Toward the end of every semester at St. John's High School, "J" Night is held to celebrate the school's varsity athletes. Kevin Nalepka virtually had a reserved seat at this function for four years.
That's because Nalepka earned 11 varsity letters, the most in the school's history, during his tenure at the Northwest school.
"I've been to all the "J" Nights . . . I always looked forward to them," said Nalepka, who graduated last Friday with a 3.5 (out of 4.0) grade point average.
Nalepka, 18, of Silver Spring, received letters for competing for four years on both the swimming and baseball varsities and for three years of football. Yet he began playing each sport with anxiety and uncertainty, especially baseball.
Branson Ferry, who has coached baseball 22 years at St. John's, never had a freshman on his varsity team -- until Nalepka in 1982. A little smaller back then than his current 5-foot-9, 165-pound frame, Nalepka was promoted to varsity after two practices with the junior varsity.
"He was the only freshman I thought was ready," Ferry said. "It's panned out that he very definitely was."
"There were a lot of seniors and I was only a freshman," Nalepka said. "I looked around and everyone looked so big and so old. I felt like I was walking in a dark room. I didn't know anyone."
Nalepka made the team as a center fielder and pitcher. And, in his first start, he learned to prefer the mound to the outfield.
"Mr. Ferry was saying all these things about me, like how a freshman had never made the team and started," Nalepka said. "The first ball that came out to me rolled right between my legs. That was rough."
The season grew smoother as Nalepka eventually became the featured pitcher in the rotation after an injury knocked out the original lead starter. He even overcame a little peer pressure.
"A lot of people didn't accept me making varsity (baseball)," he said.
He improved every year, evidenced by his 8-3 record and 2.06 ERA this season. A year ago, his numbers were 3-2 and 3.45.
Nalepka credits his relentless will to his parents, particularly his father, who coached and started his son at age 7 in the Silver Spring Boys Club PeeWee baseball league. The son's early experience sparked a high school ambition.
"When I was in the seventh and eighth grade, I remember hearing about people starting as freshmen and sophomores," Nalepka said. "That was a big deal."
An even bigger deal had to happen for Nalepka to make the varsity swimming team as a freshman. As his junior varsity football season wound down, Nalepka decided to try out for swimming. He wasn't good enough, so he had to get better.
To improve and clinch a spot on the team, Nalepka practiced with Carl's U.S. swim team every day for almost two seasons. The practices were from 5:30 to 7 a.m. daily in the winter. Nalepka swam the butterfly and the breaststroke.
"Kevin is one of those kids who decides that when he wants to do well, he'll do everything he can to achieve," said St. John's swimming Coach Peter Carl. "I think that's pretty phenomenal for a high-schooler."
Football probably has been Nalepka's easiest task. With no prior experience, he made the JV team his first year, advanced to varsity the next, and started last season at safety and flanker.
In his first few years, the seasons would overlap. Morning swimming to school to afternoon football practice was the schedule for about two weeks in the early winter, and swimming to school to baseball for the same time period in the early spring. And he didn't forget his homework.
"I still made it to bed by about 9 o'clock every night," he said.
Nalepka never missed a swim meet or a baseball or football game. Over four years, that calculates to about 40 football games, 44 swim meets and 88 baseball games. He was voted the most improved swimmer as a freshman and the baseball team's most valuable player as a senior. Both awards were presented at "J" Night.
"It was rewarding as parents to see a kid with his ambition," said Nalepka's mother Joyce.
Looking back, her son says he will covet most the freshman baseball letter.
"I was the only one to make it as a freshman," Nalepka said, "let alone start. I'd say that one definitely means the most."
Nalepka expects to play baseball at one of the area colleges. He graduated last week with mixed emotions about the future.
"I'm ready to go, and in a way, I'm not," Nalepka said. "I like a small atmosphere where everything isn't live and die like it could be in college.
"If I had to do it again, I'd probably do it the same way. Each season was a nice change."