By BRADEN LAYER
---- — The coaches kept calling. Offering promises of how St. Anthony pitcher Ben Hecht could lead their team to the promised land. Of how Hecht would be in the starting rotation from day one, and how his 90-mph fastball would only improve under their tutelage.In spite of all the assurances of pitching fame and tantalizing exposure to pro scouts, one coach, and one school, honored a second promise to the 2012 Class 1A Player of the Year that made all the difference.Illinois State and coach Mark Kingston, who had followed Hecht closely throughout his high school career, reassured the star recruit that he wouldn't be limited to the mound. With the Redbirds, he could play in the infield as well and utilize his natural athletic ability to offer the team more than a rifle of a right arm."They're going to let me be a two-way guy," Hecht said. "A lot of schools talked about offering me as a two-way guy, but in crunch time, they backed off. For whatever reason, they veered off, they took away the two-way deal for me. That's fine, I respect that."
What Hecht respected most, however, was Illinois State's commitment to honor its promise. While other schools may have shied away from letting Hecht play somewhere off the hill for fear of injury, Illinois State saw the benefits. With their two-way promise still intact, Hecht decided to commit to the program this past week."Illinois State was one of those schools I've liked the whole time, and they came back in the loop," Hecht said. "I talked to Coach Kingston, the coaches are great, the players are great. Just the environment, they won the (regular season) Missouri Valley Conference title this year, they're going in a unbelievable direction."While he doesn't know exactly what direction he will take when he's not pitching, Hecht is just happy to have finally made the decision."That's actually something I don't know," he said when asked about his infield spot. "It's looking like second or third baseman. Shortstop, I can kind of agree, that my feet aren't quick enough for the next level. But they said I could step in and be the second or third baseman, they have great expectations."As they should. Hecht was 10-0 as a starting pitcher as a junior, and was undefeated again this season on the mound until a 4-0 setback against Teutopolis on April 25. When he wasn't pitching, Hecht was dazzling with his defensive prowess and creative baserunning, traits St. Anthony coach Kenny Miller said are few and far between."As far as baseball savvy goes, there's almost nobody better," Miller said. "He will beat you to the punch. He's going to push the envelope, he stole home several times. He's just a step ahead of everybody on the field with his thinking."Though he undoubtedly has plenty of talents in the batter's box, the professional scouts are still swarming to get a look at that right arm.
The MLB amatuer draft runs from June 6-8, and while he has given Illinois State a verbal commitment, there's nothing to say an enticing offer won't change his mind."A few major league teams said they're going to take a chance on me," Hecht said. "The Royals, the Mets, it's a difficult question to answer when you're 17-years old. I'm not going to rule the MLB out, the draft is not ruled out. We'll have to see when that time comes, what round it is, what the offer is."If he doesn't go the pro route right away, Hecht will be bound to the Redbirds for at least three seasons. That's not such a bad thing, Miller said, as it will give him time to grow physically. "They want him to be able to get bigger," he said. "As a freshman he wasn't a big kid, and he ended up being 6 feet, 2 inches. He's going to fill out in college."Whether he turns pro this summer, or has a memorable career with the Redbirds, Hecht has some hefty goals on his mind. "A lot of people would be satisfied to make it to the next level," he said. "I want to the best, the one that everyone remembers. I kind of hope to bring Effingham with me, put central Illinois on the map."
Braden Layer can be reached at 217-347-7151, ext. 123, or at firstname.lastname@example.org