Monday, July 03, 2017

SPORTS STORY >> Guy you want in your program

Leader sports editor

Baseball is a game of idioms and metaphors like “take one for the team” and the all-important “sacrifice”. Both of those take on new meaning for the selfless action of Jacksonville’s Kameron Whitmore.

The recently graduated Titan back catcher took one for the team, and sacrificed his own exposure to college scouts, and therefore his future, by playing that position.

Whitmore, the son of Kevin and Dana Whitmore, did not project as a back catcher at the college-level, but he played it all year for the good of the team.

Though the right thing sometimes takes longer to happen than it seems it should, things did finally work out for Whitmore when he signed a scholarship to play for Eastern Oklahoma State College two weeks ago, but what he did for his high school team won’t soon be forgotten by head coach Larry Burrows.

“It takes a special person to put the team ahead of himself, especially for your whole senior season,” said Burrows. “That’s just the kind of person he is.”

Whitmore started in left field and was the backup catcher last year. As offseason progressed into summer, it began to don on Whitmore that he’d be starting behind the plate.

By the time he was approached by Burrows, he had already made up his mind.

“I knew from the get-go that me playing catcher was going to be best for the team,” said Whitmore. “Coach B was always a fair man. We had a one-on-one talk about that being the spot. I just had to make the sacrifice. It was never a really big deal or a big problem at all.”

The head Titan, though, was not looking forward to broaching the subject.

“I was a little eerie of how that conversation was going to go,” Burrows said. “I didn’t expect him not to do it, but I didn’t know for sure if he was going to embrace it. I just told him, I know you probably don’t want to do it, but if you don’t catch for us, we’re not going to be very good. He said he’d already prepared himself for that, and he gave it everything he had. No doubt it was a huge sacrifice.”

Because scouts weren’t able to watch him play his projected position, Whitmore had to hit the tryout circuit hard. He had received offers from NCAA Division II schools UA-Monticello and Carson-Newman University in Jefferson City, Tenn. He had also been invited to walk-on at Memphis. That’s where he was most interested, until he visited EOSC, a junior college program in Wilburton.

Eastern coach Kirk Kelley has strong Arkansas ties, having been the head coach at Lyon College and an assistant at UCA.

“He said he had heard about me,” Whitmore said of Kelly. “He’s very familiar with Arkansas and said a few coaches had bragged on me. He asked if I wanted to come for a private workout about the end of May. I loved the program. I liked coach Kelley a lot. The workout went good. I didn’t have a direct offer when I left, but I felt pretty sure I was going to get one, just the way he talked and things he said. It seemed like he was trying to recruit me to come there.”

Just a couple days after the workout, Kelley made an official offer. After discussing it with his dad, Whitmore accepted.

“I just felt like, with where I am physically, it would be best to go the JUCO route and try to get stronger and faster,” Whitmore said. “In a couple years, then maybe get another shot at DI, rather than be DII for four years.”

Whitmore led the Titans in batting average, .403, and on-base percentage, .571. He had 91 at-bats and struck out only five times.

“That’s pretty impressive,” Burrows said of the strikeout ratio. “He would have hit even higher if he hadn’t been back there. And the thing about him not being a catcher, he received and blocked on a level with the really good ones I’ve had, just doing the dirty stuff. He did a heck of a job with that.”

Whitmore also suffered an injury mid-season, tearing an LCL during a spring-break tournament and missing two weeks. If there was ever proof that he was a necessary clog for Titan success, it showed in their 0-7 record during his absence.

“Now we played a pretty tough stretch of games while he was out,” Burrows said. “We probably wouldn’t have gone 7-0, but we wouldn’t have been 0-7 either if we’d had him in there. And I’ll be honest, I’m not sure he was 100 percent when he came back.”

Burrows’ suspicions were warranted.

“Honestly, I didn’t like seeing my teammates suffer the way they did,” Whitmore said. “I was probably 90 percent. I felt pretty good, but there were times when I felt like I had to do something, move a certain way or whatever to keep from tweaking it. But it wasn’t that big of a deal.”

Whitmore gives Burrows a lot of the credit for being the team player that he is.

“I have to give coach B a bunch of credit, actually,” Whitmore said. “When I transferred back to Jacksonville my 10th grade year, I had heard about how tough he was. I didn’t really realize how tough until I got into his program. He taught me a lot about just being more mature and playing the game the right way.”

Though his offensive numbers were stellar, coaches had to rely on word of mouth when considering Whitmore for their team. And everyone who asked got an earful from Burrows.

“The coaches I talked to, that’s what I try to tell them,” Burrows began. “What an awesome kid he is to start with. Forget baseball player. for a minute, and just see what kind of young man he is. Beyond that, I think he’s a corner outfielder or second baseman. I think he can handle either of those.

“But the main thing is, he’s just a baseball player. He’s a baseball dude. He’s a team player. He’s going to grind for you. He sacrificed for his teammates. He gutted out an injury for his teammates. That’s a guy I want, and that’s what I told the coaches. ‘This is the kind of guy you want in your program.”