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College | Story | 6/28/2019

Future 'Dores team up in Albany

Blake Dowson        
Photo: Will Duff (Perfect Game)
"I just love playing baseball, man."

Put him on the moon with a bat, and Will Duff would probably feel right at home. The ball probably carries pretty well up there, anyway.

Duff, who just graduated from Springfield Catholic High School in Springfield, Mo. this spring, is playing baseball this summer in Upstate New York as a member of the Albany Dutchmen in the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League, a league comprised almost entirely of college players.

He had been to New York City before, but never north of the city. No matter, the view from a dugout is the same in the Northeast as it is in the Midwest.

"This is all new to me, but it’s gone really smoothly," Duff said. "Playing baseball every day is what I want to do. It’s what I want to be doing. I love it."

Duff, along with summer teammate Parker Noland of Knoxville, Tenn., will head to Nashville at the end of the summer to enroll and play baseball at Vanderbilt University.

Noland, like Duff, just graduated from high school and is playing against older competition this summer at the direction of the Commodore coaching staff.

"The Vanderbilt coaches told me I was going to go play summer ball up here in Albany, and I was pumped up for the opportunity," Noland said. "I was kind of nervous, just because I didn’t really know what to expect. But now I’m super happy I’m here and that I got this opportunity."

Really, they both had a choice. They could have headed to Nashville early and got acquainted with campus and the city before the school year started, along with getting limited playing time on a local Nashville summer league team. The other option, coaches David Macias and Mike Baxter explained, was to head up to Albany and play for the Dutchmen, who Vanderbilt has started to build a close relationship with. That option came with more at-bats and more innings in the field.

If the coaches wanted to push Duff and Noland towards the Capital District, they didn’t need to try very hard. "More at-bats" is a great negotiating tactic when you’re dealing with young, eager ballplayers.

It’s a proven tactic, too. The two future ‘Dores aren’t the first batch to show up in Albany to tune up before heading to Nashville. Last summer, John Malcom and Luke Murphy did the same before getting their first taste of SEC baseball this spring.

The cachet of having Vanderbilt attached to their names has followed Duff and Noland up to Albany, but as each would admit, that doesn’t help them get on base against guys that have played college baseball for two or three years already.

"There have definitely been a lot of adjustments that I’ve had to make and that I’m actively making now," Duff said. "The game is undoubtedly faster and different than what I was facing in my hometown. But it’s definitely a welcome change and I’m super excited to get used to playing against older, faster guys and excelling doing that."

Both guys said the game is starting to slow down for them now that they’ve figured out the rhythm of the league. The spring of the year you graduate high school is a whirlwind, coupled with moving hours away from home and figuring out what it’s like to live on their own for the first time.

Now, it’s just about baseball.

And both guys have contributed to the Dutchmen already. Duff is hitting a modest .225, but his on-base percentage is up at .340 thanks to five hit-by-pitches in the early part of the season.

Leaning into a few pitches to help get out of a slump, Will? He laughed.

"I don’t know what it is, but I actually get hit a lot. Regardless of where I am and what my situation is," he said. "But I’ll take it. I’ll get on base."

That’s the same approach Noland has taken at the plate. The Knoxville native has a .444 on-base percentage through 35 plate appearances, due to the 10 walks he’s taken.

There’s got to be a temptation for high school players to want to prove themselves in this league, and in turn pressing too hard and not grinding out at-bats. Not Noland, though. That’s not his game.

"My goal is really to just get on base," he explained. "I try to always take what’s given to me. I’m normally pretty disciplined when I’m hitting. I just take what’s given to me and try to do what’s best for the team. If they’re going to walk me, I’m going to let them walk me."

It's a mature approach in a league that wears you down if you’re not taking care of your body and not letting the game come to you.

Duff is taking it all in stride, though. It’s a glimpse into what’s to come, which is exciting. For a guy that looks into the future and sees nothing but rawhide, stirrups, and fastball counts, this is just the beginning.

"There are aspects of it that are tough to get through," he said of the league schedule. "I love being around the guys and the team and the game of baseball, so I feel like I get into a rhythm because of that. But you definitely get tired, with workouts in the mornings that I go to, there’s a definite grind to it that I’ve never been a part of before."

The way Noland described it, the experience of going through it all alongside Duff this summer is invaluable for both of them moving forward. Showing up on campus your freshman year and seeing a familiar face is no small thing after all.

He said the same thing about heading up to Albany this summer. The two had met once before, in fact, when they played on the Kansas City Royals Scout Team together at the 2018 WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla.

"Will’s a really nice guy," Noland said. "I’m glad I’ve been able to build a bond with him before we go to Vanderbilt. I’ll be able to know someone going into school, and that’s nice. It’s been really cool to talk to Will and get to know him more, and you get to see him play more so you know what type of player he is."

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