Rising to new heights
WORTHINGTON -- The boyhood dream of most young athletes is to play their chosen sport at a professional level. Often, children spend as much time fantasizing about playing in the big leagues as they do actually participating in those sports activ...
WORTHINGTON -- The boyhood dream of most young athletes is to play their chosen sport at a professional level.
Often, children spend as much time fantasizing about playing in the big leagues as they do actually participating in those sports activities. But the process of achieving those dreams is long and arduous and one that yields results for a scant few.
For Worthington's Justin Saufley, that end result in his chosen sport, baseball, is nearing reality.
A former Worthington Trojan and Minnesota West Technical and Community College pitcher, Saufley has taken the next step in his goal to become a major league player as the junior is making a name for himself with the University of Wisconsin-Superior Yellowjackets.
"I have always wanted to continue my development at a four-year school, but wasn't highly recruited out of Minnesota West," Saufley said Friday. "No one around here was looking at me with the exception of Southwest Minnesota State University, and they didn't even seem that interested.
"All of the sudden, I get a call from one of the assistant coaches at UW-S, and he told me he saw me play in the state tournament with Minnesota West in St. Cloud last year," Saufley added. "We talked about me attending UW-S and they said all the right things. Obviously, you want to go somewhere you're wanted, and it seemed like a good fit."
A good fit indeed, as Saufley could be considered the Yellowjackets ace this season.
Having played in seven games for the Yellowjackets (12-16) this season, Saufley has posted some impressive numbers. Saufley currently boasts a record of 4-2 with one no decision, and has a cumulative ERA of 3.76 in the highly competitive Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
In 40.2 innings on the hill, Saufley has given up 40 hits and just 20 runs and sports a strikeout to walk ratio of 3-to-1.
"When I was playing in Worthington for the high school, legion and college teams, we saw a lot of tough competition, and that has helped prepare me for the next level," Saufley said. "Those games helped me become mentally tough and allowed me to challenge myself to lift my game."
UW-S head coach Eddy Morgan couldn't agree more and has been impressed with his recruit's effort on the bump so far this year.
"Justin has been able to compete with the best pitchers in the conference, and our conference is known around the country as one of the best Division III baseball conferences in the nation," Morgan said. "We're in a rebuilding process right now, and Justin was a big piece of our recruiting class last year. Justin is really helping in turning this program around."
As with the move from high school to junior college baseball, Saufley's advancement to the next level has offered new challenges. The players get bigger, stronger and faster, leaving less room for error -- especially in the WIAC.
"You're not going to strike out a lot of guys in this conference," Saufley said. "You have to throw it just right so they hit it at somebody. That's a big part of it. Another part of it is being able to throw more than two pitches well. I'm throwing the ball a little harder this year and have started throwing a slider."
Coming into the year with two or three strong pitches, Saufley saw the need to develop more pitches to keep the opposition off balance. Morgan was right on board and has helped the right-hander fine tune and add pitches to his repertoire.
"Justin has a great work ethic," Morgan said. "He came in, and we had a little work to do on his mechanics. He was right there and worked hard on developing a couple of new pitches.
"I think he realized it, and we kind of talked about it, that at this caliber of baseball, you can't live on one or two pitches," Morgan added. "So we needed to tweak things a little with his 12-6 break. We wanted to get a little different angle. We also worked on running his fastball down and in, so he throws more of a two-seamer now, and we're working on a change up. We want him to be a complete pitcher."
Along with the development of new pitches comes the need to control those pitches, and Saufley has excelled in this area as well.
"He's got great command of all of his pitches," Morgan said. "We focus on getting first-pitch strikes, and Justin has to be able to throw more than just his fastball for first-pitch strikes. As the season has progressed, he has been more comfortable throwing those pitches we've been working on all winter, and he's only going to get better."
While Saufley could still be considered a work in progress, he has already garnered his share of accolades this season -- being named the WIAC Pitcher of the Week twice so far.
As the Yellowjackets continue to rebuild their program, Morgan sees players like Saufley playing a big part in helping recruit top baseball prospects from the Midwest.
"Justin will absolutely help with recruiting," Morgan said. "Not only is Justin a great athlete and a fierce competitor, he's buying into what we're trying to teach.
When we break down video, he wants to know what he's doing right, what he's doing wrong and what he can tweak," Morgan added. "He has a thirst for knowledge of baseball and how to get better as a pitcher. Going to help us win some big games, and ultimately, that leads to success down the road with recruiting."
Not only will Saufley help with recruiting players from areas outside of northern Wisconsin, but he could assist in helping create a pipeline to the top recruits in our area.
"We've already been in contact with Worthington's Joe Ahrens," Morgan said. "He's somebody we're very interested in, and we feel he could really help our program."
While the Yellowjackets could help Ahrens take the next step in fulfilling his dreams of playing baseball at the next level, Saufley has the rest of his junior year and a full season as a senior to make strides toward attaining the ultimate goal of becoming a major league pitcher.
Morgan is very confident in Saufley's abilities on mound and believes the Worthington native is close to having what it takes to play in the Bigs.
"He's got the size, the frame and the mentality," Morgan said. "We need to get him involved in our strength and conditioning program to help him increase his velocity. Right now, Justin throws at about 85 (MPH) consistently. He skirts around 88-to-90 at times, and if we can get him to consistently throw at that speed, I honestly believe Justin has a shot at playing at the next level."
While Saufley has stepped on the mound of many different ball fields, his experience at the University of Wisconsin-Superior could be the final step in reaching his field of dreams.