As the biggest moment in the school’s history approached – with two outs in the bottom of the ninth in Game 1 of the Junior College World Series – Southeastern Community College head coach Justin Schulte had a decision to make with his team trailing by one to Northern Oklahoma College.
He looked down the bench and chose to use 2013 Mineral Ridge graduate Dan Ferguson, a true freshman, as a pinch hitter with a man on second and the season on the line. Ferguson was enduring an up-and-down first year with the Blackhawks and was in and out of the lineup throughout the season, but Schulte had faith in him.
“The one thing I knew I was going to get from Dan there was a guy who’s confident,” Schulte said. “Whenever he walks into the batter’s box, he’s not afraid. I knew he wasn’t going to be afraid of that moment; it was just a matter if he could get a pitch to hit, and he did.”
The pitch was one that Ferguson had seen just seconds earlier.
“I took a first-pitch fastball down the middle,” said Ferguson, who led Trumbull County with six home runs in 2013, “and this kid was between 91, 92 (mph), and I was at the plate going into my second pitch thinking, ‘If it’s in the same spot again, I’m going to put it over.’ He put it in the same spot, and I hit a line drive that barely cleared the wall for a walk-off.”
The 3-2 victory on May 25 was the first Junior College World Series win for the Blackhawks, and Schulte called it “one of the biggest wins in the program’s history.” As monumental of a hit as the two-run blast was for SCC, which lost its next two games and was eliminated from the World Series, Ferguson’s opportunity illustrated the progress of the 6-foot, 200-pound 19-year-old.
Ferguson started the season in a 3-for-25 slump, something the hard-hitting catcher rarely experienced during his high school days (he owned a career .503 average with 14 home runs). The hitting woes admittedly got into his head, but Ferguson said he “took a step back” to figure out the problem, made a few minor adjustments and ended the season strong, batting .363 with all three of his home runs in the final 15 games. He hit .260 with 18 RBIs for the season.
Schulte said it wasn’t surprising that Ferguson turned things around, mainly because of his approach at the plate.
“The one thing that doesn’t add up for me as a coach, is he had a great year at-bat wise,” Schulte said. “We chart at-bats religiously. We try to preach to our kids that it’s about the at-bats, and that they lead to hits. Dan’s finals numbers, compared to his at-bat average, they don’t add up. He had a .330, .340 quality-at-bat average, so that tells me he had a lot of hard outs. It also tells me he’s not afraid to get hit by a pitch, he takes walks and he gives you good at-bats. So I think, going into next year, with as much as he learned this year, he’s primed for a huge year for us. Potentially, he can be one of the most feared hitters in the conference.”
As exciting as his offensive potential is, defense is where Ferguson made the most progress. Schulte said Ferguson already was adept at blocking pitches and had exceptional arm strength, but he needed to understand the countless situations that arose during games.
At first, the mass amount of information was overwhelming Ferguson, but similar to his hitting, he found a way to regroup.
“The game’s more advanced – it’s faster,” said Ferguson of the challenges of collegiate baseball. “(Catcher) is one position, but you have multiple jobs to do. I really learned this year about different parts of the game and how different situations are supposed to be handled.”
The plan for Ferguson is to play another year with the Blackhawks and then earn a scholarship to a Division I university. If that happens, which Schulte believes is very likely, he said anything is possible from that point.
“The biggest thing for him is going to have to be shortening his release time to second base,” he said. “His feet aren’t great still, and for him to be a pro guy, that’s going to have to happen. Based on his grades – he had a great year academically – he’ll have a great chance to sign Division I out of here for sure.”