ALTON — The idea is inconceivable now, but Drake Hampton almost stepped away from the game of baseball this spring.
It's a good thing he didn't, because now the 2015 Alton High grad is continuing his career with a top-flight junior college program at Wabash Valley College in Mount Carmel.
Hampton was a key cog in helping the Redbirds (30-7) set a school-record in wins, as well as the Metro East Bears (31-7), which share sponsorship with Alton American Legion Post 126 and Edwardsville Post 199, set a new benchmark in victories.
But as the AHS season was winding down, Hampton was ready to hang up his cleats and shelve his glove for good. On June 1 that all changed. As the Redbirds saw their magical season conclude in a 5-2 loss to the Edwardsville Tigers in the Class 4A Edwardsville Regional finals, something clicked with Hampton and he snapped out of an almost regrettable decision.
“It all started when we played Edwardsville back in the regional, I wasn't planning on playing college baseball,” Hampton said. “I was planning on going to Missouri State just for my education. After that loss I realized my baseball career was over and I wasn't going to play summer ball either. I wasn't even going to play for the Bears, but after that loss it just hit me in a certain way that I just didn't want to stop playing. I figured this is what I really love to do and I want to stick with it as long as I can.”
As Hampton talked about his decision to go to Wabash Valley and reminisced about his prep career right after picking up a walk-off RBI single in a Great Lakes Regional win for the Bears on Aug. 7, he couldn't imagine not playing the game he loves.
“I don't even want to think about that,” Hampton said. “I don't know what I was thinking to not want to play baseball. I've played it ever since I could pick up a bat, pick up a ball, it's always been something I've done.”
Alton head coach Todd Haug alluded to his growth and success in the game cultivating that desire to continue and see where baseball can take him.
“His mindset changes have come with success and success has come with the hard work,” Haug said. “Quite honestly when we coached him as a junior at Alton High — he was always a good athlete — but to say he had the ability to go on and play college baseball, that was still very much up in the air. He worked incredibly hard between his junior and senior years and did have some success on the field as a senior and with success and personal growth you start to wonder, 'What more can I do?'”
He's picked a great stage to see what he can do. Wabash Valley head coach Rob Fournier has 18 straight winning seasons, 12 40-plus win seasons, has been ranked in the top 25 nationally for 11 straight years and has sent numerous players to the next level, including seeing 60 players get drafted or signed professionally since 1997.
“It's a tremendous opportunity,” Haug said. “They are an elite JUCO program that kind of serves as a pipeline into the Southeastern Conference. They send a tremendous amount of players into Division I baseball. There's no reason to believe that on the current path that Drake is on that that won't be the case for him in a few years with hard work.”
Hampton was put on Wabash Valley's radar after EHS shortstop Jordan Hovey rescinded going there in favor of Division I Missouri State. Hovey and Hampton were teammates this summer on the Bears and the move opened the door for Hampton to show he was capable of filling the empty slot.
“It all happened last minute,” Hampton said. “I played for the Bears and then (Jordan) Hovey moved to Missouri State so there was an open spot and Wabash came to Nick Smith and he talked to them about me. They came out to watch and said I should come up for a visit sometime. I visited twice, the last one was my official visit.
“I've heard a lot of good things about them just from Jordan originally going there and coach Smith played for coach Fournier and he has nothing but good words to say about him,” Hampton said. “I've just always heard that their program has been tops in the nation.”
WVC will be getting a versatile player in Hampton. As a junior he patrolled the outfield for Alton, but as a senior he worked third base and shortstop and even worked on the hill with success. He did the same for the Bears during the summer.
“Wabash loves his versatility,” Haug said. “He's really one of those that with the growth he's made in a year coming from a good high school baseball program and a very tough high school conference, so you know he's going to be willing to compete and do what it takes, so they truly believe his best baseball is in front of him. He's going to put on more weight, though he's strong as an ox, and he's going to continue to push himself.”
During his senior season with the Redbirds Hampton compiled a .345 batting average, tied for the team lead in doubles with 14, smacked five triples and drove in 24 runs.
He followed that up with a solid summer for Metro East, hitting .340 with seven doubles, six triples, 21 RBIs and a team leading 24 stolen bases.
The plan is for Hampton to come in as an infielder and that's fine with him, that's where he feels most comfortable.
“They are taking me as an infielder, but you never know what can happen,” Hampton said. “There could be some serious competition there where I may have to move to the outfield, I don't know. It definitely helps (being versatile). I'm going to try to go where there's less competition and I can beat out somebody for a spot.
“Personally I'd rather play as an infielder over a pitcher. They recruited me as a shortstop, but we'll see.”
Hampton knows he'll take a plethora of baseball knowledge with him to college. He owes an awful lot to his time with the Redbirds and he won't soon forget it.
“I'm going to miss everything about it. I love coming out here to Hopkins Field and playing, it's one of my favorite things I've ever done,” said Hampton. “The Alton program has been awesome for me the last four years.
“I think I've learned everything I know today about how to play the game (from Alton), everything.”
His coach will miss him, too.
“While we move on from a baseball standpoint, I'm going to miss our friendship,” Haug said. “He's a very mature young man. He grew up right in front of our eyes and became a team leader. But in general, his ability to converse with adults and take the leadership role, that's what we're going to miss.”