MAHOMET — During his sophomore year at Mahomet-Seymour, Kobe Essien chatted with his parents about the viability of chasing a college baseball career.
Jake Anderson suffered a brutal injury in summer league play separate from the Bulldogs, leaving his next baseball step in doubt.
Yet both guys were slated to be key contributors to coach Nic DiFilippo’s 2020 team. Essien as a right-handed starting pitcher and Anderson as a potential starting third baseman.
“I love Mahomet, and I love the way they take their sports so seriously,” Essien said. “It’s been really good for me to have that mindset growing up.”
A hard-working, gritty approach to baseball got Essien and Anderson to this stage. It allowed both of them to ink with college clubs.
What would it have meant over the course of a complete senior season with the Bulldogs? They won’t get to know, with the coronavirus pandemic halting prep baseball across the state.
A Friday announcement by Gov. J.B. Pritzker in which he shut down all state in-school learning — followed shortly after by an IHSA notice of a Tuesday Board of Directors meeting to decide the fate of 2020’s spring sports — suggests Essien, Anderson and six other M-S seniors won’t have even a single game this spring.
“We were all really excited to finally start getting going,” Anderson said. “It just ended abruptly. It just sucks.”
The paths of Essien and Anderson to a common goal hold plenty of differences.
The 6-foot-2 Quincy University signee Essien didn’t have the confidence required from a high-end starting hurler when he first began playing for the Bulldogs.
“I definitely knew I could throw hard, but I didn’t think much of myself,” Essien said. “I was really wild from the mound, and my batting wasn’t very good.”
Essien was splitting time between the outfield and mound. The M-S coaching staff sat him down after his freshman campaign and suggested picking one single role.
Essien chose pitching.
That didn’t immediately equate to results that might draw college interest.
“I honestly didn’t expect to go anywhere with baseball,” Essien said. “My parents even had a talk with me ... where they were like, ‘Do you really expect to go anywhere with your baseball career?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t think so.’ So I took that whole summer off of travel baseball.”
That didn’t mark the conclusion of Essien’s time on the diamond, though. Instead, he refocused as a junior and started turning heads with a fastball/slider repertoire.
Essien recorded a 1.45 ERA in more than 43 innings pitched and compiled 75 strikeouts.
“My first game last year my junior season ... I remember throwing like 100 and something pitches,” Essien said. “It was eye-opening for my team. They’re like, ‘Oh, he’s changed a little bit. He can pitch now.’”
Essien discovered self-esteem and pitch control on the bump. When he took those elements to a Prep Baseball Report event last summer, Quincy scouts took notice.
While waiting to see when he’ll play baseball again, Essien is riding his bike at least 8 miles every other day and working toward getting his fastball up to 90 mph while also attempting to add an offspeed pitch to his arsenal.
“I just slowly focused on pitching, and I think that’s where I saw my most improvement,” Essien said. “I just found my spots, found my rhythm on the mound, and it really helped me out.”
Anderson, meanwhile, didn’t have much of a junior season.
He missed a large portion of the schedule after undergoing a surgical procedure to remove a cyst on his back.
Hopes of bouncing back took a blow when, during the 2019 summer travel ball circuit, Anderson dislocated his right knee on an awkward swing inside the batter’s box.
“It was a struggle. Really, it was terrible,” Anderson said. “I recovered, and I’m healthy now and I was really looking foward to this season. Now it’s just not happening.”
The Millikin recruit battled through rigorous physical therapy the rest of the summer and found himself able to play baseball again by the fall.
Anderson attended a few Bloomington-based showcases ahead of his last go-round at M-S, not feeling 100 percent but still showing enough to draw the eyes of Millikin coaches. The 5-10 right-hander feels he excels hitting for power in both directions of the field while also manning a notably tough defensive position at third base.
Being able to pursue college baseball despite his past medical issues is a credit to Anderson’s drive — as well as, Anderson said, the benefits of working with DiFilippo and his assistants.
“It’s been great,” Anderson said. “These coaches have done a lot for me and taught me a lot. They’ve always supported me and helped me get to where I am.”
With that considered, M-S’s seniors not being able to give their leaders one final full season of effort is especially tough.
“Once (the pandemic) started getting more serious, we’re like, ‘Man, this is going to suck,’” Essien said, “... and we’ve been bummed out since then.”