Photo by Bill Roseberry
Alton senior Sam Ballard recently signed a letter of intent to play baseball for the University of Illinois Chicago. A small press conference was conducted at AHS on April 20. Pictured from left to right are: Brett Ballard, father, Amy Ballard, sister, Sloane Ballard, mother, Sam Ballard and Alton baseball coach Todd Haug.
Sam Ballard’s rise within the Alton Redbird baseball program has been swift and impactful.
The 5-foot-11, 190-pound lefty went from pitching less-meaningful games in non-conference affairs as a junior to moving toward the top of the Alton rotation for his senior campaign.
His ascension has caught more than just the eye of the Redbirds’ brass, too. Recently Ballard inked his name on a letter of intent to continue his pitching career at the University of Illinois-Chicago, a Division I program in the Horizon League.
He’s happy his evolution as a pitcher has led him down a promising path. He thinks the Flames make the perfect vehicle to travel that path.
“This is one of the biggest things I’ve done so far in my life,” Ballard said. “It’s really exciting and it’s good to know all the work has worked out in the end and I’ve found a spot to play. I love the location (of UIC), the coaching stuff is just awesome and they’re very competitive — that was another big reason. They’re just the perfect distance away from home, too.”
The Flames were 29-22-1 in 2015 and entering this week owned a 17-21 record in ‘16.
AHS head coach Todd Haug believes it will be a great fit for Ballard and with his quick elevation in his game, the sky’s the limit for him.
“He’s a true self-made man, a tremendous athlete with a lot of untapped potential,” Haug said. “We figure he’s going to blossom even further once he gets to the collegiate ranks. If he makes a jump from age 19 to 20 like he has from 16 to 17 to 18, just look out. He’s got tremendous stuff on the mound and really when he becomes a full-time pitcher and gets into it on a year-round basis in their program, I expect nothing but outstanding things from him.”
As a junior, Ballard went 3-0 with a 2.25 ERA in just 18.2 innings pitched. He only had two starts, mainly working out of the bullpen.
This season, he entered the week with a 2-2 mark and a 3.79 ERA in 20.1 innings pitched already. He’s got four starts under his belt with quite a bit of season left on the schedule.
A bump in his velocity on the mound helped him become a more premiere pitcher and coveted recruit.
“He worked very hard in his summer programs with coach Brett Huber,” Haug said. “I think sometimes you see infomercials that say, ‘Guaranteed to make you throw harder.’ And I’m not sure it always works, but whatever system he’s on and routine he’s developed, it has added quite a bit of velocity. He’s gone from a kid who routinely pitched 80-83 mph to a kid that has topped out at 92 this year for us. He’s still managing his control and working on that, but also a hard off-speed pitch and a developing change-up as well. Those are all things he’s going to take with him up to Chicago.”
Ballard said his evolution has been very eye-opening for him and injected him with a boost of confidence in his abilities.
“At the end of last season, I realized if I want to have a future playing the game in college I was going to have to work on it,” he said. “I spent all summer and winter working on it to get better and I realized I could be a big part of our team this year. I worked really hard and my velocity went up and I just grew as a person and it all worked out.
“I trained with the St. Louis Pirates and put on about 15 pounds. That helped a lot, just from working out a ton. Brett Huber saw me at a tournament, thought he could make me better and it worked out.”
Ballard said he’s learned a lot just from being in the Alton program, too. He’s watched as players before him have made the jump to the Division I level and beyond.
Former Alton catcher Brent Gibbs is at USC, while outfielder Matt Hopkins plays for Air Force and fellow southpaw pitcher Bryan Hudson is excelling in the minor leagues of the Chicago Cubs organization. Fellow senior pitcher Nick Cauley will join Ballard in the D-I ranks too, as he already signed with Northwestern.
“Alton’s my home and it’s nice going out there and playing baseball for your hometown,” Ballard said. “If you grew up here it’s pretty much everything. Alton has become a baseball school. It’s been awesome from when I was a freshman seeing Brent Gibbs and those type guys play. I always wanted to be like them and put on the varsity jersey and do good. It’s what I worked toward.
“And (coach Haug) has just taught me the rules of how you’re supposed to go about being a baseball player at the next level, how you’re supposed to act and everything about it.”
Haug admitted being left-handed hasn’t hurt Ballard’s rise either.
“He’s pitching from the correct side and he goes about his business in a way where I’d call him a ferocious competitor,” Haug said. “It’s so much that in some ways we have to pull him back and calm him down because he wants to succeed so passionately. He’s fully invested, both feet all the way in.”
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