LIVINGSTON, NJ -- As he lay on the field near first base on March 31, 2018, his leg severely fractured and his junior season already finished on opening day, Richie DeMaio knew even before he was wheeled into the ambulance at the Livingston High School Oval that he would be back.
"I always knew I would have the drive to come back and play baseball," said DeMaio, who just concluded his senior season as Livingston's starting catcher. "I don't ever see myself not playing baseball. I accepted it; I knew what I had to do to get back on the field. I am healthy now."
DeMaio, who underwent surgery last April so that his fibula fracture would heal properly, could only sit by in a cast and provide moral support as his teammates drove to a 2018 Greater Newark Tournament championship. In the ultra-competitive Super Essex Conference, the Lancers were unable to repeat their county championship in 2019, but in some ways, this season was more rewarding than last year.
It was for DeMaio, who returned to the lineup a whole baseball player and, hitting out of the leadoff spot in the order, batted .403 and earned a spot on the SEC's All-American Division First Team.
"With Richie, there was never a question or a doubt that he would come back," Livingston head baseball coach Mickey Ennis said. "It was terrible, a gruesome injury, but I never had a doubt that he would come back this year."
DeMaio sustained the injury in Livingston's first game last year as a baserunner trying to retreat to first base after a flyball was caught in the outfield. His leg buckled awkwardly as he pulled up approaching first base and started to go into his slide. The play happened with one out and, Ennis points out, that had there been two out in that inning, the coach would have sent a courtesy runner in for DeMaio.
Ennis admitted that he "had a lot of sleepness nights after that."
"I underwent physical therapy all throughout the summer. I just had to go through the motions and get stronger," DeMaio said. "It took about six months before I played my first game again last fall. I had to get my flexibility back before I could catch."
When he finally did get back behind the plate, DeMaio had few peers. For as productive a hitter as he is, his defense may even be a superior asset.
"Richie is equally talented at blocking balls in the dirt, framing pitches and shutting down opposing teams' running games," Ennis said. "His throws down to second consistently had a glove-to-glove pop time of under 2 seconds. That's exceptional."
DeMaio's skills as a catcher were so advanced even at a younger age that, when Ennis took over Livingston's baseball program before the 2016 season, he installed DeMaio as his varsity catcher as a freshman.
"A freshman catcher at a Group 4 school in this conference was something that almost never happened at Livingston," Ennis said. "But there was one game, early in his freshman season, when he came to bat with runners on second and third.
"It was a real pressure situation, almost not fair for him to be in that spot as a freshman. And I brought him over to me before the at-bat and said to him, 'Hey, Rich, it doesn't matter what you do this at-bat. You are my catcher for the next four years'. I knew from the beginning he would be a four-year starter barring an injury."
That injury obviously did happen, and made DeMaio, instead, a three-year starter. In those three seasons, plus one game, DeMaio totaled 53 career hits and a .358 batting average.
"I was very happy with my senior season, just knowing that a year ago I wasn't able to walk without crutches," DeMaio said. "Showing off the hard work I put in, I couldn't be more happy with it. What stands out the most in my career is the player and person that I have developed into from my freshman year until now. It was just a matter of coming out, having fun and being loose.
"I feel as though I am a part of coach Ennis' career coming to Livingston. I was a freshman, it was his first year coaching here, and going through four years, and seeing how he has changed the game for us, the opportunities he has given us, I am thankful he came to be a coach here.
"Since Day One I have always been a catcher. The way it started was, I was put back there in Little League. I never wanted to do it either, but then I developed a passion for it, and i wouldn't play any other position now."
DeMaio will continue to play the position when he attends Montclair State University, where both he and Livingston pitcher MJ DePaola will enroll and continue their baseball careers.
"I think he will have a terrific college career, and I'm happy he's going there," said Ennis, who used to coach in the New Jersey Athletic Conference at Ramapo College, where Ennis won a Division 3 national championship as a 24-year-old head coach in 1984. "The fact that Richie lost his junior year to injury means that he missed out on having bigger (Division 1 and Division 2) schools see him before his senior year, but Montclair State will be a great place for Richie to play."
DeMaio seems to have no regrets about the decision, or about where his career has taken him.
"The way I started to play the game stands out," DeMaio said of his years at Livingston High. "I I really tried to bring more character to the team and to be myself on the field. I always try to be a team player and do what i can to put some wins together with these guys."