PULASKI, Va. — Crayton Burnett could have done things differently. At numerous junctures.
Maybe he doesn’t attend some of the youth camps put on by coach Josh Haley’s St. Joseph-Ogden baseball team. Doesn’t show up to watch some of the Spartans’ big games prior to reaching high school himself.
Perhaps he decides to work entirely on his own after the COVID-19 pandemic derailed his junior season at SJ-O. Shirks a spot with Wisconsin-based Hitters Baseball. Turns away from repetitions with Champaign trainer Joe Yager.
And maybe he opts to stay in St. Joseph this summer despite learning of an available roster spot with the Appalachian League’s Pulaski River Turtles.
Burnett ultimately committed to all of these baseball opportunities. It’s no surprise to those around Burnett.
“He took advantage of every opportunity he had,” Haley said. “He just wants to get better all the time. He’s not satisfied.”
“This kid is always looking and searching for the next challenge,” Yager added. “I just think the more opportunities he gets, the more he’s going to be successful.”
The News-Gazette’s 2021 All-Area baseball Player of the Year ended his high school career with a highly successful nine weeks.
The right-handed Illinois signee compiled a 10-1 record, 0.70 earned run average and 133 strikeouts against just four walks across 69 2/3 innings pitched for a 33-3 SJ-O team. Burnett added one no-hitter and six shutouts on the mound — tying a single-season school record in the latter statistic — and also chipped in a pair of saves.
Burnett wasn’t too shabby with a bat in his hands, either, hitting .324 with four home runs, nine doubles, 24 walks, 33 RBI and 29 runs scored. He stole 10 bases and was hit by 10 pitches for good measure. The Spartans reached a Class 2A super-sectional because of the efforts of so many athletes.
The two-time All-Area first-teamer Burnett tops the list.
“It was a really fun season,” Burnett said. “I just can’t thank my coaches enough, and the players behind me who make plays. The pitch calling from Coach Haley and Coby Miller behind the plate — we all just had a good feel for the game and what was going on and just worked together.”
Though Burnett got into baseball around age 4 or 5, he formed his first pitching memories a little later.
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Parents Chad and Brandi first put a baseball in his hand “before I was even walking,” according to Burnett. It took more time for Burnett to toe the rubber on a regular basis, starting at age 8 or 9.
Burnett credits his parents for committing abundant time into his burgeoning baseball career early on. Burnett said he also benefited from lessons taught by Greg Immke — who owns local training facility The Shed and is the father of 2021 All-Area first-teamer Isaiah Immke — and former Illini Matt Cervantes.
“I just remember the joy that I had when I was on the mound,” Burnett said. “When I was able to pitch and throw strikes, I always enjoyed that the most.”
Getting the ball over the plate tends to be more important at a younger age than developing multiple pitches or ample movement on throws. At least as it pertains to recording outs.
Burnett recognized that.
“I never really threw super good when I was younger,” Burnett said. “Throwing strikes came somewhat easy, but obviously I had to work hard at it.”
A 12-year-old Burnett was playing for local travel program Team Select when he crafted one of his earliest pitching gems.
“It was (against) a team out of Missouri in a tournament. That was a pretty good team,” Burnett said. “I threw five no-hit innings and then gave up a hit in the sixth. That’s the first time I had a no-hitter that long.”
Soon afterward, Burnett began experimenting with a curveball and change-up. He saw other successful hurlers of a similar age beginning to toss such pitches, so he knew he had to adapt.
“Those pitches are definitely a work in progress. It takes a while to pick up pitches, and it’s a lot of practice to pick them up,” Burnett said. “You just don’t want to change your mechanics for any pitch. Just keep everything the same, which will save your arm and prevent injuries.”
Despite saying his offspeed pitches still are being developed, Burnett feels comfortable throwing both along with his fastball. And he added that, if he had to pick one pitch on the spot, he’d go with his change-up to induce an out.
“I really found a good feel for it last fall,” Burnett said, “and I’ve got a good feel for that pitch right now.”
Haley said Burnett works off his fastball by getting ahead in the count early with it, allowing him to burn opponents with the slower stuff.
And, unlike when he was younger, Burnett works plenty with pitch movement.
“Nothing he throws is straight,” Haley said. “He sinks it. He can slide it. Every fastball that comes in there, it’s not just a straight, four-seam fastball. It’s a lot harder to hit a fastball with movement. That’s why he’s been barreled up very few times.”
Haley echoed Burnett’s sentiment about the change-up, as well.
“His change-up changes planes, and that’s what’s become so dangerous,” Haley said. “That change-up’s going to be a big pitch for him.”
Haley wasn’t thinking about Burnett’s potential to throw a change-up when Burnett started appearing at SJ-O’s camps as a grade-schooler.
“As a kid, he was always around,” Haley said. “His family always brought him to the games. You could tell at a young age he was a kid who was soaking it all in and was going to be able to compete at a high level.”
Burnett said Haley and his staff “do a great job developing players,” adding that he learned well before ninth grade what it would take to represent a Spartans program that has experienced plenty of winning since Haley began leading it in 2012.
“I didn’t really set any expectations for myself before high school. But I grew up watching the Dalton Parkers, the Hunter Harts, the Cole Berrys — a lot of great pitchers that have gone through St. Joe,” Burnett said. All three of those athletes went on to play Division I baseball. “You just want to be one of those guys and help your team win.”
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A Spartans game that especially stands out to Burnett before his prep playing days occurred in 2016 is when SJ-O romped past Beardstown 11-0 in a Class 2A super-sectional at Lincoln Land Community College.
Naturally, Burnett remembers it more for the pitching than the hitting.
“(Colton Carr) went seven innings, and he was just painting (corners) all game,” Burnett said. “Just making pitches, and that was really fun to watch.”
Burnett’s arrival on SJ-O’s varsity roster during his freshman season of 2018 had Haley pondering a bright future. Burnett recorded a 2.53 ERA and 20 strikeouts in nearly 20 innings pitched and hit .323 with 28 RBI at the dish.
“We were picking spots where he could be successful, because he was throwing out of the pen,” Haley said. One of those came against a Teutopolis team that would go on to place second in Class 2A. “We started to see the potential as a freshman. His sophomore year, that’s when he had to be a guy.”
Burnett met that demand by turning in a stellar 0.40 ERA and 96 strikeouts over almost 70 innings pitched, adding a .351 batting average and 34 RBI to earn his first N-G All-Area first-team honor.
Then came Burnett’s partnership with Yager and the Perform Every Day athletic training facility in Champaign.
Countless star athletes have come through Yager’s building. N-G All-Area volleyball Players of the Year Allie Trame and Mira Chopra are among them. So too are a bevy of now-professional baseball players who previously played at Champaign Central or Centennial — guys like Tanner Gordon, Alec Barger, Joe Aeilts and Jeff Lindgren.
“Jeff and him developed a great relationship,” Yager said. Lindgren currently pitches for the Class AA Pensacola Blue Wahoos in the Miami Marlins’ farm system. “I attribute the credit ... to our entire room. I think when you get that many people all in there trying to be great, they all feed off each other.”
Burnett said he and Yager uncovered flaws in Burnett’s pitching mechanics.
“He helped me a lot with that, and just mobility and strength,” Burnett said. “And he helped with the mindset, a lot, of going in there and being the best version of yourself and not trying to be anyone else.”
Yager said Burnett “took ownership” of the direction provided by Yager and the OnBase University training program that Perform Every Day utilizes.
“He can turn the page so quickly,” Yager said. “He can take one pitch and no matter the outcome he’s on to the next pitch, and he can execute. ... He has one of the best mindsets of any kid I’ve ever coached.”
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The COVID-19 pandemic prevented Burnett from showing off the results of the offseason work he conducted between his sophomore and junior seasons. But it didn’t stop Burnett from putting even more time into baseball.
“I had a lot more time to work out and train and work on my craft for pitching,” Burnett said. “And then I was able to get on the Hitters team last fall, and that really helped.”
Burnett’s friendship with Tyler McClure, a Centennial Class of 2021 product who will play baseball at Kaskaskia College, led to that opportunity with Hitters Baseball in Wisconsin between August and October of 2020.
“I got to try out, and I made it as a pitcher only,” Burnett said. “It was really helpful just to be able to get on the mound and not have a whole year off of pitching and get innings at an especially high level.”
And Burnett ultimately didn’t have to worry about losing his senior season at SJ-O. The Spartans contested the area’s busiest schedule and regularly played five games in a week — if not more.
Haley recalls an April 27 victory at Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley when considering Burnett’s most impressive pitching performances this spring. It contained an immaculate inning — nine strikes resulting in three strikeouts — though Haley added that Burnett “had a couple of those this year.”
“He was so electric that game against GCMS,” Haley said. “It didn’t matter what I called. He was throwing it. Both sides of the plate, all three pitches were rolling. That was one of the most electric starts I’ve seen in my last 10 years.”
Haley also highlighted Burnett’s involvement in a Class 2A regional semifinal win versus Marshall on June 4. Haley wanted Burnett to pitch in the regional final against Oakwood three days later, as well, but Haley also knew he needed to keep Burnett below a certain pitch count in the semifinal for that to happen.
“He went out there (in his last of four innings) and threw nine pitches and got three outs,” Haley said.
Burnett appreciated SJ-O’s eight-inning triumph at Teutopolis, by a 10-7 margin on April 23, for its back-and-forth nature. But he doesn’t feel any one of his pitching performances — not even his May 8 no-hitter against St. Teresa — stands out more than another.
“I hope I set a good example for kids coming into high school,” Burnett said, “and I just hope that kids will strive to be great coming in and help the team win.”
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Burnett verbally committed to Dan Hartleb’s Illinois baseball program in October 2020, and he signed his National Letter of Intent last May. Burnett actually started hearing from the Illini while playing for Hitters Baseball.
Before arriving in Champaign-Urbana, Burnett was content to spend this summer competing for the Decatur Commodores travel club.
Then, Illinois pitching coach Mark Allen reached out to Burnett with an offer Burnett couldn’t refuse.
The chance to pitch for the Pulaski River Turtles in the Appalachian League, a wood-bat summer organization for college athletes that operates out of North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.
“He texted all the freshman incoming pitchers (at Illinois), ‘If you wanted to take this opportunity to go down here and play, you could,’” Burnett said. “It really wasn’t an opportunity I could’ve passed up. This would be a great experience, going in and playing against people with a lot more experience and who are a lot older and already have college experience.”
Pulaski, Va., is about one hour north of the North Carolina border. Burnett arrived on July 8 in the town with a population of close to 9,000, roughly double that of St. Joseph. He’s been staying in a hotel room with fellow incoming Illinois pitcher Ben Plumley.
Entering this past Wednesday’s action, Burnett owned an 0-1 record with a 2.70 ERA and five strikeouts in 3 1/3 innings over two appearances. He’s allowed five runs, though only one of those was earned.
“Every day is enjoyable,” Burnett said. “The locker room, everybody’s just having fun, and it’s just a fun environment to play in.”
Burnett said travel hasn’t been too cumbersome, with a longest trip of 2 hours and 45 minutes. And he’s gotten to connect with athletes who come from far different backgrounds.
“There’s people from New York. There’s three Oklahoma State players. We’ve got kids from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic,” Burnett said. “It’s really cool just to get to know guys from nowhere near where I live.”
Pulaski’s regular season ends Aug. 7, with the league championship scheduled to transpire two days later. The River Turtles, as of last Wednesday morning, led the East Division by 2 games over the Princeton WhistlePigs.
“I just want to get the experience of pitching against college-level hitters, where your mistakes are going to show up a lot more,” Burnett said, “and just learn from your mistakes and just realize you’re not going to get away with some of the pitches you did in high school.”
Burnett’s relentless approach to improvement on the diamond is something that no doubt pleases Hartleb and his staff.
What sort of opportunities Burnett attempts to capitalize on next remain to be seen. But he’s carrying plenty of promise to the next level.
“He’s always looking for adversity,” Yager said. “... because he realizes what he needs to get better.”