TERRE HAUTE —
Several freshman baseball and softball NCAA Division I players from the Wabash Valley have already made immediate impacts at their new schools, while others are waiting for their turns to shine.
A complete update of all the diamond sports participants will be coming in late March, but some of the early highlights among the DI newcomers are:
• Cody Gardner, Terre Haute North/Wright State — Gardner has started all three games for the Raiders so far, two in left field and one at designated hitter. He is second on the team in hitting at .500 (4 for 8) and has scored one run with two RBIs.
Gardner batted sixth in the order in the team’s first two games against Temple and LaSalle and hit fifth in Monday’s win over Dayton. The Raiders will be taking to the road the next two weekends, with three-game series at Clemson and UCLA.
• Haley Chambers, Riverton Parke-Cascade/SIU-Edwardsville — Chambers has been the starting pitcher in three of the first four games for the Cougars and has a 2-1 record with two complete games. She has struck out 28 batters and walked just three in 23.1 innings of work.
• Brooke Boetjer, South Putnam/Indiana — She’s started one game for the Hoosiers and has pitched seven total innings. She’s struck out four batters and walked two with a 9.00 earned-run average.
• Connor Strain, North Central/Evansville — Has made one relief appearance in three games for the Aces, walking two batters and striking two out without allowing a run.
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• Akers has high goals — Northview grad Austin Akers was one of five players honored at the Eastern Illinois men’s basketball Senior Night on Saturday, with a strong contingent of 25 friends, fans and family members in attendance.
It was a memorable night for many reasons. If not for the broken nose that the EIU point guard suffered in the first half, then it was for the team’s 79-70 upset win over highly regarded Ohio Valley Conference Western Division leader Murray State.
Akers had four points (4 of 6 at the line), four assists, one turnover and one blocked shot in 39 minutes of action.
Akers is second in the OVC in minutes played this year, averaging 35.1 points per game, and he ranks ninth in the league in assists at 4.0 per game while leading the conference in assist/turnover ratio at 3.1 (107 assists, 35 turnovers).
The transition from former coach Mike Miller to Jay Spoonhour has been smooth for the whole team, especially for Akers.
“I don’t need to score as much,” Akers said. “Coach Spoonhour wants me to run the team, just get everyone in the right place and kind of be the floor general. Miller wanted me to run my spot, find open shooters. Coach Spoonhour is more free flow and wants us to just go make a play.”
Akers predictably likes his vastly improved playing time, but admits it’s difficult at times.
“It’s rough,” he said. “Especially in some games like the Central Arkansas game, where it was more up and down the floor. It takes a little toll on the body, but we have media timeouts and coach Spoonhour knows when I’m pretty exhausted, so he’ll take me out and put me in when I’m ready.”
Akers, a biology major, knows that Saturday’s upset win proves to his team that anything is possible when it comes to the postseason.
“I want to get to not only the OVC tournament, but the NCAA tournament,” he said. “I know we are a long way away, but we have a good couple of weeks ahead. We could really get things rolling, upset a few teams and maybe make something happen, but my main goal is to first make the OVC tournament.”
Akers will return to Charleston next year to wrap up his undergraduate studies and he has a few ideas to choose from once he gets his degree.
“I have to finish some things up in school,” he said. “But if there is a chance to play overseas or somewhere else, I would take that opportunity. If not, I plan on going to dental school.”
• Sponsler closes out strongly — Terre Haute North grad Ross Sponsler closed out his freshman season Tuesday night, scoring a team-high 17 points in Wabash’s 77-72 loss to Kenyon in the quarterfinals of the North Coast Athletic Conference tournament.
Sponsler added three rebounds and three assists in 36 minutes, while South Vermillion grad Andy Walsh chipped in with 15 points and two rebounds.
Earlier this month, Sponsler was honored as the North Coast Athletic Conference Men’s Basketball Player of the Week for the second time.
He scored 34 points and tallied seven rebounds and one assist for the week, leading Wabash with 14 points in its 52-48 home victory over rival DePauw. Sponsler added an assist and two rebounds.
He connected on 4 of 8 shots from the field, including 3 of 4 3-point tries, and was 3 of 5 from the free-throw line — including two in the final 16 seconds — to secure the win for the Little Giants.
Later that week, Wabash defeated eighth-ranked Wooster 55-48, handing the Scots their first NCAC loss of the season. Sponsler led both teams in scoring with 20 points, hitting three 3-point shots with a 7-of-8 effort from the free-throw line.
Once again, he connected on free throws in the closing minute of the game — this time hitting four tries in the last 12 seconds — to lock up the upset win.
Joey Bennett is a former Tribune-Star sports reporter and copy editor who now teaches at Northview High School in Brazil. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.