New Castle News

March 14, 2013

Heart of a Lion: Former walk-on Nick Colella makes his mark at Penn State

Andrew Petyak
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — February 8, 2012.

Inside the Breslin Center in East Lansing, Mich., Nick Colella waited.

“It’s not the most fun place to play in,” he later joked. “Everything I had worked for, that was it.”

In a late-season Big Ten battle between Michigan State and Penn State — a relatively meaningless game in the standings to the 10-14 Nittany Lions at that point — nothing could have meant more to Colella.

It was a culmination of a four-year effort. It was a goal that others thought unreachable for the New Castle native. But now, it was happening.

After all the time and sacrifice put in, all doubts were put to rest at 6:30 on that early February evening — Nick Colella was starting.

“He drove himself and drove himself,” Nick’s mother, Linda Colella, said. “He knew what he wanted, and he got it. He has a drive and he doesn’t quit.”

That was a high mark in what has been a less-than-conventional college career for Colella. The fifth-year senior has been through it all. When Penn State battles Michigan in its opening matchup in the Big Ten Tournament at 2:30 p.m. today, it will signal the final stages of what has been a wild ride.



FROM THE

BEGINNING


Nick was a tireless worker during high school. Along with maintaining solid grades, he worked with his older brothers, Michael and David Jr., for his uncle, Gary Pezzuolo, at his construction business. David went on to play baseball at Westminster College, while Michael attended Slippery Rock University.

“These kids worked hard during high school,” Linda Colella said. “My oldest, when they first started working there, we would take him on the weekends sometimes at 6 a.m. and sometimes on a Sunday. There was never a problem, even getting them up for school on Monday.”

In his senior year for the Red Hurricane, basketball seemed like the furthest thing from Nick Colella’s mind. Though he played the sport and thrived, averaging 13.1 points a game his final season, Colella had different plans for his future.

“I played baseball, basketball and football at New Castle,” he said. “I thought for sure I would be playing baseball in college. A lot of the letters I got were from Division III schools to play on their baseball teams.”

It wasn’t until he caught the eye of Penn State-Behrend assistant coach Justin Jennings during the summer that Colella’s future took a different path.

“Coach Jennings came up after one of my games I played in a league at Slippery Rock,” Colella said. “He did some research on me and said he was very interested. He gave me all of this information about Behrend and I came up for a visit a month later.”

Colella immediately liked what he saw from the Erie branch campus, enrolling in the school and becoming a member of the basketball team.  

“What got me there was seeing a family-like atmosphere,” he said. “It is a great, up-and-coming campus.”

An academic all-conference selection, Colella excelled on and off the court. He played 22 games as a freshman for Behrend, scoring 6.7 points per game. He followed that up by appearing in 16 games off the bench his sophomore season, coming in at 9.8 points and 4.4 rebounds a game.

“As soon as I got to college, I played strictly basketball. It was different focusing on one sport instead of three,” Colella said. “I worked on my shooting and ball handling. In high school, I was in the two- or three-guard spot just shooting. I wanted to work on my handle as well because I knew I’d be playing a one- or two-guard in college.”



THE NEXT STEP

In the middle of his sophomore season, Colella began to entertain the thought of transferring to Penn State’s main campus with his career ambition in mind — becoming a physical education teacher. Behrend offered no program or major for kinesiology. The main campus did.

 After two years of being involved in the small atmosphere at Behrend, Colella was ready for more of a challenge.  

“I wanted to be part of something big,” he said. “I wanted to walk out of a class and be around a bunch of people walking around campus.”

“We were all for it,” Linda Colella said. “He knew when he was going to Behrend, with his degree, he was going to have to transfer to the main campus. When he told me he was going to try to walk-on for the basketball team, I told him to go for it.”

With the support of his father, Dave, and his mother, Nick filed his transfer papers.

“I was excited to get accepted. It seemed like I was waiting a long time for it, and I was really happy. I was close with my teammates at Behrend. It was bittersweet, but I was glad to be moving on.

Colella’s decision didn’t go over so well with others, like the Behrend coaching staff.

“When they learned I was transferring, I was asked to leave the team,” Colella said. “They said they wanted players on the team who were committed the whole way. It really hit me hard. I’ve never been asked to leave a team. I really wanted to end on a high note with those guys.”



HAPPY VALLEY STRUGGLES

An easy transition wasn’t in the cards for Colella at State College. An unknown early-on, he made sure he kept his face a familiar one around Penn State’s home court, the Bryce Jordan Center.

“When I first got on to main campus, I played pick-up games and practiced with the women’s team for two months,” Colella said. “I had a good 2 1/2 months until tryouts on Oct. 15 for walk-ons, I wanted to stay in basketball shape.”

Colella took away appreciation and friendship from his time with the women’s squad.

“The one thing about them is they play very physical,” he said.  “Since then, I have good relationships with every one of them on that women’s team.”

Before he knew it, after all the training and the work with the Lady Lions, the big day came — Oct. 15.

“I thought I did pretty well,” Colella said about the tryout. “I wasn’t nervous. I thought I was prepared for anything. I went in and tried to play fundamental basketball the best I could. I walked up there and gave it my all.”

It took five days, but the call Colella had been waiting for finally came.

“I was working out in the weight room when I got a phone call,” he said. “It was from (former) coach (Ed) DeChellis, who wanted to invite me to join the team.

“It was an unbelievable feeling, especially after working out and putting in the hours. My mom and dad were very excited for me. It was a great feeling being a part of a team again. It was nice being part of something again.”



THE WAITING GAME

Colella wasn’t done waiting. After officially making the team, he redshirted for the 2010-2011 season, further developing his body and shooting ability.

“He worked hard all summer,” Linda Colella said. “He went from one thing to the next — from a pick-up game or going to New Castle High School to work out. When he called us and told us (he made the team), we couldn’t believe it.”

Despite not playing a second in his redshirt year, Nick’s parents never missed a game.

“We’ve gone to every game, my husband and I. We go to every game just like its our first one,” Linda Colella said. “When he was on the bench, we went to the games. No matter if he dressed, he sat or he played, we were there. It just grew more exciting as he started playing. My whole family and friends come up to the games if they can get away from work.”

When asked if she ever gets tired of the drive across the state, Linda responded, “There’s a lot of talking then that we don’t get to do other times. It’s just a relaxing thing. We’re on the road and we go and have fun.”

Sleep and talk isn’t much of an option on other days. Arriving back at New Castle from a Penn State home game at around 3 a.m., Nick’s parents often get ready for work two hours later. Dave Colella holds jobs as a laser technician and as a member of the New Castle Housing Authority. Linda Colella works for the New Castle school district.

Loss of sleep doesn’t have the Colellas regretting anything.

“The journey that he gave us was unbelievable,” Linda Colella said. “There are no words.”



MAKING HIS MARK

In his junior year, Nick again landed a roster spot on the team under first-year coach Patrick Chambers, slowly gaining playing time until eventually starting against the Spartans on that February night.

“It was a series of practices at the end of January that led up to it,” Colella said about his first start. “I’ve never really started on the bench ever. I was used to being on the court and playing.”

Colella found more than enough playing time in his first start at Michigan State, logging 37 minutes and scoring nine points.

He finished his junior campaign by playing in 26 games and averaging 2.7 points.  

Colella earned a scholarship for the spring 2012 semester after his success on the court and has since earned a second one.

During this season for the 10-20 Nittany Lions, Colella has embodied the New Castle spirit in his play. Noted for his hard-nosed style of play and his willingness to dive for balls on the court, Colella has averaged four points, 2.5 rebounds and 1.1 assists per game while playing an average of 26.5 minutes in 30 contests.  

Although the team has struggled, it has managed to thrill fans with help from Colella, a team co-captain. No moment was more exciting than an 84-78 upset win over Michigan, then fourth-ranked in the nation, at State College. Of course, Nick’s parents were on hand.

 “I don’t even think we hit the steps we ran down on that court (after the game),” Linda Colella said. “It was amazing to see these kids and the looks on their faces.”

Accolades and accomplishments continued for Nick the next Monday, as he was named Penn State’s Sportsmanship Award winner.

As his season and career winds down, Nick knows he’ll have a hard time letting go.  

“I really love school up here and everything about this university,” he said. “It will be nice to finally have my degree (in May), but there are a lot of memories up here.

“I just tried to get a little better each day. All I wanted to do was start and get playing time with this team. I don’t want it to end. I created good memories and relationships with this program. I wanted my parents to be part of something big and continue to come to my games to watch me play. Time really flies when you're having fun.”

(Email: a_petyak@ncnewsonline.com).