Learnard has game, flame
FAIRMOUNT – Luckily for J.D. Learnard, his future college coaches at Illinois State live far enough away where they weren't able to stay on top of every game Salt Fork played toward the end of its record-breaking season.
"I'm sure that's probably a good thing that they weren't able to hear a lot about every game," the Salt Fork senior hurler said.
It's not that Learnard was performing so poorly that his slot as a recruited walk-on was in jeopardy. It's that he was pitching so frequently in the playoffs there might have been concern on Mark Kingston's staff whether the 5-foot-11 right-hander would have anything left once he arrived in Normal for fall practice.
Learnard pitched in all five of the Storm's postseason games, recording a decision in each of the first four (three wins, one save) before bowing out to North Fulton in the super-sectional.
"He's gutty," Salt Fork coach Gary Hansgen said after that game. "If there's anybody I've ever had who wants the ball more than him, I have not found him. I can't think of anyone. He's been something for us."
"Sometimes, it's just hard to let go of the ball," Learnard said.
Learnard's run through the postseason was memorable, as was everything else he did throughout his final high school baseball season. Learnard, The News-Gazette's All-Area Baseball Player of the Year, finished with a 10-2 record as the ace of the Storm's staff. He had a 2.30 ERA and struck out an area-high 127 hitters in 76 innings.
"There was a lot of hype around him, and he certainly lived up to it," said Tuscola coach Ryan Tabeling, whose team lost the sectional title game to Learnard and the Storm.
But it wasn't just on the mound where Learnard wowed the Storm faithful and the opposition. As the second baseman and No. 3 hitter, he hit .448 with 10 doubles, three homers and 24 RBI.
"He's just a good athlete, always has been," Learnard's teammate and cousin Joel Learnard said. "There isn't a lot he can't do out there."
Pop in his pitches
J.D. Learnard's physical talents are evident to anyone who has seen him pop the glove with one of his 88 mph fastballs or lace a double off the wall in the gap. But there's more to Learnard than being a gifted athlete.
He's a leader. He did it in the fall while quarterbacking the Storm's football team to a berth in the Class 1A state semifinals. And he did it this spring during the baseball team's deep postseason run.
"From the time I started playing football, from the first or second game I was quarterback. I like to be in control and have control in sports and things," Learnard said. "The leadership role that myself and the other seniors took on this year, it really worked out. The group of seniors we had was great, and it's been a lot of fun to do it with them."
"He's basically our energizer whenever we have a bad inning or something," Joel Learnard said. "He's always the first one to pump us up and keep our confidence up."
As a leader, he realized he wasn't going to be able to blow fastballs by hitters to be successful for his team. He had to become a pitcher, so he went out and learned a new pitch in an unconventional manner.
"I went on YouTube and looked up and learned how to throw a slider," Learnard said. "I knew I needed another pitch, so I watched the video a few times and now it's one of my favorite pitches."
And for as good as he has been during his prep career, there is still room for Learnard to grow.
"I'm still learning what to do, how to pitch to different hitters," Learnard said. "You can't approach every hitter the same way. You have to know what pitches to throw to what guys and when. All that stuff is still coming to me."
Tabeling, who was a standout during his prep career at Champaign Central and later at Parkland, doesn't doubt that Learnard will be successful at the next level.
"He was able to place and spot his offspeed pitches really well, and that was probably the most impressive thing about him," the Tuscola coach said. "He's got a high upside. With such good velocity at that age and being able to spot those other pitches kind of sets him apart."
He'll take his new breaking ball and the rest of his talents to Illinois State, where he goes from being the big man on campus to just another freshman. It's a challenge he's looking forward to facing.
"It's going to be weird, but I think it's also good to be a little guy in a big pond," said Learnard, who turned down a scholarship offer from Eastern Illinois to become a Redbird. "You just have to work hard and don't be complacent, and that's one of the things I haven't done and I hope I don't get that way."
What's also different is that for the first time in a long time, he'll be the only Learnard listed on his baseball team's roster. This year he had Joel. The years before that he had older cousin Morgan Learnard. And before that all the Learnards played youth baseball together.
"It was really cool to look on that lineup card and see three Learnards," J.D. said. "You're so close to your team but it's just totally different because you're family, and to go out there and do some of the stuff we've done the past couple of years was pretty fun."
The 6-foot-6 Joel Learnard passed big cousin J.D. in size a while back. But no matter the height difference, he looks up to him as a role model.
"He's a great person to look up to," Joel Learnard said. "I think watching him and how he handles situations helps me. He's taught me a lot. I'm going to miss playing with him."
The folks who follow the Storm are going to miss him, too.
PLAYER SCHOOL YR POS. COACH
Timmie Johnson Champaign Central Sr. Inf. John Staab
Kurtis Kinyoun Tuscola Sr. C Ryan Tabeling
Dane Krone St. Thomas More Sr. Utility Steve Rear
J.D. Learnard Salt Fork Sr. P/POY Gary Hansgen
Joel Learnard Salt Fork So. DH Gary Hansgen
Brady Leeman Oakwood Sr. P Bob Sermak
Don McDuffee Centennial Sr. OF Kyle Herges
Dylan Overstreet Paxton-Buckley-Loda So. Inf. Rick Johnson
Joe Parkhill St. Thomas More Sr. OF Steve Rear
Josh Raymond Mahomet-Seymour Jr. Inf. Nic DiFilippo
Bob Schroeder Mahomet-Seymour Sr. OF Nic DiFilippo
Eric VonQualen Centennial Sr. Inf. Kyle Herges
Drew Watts Watseka Sr. P Darin Hartman
PLAYER SCHOOL YR POS. COACH
Brad Collins Salt Fork Sr. DH Gary Hansgen
Doug Kyrouac Champaign Central Jr. Utility John Staab
Jamie LeRoy Paxton-Buckley-Loda Sr. OF Rick Johnson
T.J. Lutz Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley Sr. P Dustin White
Vinnie Miller Schlarman Sr. OF Jason Woodworth
Drew Minton Cerro Gordo Sr. Inf. Andy Flenner
Mark Pataky Champaign Central Sr. Inf. John Staab
Ben Rogel St. Joseph-Ogden Sr. OF Brad Allen
Trey Russell Urbana Jr. Inf. Steve Waller
Chadd Snyder Danville Sr. Inf. Gary Gritton
Logan Vance Danville Sr. C Gary Gritton
Seth Woods Watseka Sr. P Darin Hartman