Hale named player of the year

ST. JOSEPH — The litany of sugary morsels Colton Hale would tuck away in one of his dresser drawers was substantial.

“Zebra cakes. Twizzlers. Swiss Rolls. I had them all,” Hale said. “My friends knew if they came over to my house, we had the good snacks.”

Four years ago, those desserts filled the forefront of Hale’s mind.

Along with the video games the recent St. Joseph-Ogden graduate would play, too, while consuming one Little Debbie snack after another.

Looking back now, it’s easy for Hale to smile and think about how far his own life, not to mention his baseball prowess, has come.

“I was pretty fat,” Hale said bluntly.

That phase is no more. And it’s clear to see based on the changes Hale, The News-Gazette’s 2017 Baseball Player of the Year, made while developing into the area’s preeminent talent this spring.

 

Grew into role

A two-sport athlete at SJO, Hale — who also played football for the Spartans — thrived on the baseball diamond in 2017.

The right-hander posted a 7-2 record and a 0.54 earned run average while striking out 124. At the plate, he compiled a .387 average with four home runs and 40 RBI.

 

Impressive numbers.

Especially considering Hale only became SJO’s ace his senior season after working as the Spartans’ No. 3 pitcher as a junior.

And he didn’t hit much until his senior year, either, only managing one hit in 11 at-bats last season.

“He showed early on that he was a guy that not only had to be in the lineup, but he was our most productive hitter,” SJO coach Josh Haley said. “He had never really been in that situation at the varsity level. It just shows what kind of kid and type of player he is.”

The work to become the player Hale is now — and what he could become when he starts his college career next spring at Illinois-Springfield — started gradually.

“I lost 20 or 25 pounds from football after my sophomore season,” Hale said, “and then I lifted and put on another 10-15 pounds of muscle.”

He followed a strict diet of grilled chicken breasts and multiple protein shakes, helping him get down to the playing weight he was at for his senior baseball season.

Endless drills, too, ensued. In his garage. At nearby workout sheds. When the weather was freezing outside this winter, Hale had resources — and the commitment level he didn’t show early on in his high school career — to continue honing his craft.

His father, Josh Hale, noticed the transformation of his oldest son and felt confident each time Colton pitched or stepped in the batter’s box this past season.

“I don’t know if it’s after watching all these years or because we’ve seen him put so much work in on the backside,” Josh Hale said, “that when the game comes, I almost feel eerily calm.”

So, too, did Haley whenever he sent Hale out to the mound. Not that Haley necessarily saw the development and rise of Hale’s performance coming, even a few years ago.

“He’s a guy that always threw strikes when he was younger,” Haley said. “Coming in, everybody develops differently and at different times. We knew he was going to be a program guy, and we feel like everybody has a chance to turn into something promising, but he made such a big transition from his sophomore to his junior season. That’s when we realized, all right, this guy could be something special.”

 

Postseason success

Hale’s meteoric rise this season happened to coincide with SJO’s unexpected postseason run to the state tournament again.

Hale started — and won — four playoff games to help SJO place second in Class 2A for the second straight season.

Featuring a potent two-seam fastball that he was able to consistently locate in the zone, anywhere from 86-90 mph, along with a slider and curveball, Hale effectively stymied opposing bats on the two-week stretch of postseason games that allowed the Spartans to play for a state title.

“It was really exciting to see him go all the way to Peoria in his last year of high school,” said Connor Hale, Colton’s 12-year-old brother.

Colton’s goals, though, weren’t that lofty once he entered SJO. His freshman year, he simply wanted to get a spot on the junior varsity team. Same thing his sophomore season.

“I didn’t think that far ahead,” Hale said. “I was too busy eating Swiss Rolls.”

Hale lets out a small grin after this last comment, showing his self-deprecating sense of humor.

But it’s his unselfish nature, too, that stands out to those close to him.

He’s quick to credit his teammates, naming Mason Coon, Brant Hoveln and other key members of SJO’s team this past season, along with past SJ-O standouts like Dalton Parker, Colton Carr, Brock Immke, Tyler McCormick and Hunter Hart, for helping push him.

“He wasn’t handed anything,” said Hoveln, SJ-O’s catcher this past season. “He puts in the hard work. No one on our team worked harder than Colton did, either in the offseason or during the season.”

 

No hard feelings

Even with a limited number of innings as a junior — Hale went 3-1 with a 2.79 ERA in 31 innings on a staff dominated by Parker (Purdue) and Carr (Kankakee Community College) — the right-hander showed the potential he fully displayed as a senior.And Hale holds no hard feelings for Haley and SJO pitching coach Mitch Pruemer not getting him on the mound at a consistent rate in 2016.

“That was cool to see Carr and Dalton shine,” Hale said. “That put it in a different perspective getting to watch them pitch, too, because I would always stand by Coach Pruemer and Coach Haley, so I would hear how they would address hitters and what they see. It kind of made me change the way I look at hitters.”

College coaches first took note of Hale shortly before his junior season started. He went to a showcase in Gurnee in February 2016, and followed that up with another solid showing at one in Joliet in June 2016.

Those performances helped him garner an offer from Illinois-Springfield, who he signed with last November, and allowed him to pitch this spring without worrying about impressing future college coaches.

Hale isn’t set on a major yet, although he indicated he’d like to stay involved in athletics, possibly as a trainer, once his baseball days are done.

“That was another big thing with UIS,” Hale said. “I didn’t want to go to school to just go play baseball. I want to make sure I get a degree and can have a future after that.”

Hale’s baseball future didn’t seem particularly bright two years ago. Now, the possibilities are endless.

“One of the key things with him is his ability to relate to the younger players,” Haley said. “He never thought of himself as bigger than someone else. Even now, as the accolades, start rolling in, he remembers the position he was just in recently. With his work ethic, he’s earned everything that’s been thrown his way.”

Categories (3):Prep Sports, Baseball, Sports

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