When a program is trying to put itself on the college baseball map, producing a first-round pick in the draft is a good way to do it. Kennesaw State hopes junior righthander Kyle Heckathorn gives its program just such a boost.
The Owls, who won the 1996 Division II championship and had two runner-up finishes at that level, have been in Division I for just three seasons, but their program is already transforming into a budding powerhouse in the Atlantic Sun Conference. Kennesaw State won’t be eligible for D-I postseason play until 2010, but it has improved its standing in each of its first three seasons in the league, finishing second last year with a 21-12 mark in A-Sun play.
Heckathorn went 4-2, 4.98 with 64 strikeouts and 22 walks in 60 innings to help anchor a Kennesaw pitching staff that posted the second-best team ERA in the conference last season. Getting Heckathorn to come to Kennesaw three years ago was a key development for the program.
“For him to believe in what we were doing was a big commitment from him,” Owls coach Mike Sansing said. “The scouts are here quite often; it’s brought a lot exposure for the university and the baseball program. I’m thankful he chose to come here—I think it says a lot about him.”
Bigger, Faster, Stronger
Heckathorn has also gone through a transformation of his own. He was already an imposing figure when he arrived on campus at 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds. But he bulked up during his freshman season, adding another 20 pounds to his frame after getting a full year of Kennesaw State’s strength and conditioning program under his belt.
“I grew overall,” Heckathorn said. “I bulked up a little bit in the weight room and got stronger. It helped me with every aspect of pitching, from the mental side to the physical side.”
The added muscle could help Heckathorn pitch his way into the first round of the draft. His fastball bumped up from 91-92 mph as a freshman to the upper 90s as a sophomore. He attacks hitters with fastballs that were coming in at up to 96 mph last spring, and touched 98-99 over the summer. His primary weapon is a sinking two-seamer that he’ll throw in any situation, while he’ll mix in a four-seamer when he needs a strike. But his coach says those fastballs aren’t even his best pitches.
“His changeup is his most impressive pitch because he’s got such great arm speed on it,” Sansing said. “It’s a very difficult when you’re throwing upper 90s and you’ve got to look for a changeup, too. It makes things difficult.”
The changeup has some sink to it as well. Not to be overlooked is his slider, which one scout said was up to 88 mph this fall and has a chance to become a major league out pitch.
Diamond In The Rough
Heckathorn wasn’t completely unknown coming out of Ringgold (Ga.) High, but an ankle injury during the summer before his senior year slowed him down. Scouts liked him at the time, but the consensus was that the best thing for him would be to go to college and get more experience, and he wasn’t drafted coming out of high school. At Kennesaw State, Heckathorn found an environment where he could pitch meaningful innings immediately, something the bigger schools couldn’t always offer.
“We told him, ‘Hey, you’re going to pitch as a freshman. You’re going to pitch in conference games,’ ” Sansing said. “That was the kicker. He thought, ‘This is where I want to go. I can be an impact guy right away.’ “
As for the current draft, Heckathorn will have to earn his way into the first round. He made just two appearances in the Cape Cod League last summer before coming home with an elbow injury. Sansing said it wasn’t serious and that Heckathorn could have gone back to the Cape, but decided to stay home and had no issues in the fall.
Nevertheless, his shorter track record means he’ll be under the microscope this spring. That’s not a problem for Heckathorn, however.
“I’ve given a lot of thought about the draft,” Heckathorn said. “I feel like I’m ready to play professional baseball. Hopefully everything works out the way it should be.”
In the meantime, Heckathorn has set ambitious goals for himself and Kennesaw State, where he’ll be the Friday starter this spring. Heckathorn and the Owls have their sights set on their first conference title, and they’ll be one of the favorites. Heckathorn also says he has his own personal goals of winning 10 games and being named an All-American.
That’s a lot of pressure when the draft is added to the mix. But the Owls are confident Heckathorn won’t have trouble rising to the occasion.
“He wants the ball. He wants to be the guy that is that No. 1 starter,” Sansing said. “He’s very confident, but he’s not arrogant. He’s confident in what he can do.”