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Sunday, April 22, 2012

'Glory Days' here for lefty Nielsen

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa –  The Bruce Springsteen classic “Glory Days” played over the loudspeaker more than once during the two-day Perfect Game Spring Top Prospect Showcase Saturday and Sunday (April 21-22) at Perfect Game Field at Veterans Memorial Stadium.

The song could have easily been directed only toward left-hander J.D. Nielsen, a senior at Martensdale-St. Marys High School in central Iowa who has experienced more “glory days” than just about any high school player in the country. But despite two years of doing nothing but winning on the high school level, Nielsen won’t rest on his laurels.

Ranked a top-1000 prospect in the high school class of 2012, Nielsen has signed to play next year at the University of Illinois. He still has one last Iowa high school summer season to look forward to, but he’s already thinking about the “next level” in Champagne, Ill., and playing for Illini head coach Dan Hartleb.

“I liked the coaching staff a lot and their facilities are nice,” Nielsen said Sunday morning from one of the dugouts at Perfect Game Field about his decision to sign with Illinois. “They’ve got good academics and good academic support and it’s good baseball.  I’ll be playing in the Big Ten so that’s a pretty fun deal.”

And the “glory days” still haven’t passed Nielsen by.

Nielsen, who lives with his family in Winterset, Iowa (think the book and movie “Bridges of Madison County”) is a senior at Martensdale-St. Marys High School. The Blue Devils have won a national record 87 straight games and two straight Iowa Class 1A (small schools) state championships.

Martensdale-St. Marys no longer owns the consecutive wins record by itself, however. Portsmouth (N.H.) High School – playing a spring season unlike the summer season Iowa high schools play – won its 87th straight game on April 20 and is favored to hold the record by itself by the time the Blue Devils begin their season on May 21.

That will do nothing to detract from the national exposure Nielsen and his Martensdale-St. Marys teammates have enjoyed the last two years.

“You really couldn’t ask for a better two seasons, and winning a state championship is always fun,” Nielsen said. “Being on ESPN and all that, and getting all that recognition from newspapers, it was really cool. We just get along really well as a team and we come to play every day. Our coach (Justin Dehmer) is awesome and he makes sure we are focused more on the mental side of the game and makes sure we’re more mentally tough than a lot of the teams that we play.”

The Blue Devils finished 44-0 in 2011 and Nielsen, who stands 6-foot-6 and weighs 205-pounds, played a huge role in that success. He was 9-0 with a 1.43 ERA and .146 opponents against batting average to go with 72 strikeouts in 53 2/3 innings. He played first base when he didn’t pitch and hit .425 with team-highs of 10 home runs and 62 RBI.

Nielsen’s appearance here this weekend represented his 10th Perfect Game event, including participation in the 2011 PG Iowa Fall Wood Bat League and this year’s PG Iowa Spring Wood Bat League.

“Those have been real nice; I’ve met a lot of guys and the coaches are great, and you play good competition all spring that gets you ready for the summer,” he said. “It helps you locate everything and get your arm in shape; it’s a real good experience.”

His most memorable “PG Moment” was the opportunity he got last September to travel to Phoenix and play in the Perfect Game/EvoShield National Championship (Upper class) with Iowa Select Red. It was his first experience playing outside the state of Iowa.

“That was a blast,” Nielsen said. “I played against some guys from everywhere around the nation and playing against teams out of California. It’s a humbling experience just being around all those players who are the real deal. It was a good experience.”

Nielsen was impressive in three innings of work Sunday morning, with his fastball sitting between 82-84 mph and with six strikeouts. “JD Nielsen is an interesting 6’6 LHP to keep an eye on” a PG blogger noted, and when mentioning his velocity, the blogger added he has “more to come.”

 “I felt really good. All of my pitches were working and the fastball seemed to be hitting my spots,” Nielsen said after the outing. “I just try to show the scouts every pitch (I have) and make sure they see what I got and make sure I can hit my spots with everything.”

And that opportunity to be seen at least one more time is why he made the two hour drive to Perfect Game Field Sunday morning.

“It’s important, especially if there are pro scouts around,” Nielsen said. “It’s good to get some recognition with them and it’s good to come out and face good competition and throw against good guys.”

Once Nielsen wraps up his PG Iowa Spring Wood Bat League season, he and his Martensdale-St. Marys teammates will set their sights on extending their winning streak while also capturing a third straight Iowa Class 1A state title.

 “We only lost two seniors (from 2011) and we have 13 seniors this year, so we’ve got an experienced team,” Nielsen said. “I think we should be able to keep it going. I’m really looking forward to it and hopefully we can get another state title; that’s my dream. We’ll just have to see how everything goes.”

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