Tuesday, May 21, 2013

SPORTS STORY >> Striving for recognition

Leader sports editor

He’s probably the best player no one has heard of. He led the 5A Central in home runs and had the league’s highest batting average, but while many other players are signing letters of intent, or at least getting attention from college coaches, North Pulaski’s Austin Allen continues to toil in relative obscurity, despite his grand statistics.

Allen finished the season batting .646 with six home runs while playing centerfield for the Falcons. He recorded nine doubles, three triples, 22 runs batted in and stole 13 bases. He hit .680 in the most top-heavy conference in the state.

He was named All-Conference the last two years and All-State this season. He was also selected to the All-Star team, made up entirely of college signees.

“He’s had a phenomenal season,” North Pulaski baseball coach Michael Dean said. “I don’t understand why he hasn’t gotten much attention. In my opinion, he could go and help any college baseball team. He’s the best hitter I’ve seen in our league, and we’ve got some great players in our conference. He got a few home runs early and he started swinging for the fences too much instead of using the approach that got him those home runs. So he could’ve been even better. He’s going to be a steal for whatever coach finally decided to take him. And he’s still not fully recovered from his football injury.”

Dean, who is also a football assistant, was on hand in preseason practice when a loud pop halted practice and the standout senior went down with a tear to the anterior cruciate ligament. Allen had played wide receiver the two previous years for the Falcon football team, but an experiment by second-year coach Teodis Ingram showed that Allen moved the offense better than any of the underclassmen he was trying out at quarterback.

Optimism was running high for the historically losing program in Ingram’s second year. Ingram was well aware that Allen didn’t know the position very well, but said the senior had something that seemed to be working.

“He’s a senior that just has better command of the huddle,” Ingram said in the summer when he decided his experiment of Allen at quarterback was now a policy. “He doesn’t throw the best ball, but he’s fast and by far the strongest of the bunch. And he just has a confidence we’ve been lacking from the sophomores we’re trying out. The offense just seems to move better with him out there.”

That quote was a week before the ACL tear. It sidelined Allen the whole football season, but not as long as most similar injuries sideline players.

Allen’s injury usually puts a player out of commission for nine months to a year. Allen was back in seven months working out with the baseball team. He was cleared to play, but was warned that he wasn’t 100 percent and told that his decision to play baseball instead of continuing therapy may delay a full recovery.

Allen, an avid lover of baseball who sees it as his ticket to bigger and better things, decided to play.

“I love playing baseball and I want to take it as far as I possibly can,” Allen said. “I want to be an example to other kids who play at North Pulaski that you can make it out of there and be successful as a baseball player. There was no way I wasn’t going to play. I knew I had to play to get a chance at taking it to the next level.”

As late in the recruiting process as it is, Allen knows his best route now is junior college, but he doesn’t mind that. He believes he has the ability to parlay that into a four-year school in two years.

“Right now I just want the chance to show that I can be good enough to make it,” Allen said. “I think part of the reason I haven’t been getting much attention is that (college) coaches don’t bother watching North Pulaski. And that’s a shame because we have some good players. I think some of it is my injury, but I know I can get through this.”

Allen plans to play showcase ball as well as senior American Legion ball with Jacksonville’s Gwatney Chevrolet team. He thought about only playing showcase, but a new rule allows American Legion players to participate in two leagues. Plus he wants to stay loyal to Jacksonville coach Bob Hickingbotham.

“The guy has been around so long and knows so much about baseball,” Allen said of Hickingbotham. “You learn a lot from just being around him and just listening to him. You pick up things when he’s not even trying to coach you, just talking.”

Allen sees Hickingbotham as more than a coach too. He admires the 78-year-old who’s been coaching for 63 years.

“The man fights skin cancer to stand out there in the sun and coach us,” Allen said. “How can you not admire that? He’s a great guy.”

Hickingbotham recognized Allen’s talent when he was very young, and moved him up to play with his senior team when he was only 15 years old.

Most of that team was made up of players off Jacksonville High School’s 2010 state championship squad.

Hickingbotham says he wishes he could’ve left Allen on the junior team, but needed more players on the senior team and Allen was the most physically ready.

“That group was tough to deal with, and Austin got in with them and started acting like them,” Hickingbotham said. “He got a little cocky playing up there with those older boys. He was a little better last year. I think that injury and all the work that took to come back hopefully helped him some. You have to know how to go to work to get back from something like that. There’s no doubt he can be a player, but he has to take it more seriously than he has been. It’s come easy for him so far, but he’s going to learn you have to commit and work at baseball to keep moving up the ladder.”

Allen says he’s ready for that commitment.

“I’m going to work as hard as I can,” Allen said. “This is what I’m good at. This is my ticket. I’m playing two leagues to try to get more exposure. I want that scholarship so bad. I just need someone to give me a chance.”