There aren't too many upsides to fracturing a vertebra. Windsor/Stew-Stras' Christian Vonderheide compared the pain to having "an ice pick stabbed into (my) back."
While his injury in the fall was certainly painful and his production was hard to replace for a third-place finishing Blue Devils squad, the silver lining wasn't far off.
Vonderheide was cleared to resume physical activity early in the winter, but still decided against playing basketball due to the injury,which he had played for Stew-Stras as a junior.
With a renewed focus on training for his senior season, Vonderheide took the area by storm, cutting his already miniscule 0.93 ERA by more than half a run and improving every other major statistic across the board.
The Blue Devils (28-9) made it back to the Super-Sectional round in the spring, Vonderheide finished 9-1 with a 0.44 ERA and is the 2014 Effingham Daily News All-Area Player of the Year. Pursuing goals has always been Vonderheide's style, as he was named All-State for the second year running as well.
"I guess I'm kind of proud of myself," he said. "In junior high I wanted to be the MVP of the team, and I eventually got that. Last year when I got the All-State team, I had no idea. Once I got that, I was like I wanted to do that again. I got on the All-Area team, I wanted to do that again."
He pitched 63 1-3 innings with a 0.44 ERA, striking out 107 batters and walking just 13 while allowing four earned runs all year. Offensively, he raised a .392 average from his junior year to .434, drove in 38 runs compared to 22 last year, hit seven home runs and reached base at a clip of .634 on the season. The Blue Devils fell in the Super-Sectionals to Webber Township, a little more than a year after losing to Wolf Lake Shawnee in the same round.
He credited the time off and the break from basketball, which he said he would have played had the stress fracture to his L5 vertebra not happened.
"I was still hitting the weights really hard (my junior year), but I was still playing basketball too," Vonderheide said. "I didn't have enough time for the weight room. I had a lot more time on my hands. Time had a lot to do with it.
"In the offseason, once I got better, I hit the weight room really hard. I knew that I needed to get stronger for college, and I knew where I was going (the College of the Ozarks), how they worked in their weight room. I wanted to get that mindset right now. That's how weight lifting does in baseball. You do a lot better, you're a lot stronger, you're a lot faster, you can throw the ball a lot harder than I was in the fall."
It's not something he anticipated as a freshman playing for Stew-Stras, back when the Windsor/Stew-Stras co-op had yet to be approved.
Vonderheide said he rarely played on a solid Comets squad in his freshman season, mainly being used as a pinch hitter and pinch runner, a year removed from a regional title. They'd win another title his sophomore season.
He called himself timid back then, pitching a different style to get batters out in the field as opposed to striking them out, and didn't think he'd turn into the player he has.
"Looking back as a freshman, I didn't know I would have this significant of a role on a Super-Sectional caliber team," Vonderheide said. "I wish I would have, I would have known what I'm capable of in the future. It probably would have made me work a lot harder, and maybe I'd be better than I am now."
He started toeing the rubber more in his sophomore season, and continued that into fall ball in Stew-Stras' final season as a solo squad.
Going into his junior year, his game had evolved to the point where he wasn't just Stew-Stras' ace, he was the ace of both teams.
Vonderheide compiled an 18-2 record in two years with Windsor/Stew-Stras, something that made the lives of his teammates easier in the field and on the mound.
"It was easier playing the field with him pitching, because he took care of the batters," said Alex Allen, a fellow senior from Windsor. "Whenever you have your No. 1 pitcher on the mound, it's different because you know he's going to pitch well.
"I was remember playing with him in youth league on travel teams. In practice, I faced him one time. I think I got a hit, it was a little jam shot and it barely got through. I wouldn't want to face him in a game."
Hayden Cole, another senior that teamed up with Vonderheide on youth teams and on the co-op from Windsor, transitioned to catcher this season after Gunner Theis graduated.
The other half of the battery enjoyed playing with Vonderheide for two reasons —one of which echoed Allen.
"There's a lot of times we could read each other, I knew what pitches he'd want to throw, and he knew what pitches I would want him to throw," Cole said. "It was always a blast for me to able to catch here. I was always kind of scared going up against him, because he would always want to strike me out, throw his best pitch and make me look like a fool. I guess you could say I was scared of him, but I'm not anymore, since I haven't had to face him in a while."
Vonderheide scored 22 points in a basketball game against Windsor in his junior year in the Hatchet Game, right before pulling his hip flexor off his pelvis and missing most of the remainder of the year. Despite the rivalry in basketball, Vonderheide and Cole both thought combining the teams was a good idea, with Vonderheide even tossing in a pun to make the point.
"The only transition was a new uniform," he said. "I will say we meshed well, a lot of people thought we wouldn't because of the rivalry in basketball. We put that aside. In a way, it was kind of surprising, who goes out in the first year of a co-op and goes to Super-Sectional? We went out and buried the hatchet. We came together."
Vonderheide did say, with a smile, that he had struck out Cole before the co-op.
Even when Vonderheide wasn't on the hill, he never was far from the mind of opposing players and coaches.
He sat in the middle of the order and led the team in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage (.717), home runs (seven) and runs scored (54), while also swiping 25 bags on the basepaths, one behind Allen's team high.
For him, it all came back to pitching. When he was on the mound, it was a one-on-one clash of wills.
"My mindset going out there is here's the best I got, see if you can hit it," Vonderheide said. "If you can hit my best, obviously, that time you were better than I was.
"In a way you have to have two mindsets, but then again, you have to have the same mindset. When I'm at the plate, I'm trying to think 'what would I throw myself to get me out?' and then I'm ready for that pitch. I'm going to take my mindset and put it in that team, and think what that pitcher would throw me."
It did take some adjusting, because Vonderheide's mindset on the mound routinely included throwing a steady 85 miles per hour, with an upper limit between 88 and 90 miles an hour.
His reputation as a junior preceded him when new head coach Mike Taylor took over the program in the fall, although he had to wait a bit to see it in an extended basis with the injury.
"I heard a lot about several kids when I was coming in, and he was one of them," Taylor said. "I've been fortunate to coach a lot of good pitchers, and he's right up there at the top of the list. He was as good as advertised."
As the games went on and Vonderheide allowed just seven runs all year and four earned runs, how he was advertised to Taylor proved to be more than accurate.
In the postseason, even in a 1-0 struggle with Neoga for the regional crown and a 5-0 blanking of South Central, a squad Windsor/Stew-Stras had battled with for the better part of two seasons, Vonderheide proved to be a calming presence on the mound, with shutouts in both games.
"Basically, when he took the mound and you got a run or two, you felt pretty comfortable," Taylor said. "He wanted the ball, and he wanted to get out of it. You'd kind of just sit there on the bucket, and just enjoy the game when he was on the mound."
Vonderheide echoed that sentiment, even when asked if he wished the rotation had played out differently where he didn't pitch against South Central but instead got the ball against Webber Township at the Super-Sectionals, W/SS' last game of the season.
"I really wanted a rematch with South Central," he said. "I wanted to drive home that game, I'm the ace of the staff, I want this game. I told coach that this is my game to win."
Taylor said the rotation he set was the one they needed, but he does also wish Vonderheide could have pitched against Webber Township.
"It's one of those things where going into regionals and sectionals you have to try and figure out what's going to work best," Taylor said. "We struggled with South Central in the fall without him, it would have nice if we could have played them earlier. It would have been nice if things worked differently. That's baseball."
Now, with his Stew-Stras and Windsor careers over, Vonderheide can be seen with the Shelby County Posts 289/611/725 senior legion team, which has about two weeks until their district tournament play begins.
Vonderheide's focus is set on the College of the Ozarks, a school he committed to earlier this year.
The team finished 23-24 in the regular season and went 1-2 in the Midlands Collegiate Athletic Conference tournament with a conference record of 10-14 on the season.
Vonderheide said coach Jason Reinsch, who he has known from baseball camps in the Point Lookout, Missouri area for years, said he will pitch some and play the field some at third and shortstop in his freshman year.
Working back from his injury helped him improve in his senior year with college on his mind for the future.
But in the moment, he was appreciative and contemplative from his baseball-playing days in the Effingham County area.
"It's a great honor to be considered the best," he said. "I've played with a lot of great talent since I was 12. There could have been a lot of different guys sitting in this seat."