Sizzling Senior Excels On The Field & In Classroom…
As he prepared for his senior high school baseball season Brandon Eckerle’s baseball future was a bit cloudy. The three-sport high school athlete had a handful of offers from smaller college baseball programs in Michigan, but as the start of the early signing period began in the fall of 2006 he still hadn’t signed.
To make matters worse, Eckerle broke his leg on the football field that fall. He missed his senior season with the Corunna High basketball team in Durand, Mich to rehab and prepare for his last season with the baseball team.
Eckerle finally got the break he was looking for when he attended a February, 2007 winter camp at Michigan State and signed with the Spartans after they made him an offer.
Now a senior in East Lansing, Eckerle’s future looks decidedly brighter. The Spartan center fielder has one of the hottest bats in the country, batting .696 (16-for-23) through MSU’s first six games.
“It feels really good,” Eckerle said of his torrid start to his senior season. “Everything seems to be going my way, and I’m just feeling really comfortable at the plate right now. It’s only six games, but I don’t remember ever being this hot.”
Eckerle’s current clip is somewhat of a culmination that began at the end of his sophomore season in 2009. A .390 clip over MSU’s last 12 games brought his final season average to .270 by season’s end. He took that momentum and batted just below .400 over the summer for the Hays Larks in the Jayhawk Summer League.
“I think that kind of carried over, kinda get some confidence back,” Eckerle said of his summer in Kansas. “I think that really sort of carried over into my junior season here at Michigan State. That summer season really helped me out a lot.”
That junior season saw Eckerle hit .362, while scoring a team-high 57 runs for the 34-win Spartans. His average rose above .400 twice in late March and early April, and it never dipped below .351 after a 4-for-4 performance against Notre Dame on March 21.
Michigan State head coach Jake Boss, Jr. has watched his leadoff man’s progress at the plate since he took over in East Lansing prior to the 2009 season.
“He’s really starting to figure things out offensively,” said Boss. “He was kind of in and out of the zone really quick. That barrel didn’t stay in the hitting zone for very long a while back (earlier in his career). He runs very well, so anything that’s hit on the ground he feels like he’s got a chance to beat out. He’s bought into that concept and obviously he’s had some success so far.”
Eckerle bounced back and forth from the top to the bottom of the order last year. Seeing more fastballs at the bottom of the order gave him confidence and led to more success that has had him in the leadoff spot so far this season.
It’s a success that hasn’t happened by accident either. Boss said Eckerle’s day-to-day work ethic sets the senior co-captain apart.
“You get outstanding effort, first and foremost, every time he walks onto the field. Whether it’s a practice or a game, the kid is unbelievable to watch work. The best part of practice is watching him go after fly balls during batting practice. He’s out there diving all over the place, more dirty than anybody on the field. He’s trying to catch anything that’s hit out there. We tell our pitchers just to get out of the way, because he’s probably gonna run you over. It’s impressive to watch.”
Eckerle has sparkled not only on the diamond, but in the classroom as well. The General Business Administration/ Pre-Law major carries a 3.98 GPA that has earned him Academic All-American honors. He is also one of 30 candidates for the Lowe’s Senior CLASS Award, which goes to a senior who excels in community, classroom, character, and competition.
With all that is going for him now, it’s hard to see how Eckerle had only drawn interest from schools like Central Michigan and Oakland (MI) before finally signing at Michigan State just before his senior high school season. Boss was still the head coach at Eastern Michigan when Eckerle signed with then MSU head coach David Grewe.
“We saw a guy with probably average arm strength who ran really well,” Boss remembers of seeing Eckerle. “He was a long way away with the bat at the time. It’s one of those things where as guys continue to grow and they continue to work, some guys figure it out and some guys don’t. That’s the tough part of recruiting. We didn’t have a need for an outfielder at that time, but Michigan State did. He ended-up coming here, and we’re reaping the benefits of that now.”
Part of the benefit of Eckerle’s presence has been a 5-1 start to the 2011 season. In fact, it’s the best start for a Michigan State team since 1964. An 8-0 setback to Clemson on Sunday in Greenville, SC is the only blemish on the Spartans’ record to date, but Eckerle chalks it up to a learning process for a program that hasn’t been to an NCAA Regional since 1979.
“If we want to go to a Regional and go on to have a good postseason, that’s the kind of team we’re going to have to play,” said Eckerle. “It’s always good to play some of those teams that are ranked high in the country to kind of show our team where we’re at and at the same time make us better. Playing lower competition isn’t really going to help us, but playing better teams and seeing what you need to work on will help us in the long run.”
While Michigan State’s postseason appearances are few, their current head coach has tasted success of his own. Boss was an assistant coach at Michigan when the Wolverines advanced to a Super Regional in 2007, before falling to eventual national champion Oregon State. He was also an assistant coach for Iowa Central Community College’s 1996 and ’97 NJCAA World Series teams.
Michigan State won 23 games in Boss’ first year in 2009 and improved to 34-19 last year. The 34 wins tied for the fifth-most in program history. Boss said that success has raised the bar heading into his third season.
“I feel good about where we’re at right now with out program as a whole in year three. We’ve raised the expectations within our own family here, and that’s the way it should be.”
While Eckerle’s start and the start of his team have been nice, the senior concedes there is a long way to go in 2011.
“It is a great start, but it is only six games,” said Eckerle. “But we’ve been in several one run games. I think it’s always important for a team to learn how to win those close games and learn how to handle some pressure. I think that’s an encouraging thing right now about our team.”
With a red-hot, hard charging leadoff man to lead the way, the Spartans have their sights set on a bright future the rest of the way.