Coach Buckley for hours and hours and you’ll always learn new information. He’s a great resource to have for this team."

You had heart surgery when you were 4 years old. Tell us what happened.

SG: "When I was younger, the doctors noticed an abnormality in my heart, and one of the valves, the mitral valve, was stuck open basically and it wasn't pumping correctly. So they noticed it and they kept watching it at a young age. They described it as a double door for the valve, and one of the doors was always open, leaking blood into my heart. So my heart had to work a little bit harder. So by the time I was 4 years old, my heart was the size of adult's heart, and the doctor finally said 'OK, it's time to do the surgery and we're going to do a replacement valve'. And that was the plan, and then before the surgery started, they decided to switch it to a repair. If they did not switch it to repair, I would not be playing baseball today."

How thankful are you for them to switch it to repair, so you could play baseball, water polo and live your life as normal?

SG: "I’m extremely thankful. I think God has a plan for all of us and that happened for a reason."

Did you have checkups on your heart growing up? What was life like after it happened?

SG: "After it happened, I was in the hospital for a total of 2 weeks. They released me, and ever since then, I think I got checkups twice a year, and then it slowly died down to once a year, and now it's just kind of a checkup where a doctor emails me saying, 'Hey, how are you doing? If you need to come in let me know. If there's any issues, let me know.' But there's been no issues. I haven't had any restrictions growing up, and I've been able to have a normal childhood with just something a little extra. I couldn't do it without my parents. They've done a lot for me and a lot for my brother. They’re a key factor in all of our success and what we're able to do now."

When did you start playing baseball?

SG: "I think 3, 4 years old. My dad would take me, my older brother at the time, and just go to the field, hit ground balls. He told me the stories about how I always wanted more ground balls and I always wanted to be at the field, and it was just a fun time, so it's like a natural love for the game."

Were you always a pitcher? You're pretty tall now (6-foot-5), so were you pretty tall as a child, too?

SG: "I was probably average height growing up. Then around freshman, sophomore year of high school, I shot up about 6 inches, and got up to 6-4, but no I wasn't always the pitcher. I was also a second baseman. I loved second base and then in high school I was, like, 'I'll play first base and pitch.' Ever since I was a kid, I’ve thrown sidearm, so it’s been a natural thing for me and there hasn’t been much change to it."

Throwing side arm, I feel like that's different than playing water polo, since you played that growing up as well?

SG: "I love water polo. It's a great sport if you get the chance you should definitely check out a game. It's intense. My parents love to watch the game. There's a lot of fighting under water. It’s a different style of sport that people may not be aware of. But the sidearm thing, actually, I think was an advantage because I had more angles to throw the ball at and more abilities than other people. I had so much fun with water polo, to the point where I would just go, just because and I got my coaches to take me to practices or do extra practices. I was getting recruited to go play water polo at the D-I level."

What made you decide to play baseball in college instead?

SG: "I love baseball more. It was worth it to go the JuCo route over water polo because I love baseball."

Being from Rocklin, you grew up close to Nevada, but when did the baseball program interest you?

SG: "I've known about Nevada for a long time. Some of my old teammates from Rocklin, guys who graduated before me like Austin Dick went to Rocklin High School, so I've grown up hearing about the college. A lot of people from Rocklin High School have gone to UNR, and when UNR called me, I was, like, 'I want to go here. It seems like a great place.'"

How do you think you've grown the last few years as a person and as a player during your time at Nevada?

SG: "I think the weather helps. I've never played in snow, so learning how to practice in snow and stay warm and stay ready for games. I've grown in ways, where the coaches have been great coaches. I call it hard-nosed and tough love, and they expect a high expectation from each one of their players. I love that hard work that it takes to be here. I've grown in just staying mentally tough and physically strong."

For previous Wolf Pack Athletes of the Month Q&As, click here.

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