Friday, July 27, 2012

SPORTS STORY >> Family ties key to Eller’s success

Leader sportswriter

Conner Eller was not about to be the brother who dropped the ball.

As the youngest of four brothers, Eller had the pressure of living up to the standards of his older siblings, all of whom reached the college baseball ranks. The outlook was not encouraging for Connor, however, as an underclassman with limited playing time for the Sylvan Hills High School team and the summertime Bruins American Legion team.

But his senior year brought a new determination for Eller, who participated in a stringent pitching program under longtime Legion coach Mike Bromley in the fall, and had a breakout season for the Denny Tipton-coached Bears team the following spring as a result.

That new-found panache has carried over into the summer, and Connor has become the go-to guy on the mound and in the infield for the Bruins Legion team this summer.

In carrying on the tradition of success in his baseball-savvy family, he will begin his college baseball career this fall at Crowder Junior College in Neosho, Mo.

“My sophomore and junior years I worked hard, but I knew there was more to it,” Eller said. “So my senior year in the fall, coach Bromley had this throwing program, and I did that for like 10 or 12 weeks. I really worked on core and legs, and focused on being more of a pitcher. I believed in myself and had confidence, and just went out there and did what I could.”

Eller’s hard work paid off and he became the ace pitcher for Tipton as a senior. He earned all conference and all state honors, and was named the 5A Southeast Conference pitcher of the year for 2012. He also made the 5A state-tournament team and appeared in the All-Metro All Star game at the end of the season.

The family connection reached a peak for Connor this summer as oldest brother Brandon took over the helm of the Bruins senior Legion team as head coach.

“Conner has been one of our best pitchers just like in high school,” Brandon Eller said. “He’s hit well for us – laid bunts down and got base hits. He’s been a team leader for us.

“One of the biggest things he’s done, he played first base in high school, but we had three infielders not play Legion this summer, so Connor has played second and shortstop most of the summer. That’s been a good surprise for us. We didn’t know who would fill in the middle, and he’s played both of them very well.”

Older brothers Garrett and Nathan chose Henderson State University to play college baseball, and Connor had the opportunity to join them with an offer from the Reddies’ program following his senior year, but a two-year school fit the bill better for him with hopes of someday attending Arkansas State University just as Brandon had.

“I went on a visit up there,” Eller said of Crowder. “They asked me to come throw for them. I threw a 15-pitch bullpen, and they took me on a tour. After a while, I decided I wanted to go to ASU, but it wasn’t going to work out for me to go right out of high school. I got an opportunity with Crowder, and they liked what they saw. It’s the best opportunity for me.”

Connor’s classroom efforts also served as a springboard for college opportunities with a perfect 4.0 GPA. He earned salutatorian of his graduating class behind Jeremiah Persson, another college-level athlete in soccer.

On the mound, Eller quickly rose to the top of the Bears’ pitching staff his senior year, compiling an 8-2 record including one save. He pitched a total of 61 innings and had 76 strikeouts against 20 base on balls, giving up 15 earned runs for an earned-run average of 1.72.

“Connor had an excellent senior year,” Tipton said. “As a sophomore, he didn’t play all that much, and really as a junior – toward the end of that season he saw a little more playing time. He is definitely an example of someone who was willing to work hard and put in the time and effort in order to improve. He wanted to prove he had what it took to himself, and to others.”

Eller also improved at the plate with a .298 batting average. He had 21 RBI and eight doubles with a total of 23 hits, and had a strong .437 on-base average.

“He’s just a great kid,” Tipton said. “Connor is definitely that young man who does the right thing on the field and off the field. He excels in the classroom and even in his church; he always does a lot to help out there.”

His high-school career ended on somewhat of a down note as the Bears were upset by Nettleton in the first round of the 5A state tournament in early May, but Connor and his Bruin teammates have made up for the disappointment with a strong run this summer during the Legion regular season and recent zone tournament, earning a trip to the state tournament. There is talk of a rule change in American Legion that would prevent college players from participating, and though Connor will still be within the age requirements to play Legion, the potential new rule would deem him ineligible. That situation has served as further motivation this summer.

“I want to win – I want to keep playing (with the Legion), because this could be my last year at Sylvan Hills,” Eller said. “It depends on next year, how Legion goes, or if I play somewhere else.”

Connor has come a long way since the days of sitting in the stands and watching his brothers play. It was those times as a kid that inspired him to want to become a part of what his older brothers help build.

“It was a cool feeling, because instead of watching Sylvan Hills, I was playing for Sylvan Hills,” Eller said. “I actually got to be a part of the tradition and the program. It’s a great feeling; I’m definitely going to miss all of that.”

Connor’s transformation has also been special to older brother Brandon, who is pleased to have had a hand in his development.

“It’s awesome watching him grow up,” Brandon Eller said. “Watching him get a chance to play college ball is great – I’m proud of him. He came from not playing a whole lot his junior year to this year where he was our ace. He’s also been one of our top guys this summer. I’m proud watching him play.

“It’s a lot of fun coaching him as a brother. Sometimes there’s a little conflict there, because we go home, and he wants to add some input on what goes on, but it’s great.”