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Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Justin O'Conner: Too good to be true?

Jim Ecker        
Maybe it was simply a misprint. Or maybe Justin O’Conner has a good friend at the newspaper in Muncie, Ind., who fudged the numbers a little. Or maybe, just maybe, O’Conner really had all those glossy stats at Cowan High School this past year.

You be the judge.

O'Conner hit .521 with 19 homers and 61 RBIs this season, but that's not all. He also went 7-0 on the mound with a 0.30 ERA and 101 strikeouts in 46 2/3 innings.

Fact? Or fiction? O’Conner laughed at the question. Obviously we were kidding. O'Conner is one of the best players in the country. 

“No, those are my stats,” he confirmed. “I felt really good about it.”

Here’s something else O’Conner feels really good about. He’s been selected for the 2009 Aflac All-American High School Baseball Classic, to be played on Aug. 16 at PETCO Park in San Diego. “I’m thrilled,” he told Perfect Game.

O’Conner is a 6-foot-1, 190-pound shortstop and pitcher with immense talent. He’s been clocked at 96 mph on the mound, attesting to his pitching prowess, and he won the Home Run Derby at the Perfect Game National Showcase in Minneapolis last month with 15 homers in the Metrodome, cementing his credentials as one of the top young sluggers in the country.

"I've been around this game long enough to know that Justin is a once-in-a-lifetime player,” said Camden Parkhurst, his head coach at Cowan High School. “There’s not one thing that Justin doesn’t do well.”

And those stats? What about those stats?

“His stats are not fake,” Parkhurst affirmed. “I can assure you they’re real.”

There are stories behind those stats, of course. O’Conner once struck out 12 straight batters in a game this year, which is amazing. In another game, he socked three different two-run homers. You almost wonder why the other team kept pitching to him.

“I was in a zone,” he said of the three homers. “They were making good pitches and I hit them.”

He makes it sound simple.

O’Conner, something of a perfectionist, won’t end Batting Practice without hitting a ball on the nose or over the fence. A tireless worker, he gained more than 25 pounds of muscle in the past year, jumping from 165 pounds to about 190. He’s got exceptional range at shortstop, a strong arm and a powerful bat, according to Parkhurst and scouts.

Parkhurst said O’Conner’s work ethic sets him apart from other young players. “It’s a lot of things that people don’t see Justin do that makes him special,” Parkhurst said.

O’Conner’s family has helped a great deal along the way. His parents installed a batting cage at their home for their two baseball-loving sons, Jacob and Justin. And Jacob, a year older than Justin, has been Justin's catcher on youth and school teams for many years.

They’ve formed a good tandem, although Parkhurst confirmed the brothers did not always see eye-to-eye on pitch selection. “They had a couple of glove-over-the-mouth conversations when Jake thought Justin was shaking him off too much,” Parkhurst said with a chuckle.

Justin confirmed that he gets a little “thick-headed” at times when he’s pitching, which led to a couple of mild arguments with his brother. Otherwise, he said, “it’s comfortable’’ pitching to Jake. “Yeah, he lets me shake him off.”

The batting cage at their home has been a valuable asset for the brothers and teammates, making the O'Conner home a popular gathering place. “Every time it rains and we can’t get on the field, everybody is in there,” said Justin.

The O’Conner family installed a 50-foot by 80-foot pole barn on their property so the boys could have their own cage. “It was because we love the game,” said Justin. “I remember my dad asking us if it would be something we would like.”

Are you kidding? The answer was a resounding YES!

“I thought it was great,” said Justin. “I was in there hitting before it was even done.”

Justin is a top-notch pitcher, but he’d rather hit than pitch. “That’s true,” he said. ‘I have a thing for shortstop, playing every day and hitting.”

And it doesn’t have to be shortstop. He also likes to wear the tools of ignorance and catch, volunteering whenever the opportunity arises. “We’ve been entertaining the idea for a couple of months now,” he said. “I used to do it when I was little.”

This is a guy who loves to play the game.

“I’m going to try to do everything until somebody tells me I can’t,” he said.
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