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My Journey Through College Baseball [Part 1]

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Curtis’ Journey, Part 2: Wabash Valley JUCO

Curtis’ Journey, Part 3: A New Home at Purdue

Nothing To Something

There I was going into my senior season (2018) at West Memphis (AR) High School with no offers. In the previous three seasons, we never had a winning season, but we progressed each year, and this year was expected to be the best one yet. At the end of my senior season, we finished with a 12-15 overall record, making it to the 6A State Tournament for the first time in 8 years prior to 2018. The 6A State tournament was hosted in Greenwood, Arkansas that year. Going into the first 6A State tournament game, I still had no offers to any college to play baseball. We lost 10-0 to the Benton Panthers in the first round. I started at shortstop, making some good plays in the field and going 2-3 at the plate with a triple. Knowing this 10-0 loss could be the last game I ever played in, I instantly started to shed tears, not knowing my future in a sport I’d spent my whole life playing.

However, after the game, my father talked to PBR Arkansas Scout, Brian Walker, who played for the Arkansas Razorbacks a while back. When I walked up to them after the game, Brian said he was impressed by how I performed and wanted me and my parents to give him a call as soon as we got back home to West Memphis.

We called Brian a couple of days after returning home from the State Tournament game. During the call, Brian mentioned I have a lot of talent. He was going to call Dave Van Horn, the head coach for the Arkansas Razorbacks baseball team, to tell him I need to be evaluated, recruited and that Coach Van Horn needs to give me a call soon. As a kid from Arkansas whose childhood dream was to play for the Arkansas Razorbacks, I was at a loss for words. Around the time of this call, the Razorbacks were starting postseason play, with the regionals and super regionals coming right around the corner. So I wasn’t expecting to hear from any coach on the staff at this time. 

A week or two went by; I was home alone, and I was locked in on the game playing Fortnite. Out of nowhere, in the crunch time of a Fortnite match, an unknown number starts calling my phone. I usually don’t answer unknown numbers and almost didn’t pick it up because I was in the middle of a Fortnite session. But I realized the call was coming from Fayetteville, Arkansas. So I put two and two together and thought maybe this is THE call. I answered the phone, and the man on the other line said, “Hello, is this Curtis Washington?” While trying to stay locked in and play Fortnite, I responded, “Yes, this is.” He said, “This is Dave Van Horn, head baseball coach for the Arkansas Razorbacks.” I immediately dropped the controller and got up with so much excitement, as I had just received a call from someone telling me I had won the lottery. The call went for a good thirty minutes, and the whole time I was a nervous wreck, not knowing what to say or how to say it. I just wanted to tell him, “Suit me up now coach!”

Coach Van Horn said that he would be back in touch with me soon and throughout the rest of the summer. This call made me the happiest 18-year old on the planet at the time. Our communication with each other grew more and more over time. It would be game day for the Razorbacks in a regional, super regional, or a College World Series game, and I would text Coach Van Horn good luck in the game. He would always respond, “Thanks, Curtis.”

For someone that didn’t have a scholarship offer a month ago, this was all pretty cool!

Throughout the summer of 2018, I played with a hastily put-together team called the Marion Toppers. While still communicating with Coach Van Horn, I received my first offer from Delta State University after playing a couple of games in front of their coaching staff. Around this time, it was time for me to decide where I would continue my athletic and academic career. A couple of weeks after Arkansas lost in the final game of the 2018 College World Series to Oregon State, Coach Van Horn called me again and said he wanted to get me and my family to come out to Fayetteville for an unofficial visit.

So excitedly, my parents and I traveled to Fayetteville on July 7, 2018, and met Coach Van Horn face-to-face. Coach took us on a tour of the baseball facilities, around campus, and finally took us to his office at Baum Walker Stadium.

Curtis Washington Jr. at Arkansas

He informed us that he would love for me to come to play for him and the Razorbacks next year, but unfortunately, he can’t offer me a scholarship due to not having enough scholarship money left. This late in the recruiting process, a lack of scholarship money was understandable. Coincidentally, earlier that week, I had received an acceptance letter to the University of Arkansas from when I applied there earlier in my senior year. I told him that news and said if you want me to come here and show you what I can do, I am committing to play at Arkansas.

Later that day, on the way back home, I committed to continue my academic and athletic career at the University of Arkansas, which, at that time, was the happiest day of my life.

Freshman Year

Fast forward to my freshman year with the Razorbacks, I played in 30 games, started in six games, hit for a .353 average with one home run, one triple, three doubles, three runs batted in, and four stolen bases. My whole freshman year at Arkansas was the best time of my life playing for my home state. In an experience that I’m sure a lot of college freshmen have experienced, during my whole career before Arkansas, I had never not started a game. Better yet, I couldn’t remember the last time I sat on the bench for even part of a game. So coming off the bench as a utility guy was a completely new experience for me. I had to be ready to go from sitting on the bench to facing an SEC pitcher. That’s not easy guys! Of course, I had times early in the season when I was frustrated that I didn’t get to start, or not get to play, but I just had to focus on being a great teammate and being ready whenever my name is called to perform. (Also, I feel like any team where I am on the bench as a utility guy and not starting every game, is a REALLY good team. And I say that in the most humble way possible). Believe it or not, in my opinion, having that mindset in that season helped me have the individual success that I was able to have.

Whenever I did get my name called to play, or when I did have the very few opportunities to start in a game, the adrenaline from playing in front of those Arkansas fans was something I had to get used to. I was accustomed to playing in front of 30 to 100 people if we were lucky, but at Arkansas, we played in front of 6000 to 15000 depending on the teams we played and the days we played on. The atmosphere is like no other.

That season, we ended up hosting a regional, super regional, and making it to Omaha for the College World Series. Now I’m pretty sure that anybody can tell me how I was feeling being a part of an extraordinary team making it all the way to Omaha in my freshman season. I would always say how blessed I was knowing that I felt like I wasn’t even supposed to be here due to where I was just a year ago as a senior in high school with no offers and not having a clue where I was going to play next.

In the 2019 College World Series, we lost our first two games to Florida State and Texas Tech, ending our season. Going into my sophomore year, I was very optimistic about how I had improved my game tremendously and was very eager to see how much more playing time I would end up getting in my second season in 2020. 

Sophomore Year

Arkansas ended up having six out of nine everyday starters get drafted in the 2019 MLB Draft, which opened up many positions to fill for the upcoming season. So at the beginning of my sophomore season (2020), I still was not an everyday starter and still getting in-game to play occasionally. There would be games when I felt like I was going to be in the starting lineup and end up not being in it. This is where my mindset really had to improve as a player. In my mind, I felt like I was doing everything I could do to get a spot in the lineup and earn everyday playing time, but looking back, that wasn’t always the case. In the 2020 season, I played in six games with only one start and eight plate appearances batting .250 with one home run and 2 runs batted in.

As you all know, the season was cut short due to COVID-19 which made everything a lot more difficult for programs and athletes. The 2020 MLB Draft was cut down from 40 rounds to only 5 rounds. Due to that, many players went undrafted, meaning they would return for another season to play collegiate baseball for another year. 

During the summer of 2020, I went home for the quarantine for a while. While I was home, coach Coach Van Horn called me explaining to me about the shortened draft that year and saying some players will most likely be coming back for another year. So he suggested I put my name in the transfer portal to test the waters for better options to go somewhere and get everyday playing time which he couldn’t promise me at the time. I, of course, was extremely disappointed. But even then, and definitely looking back now, I respected Coach for his communication with me and showing that he cared for me and my future.

So a couple of days later, after talking with my family about the situation, I decided to put my name in the transfer portal.

Where Do I Go Now?

When I put my name in the portal, it was not a guarantee I was going to be leaving Arkansas. To be honest, even after my conversation with Coach Van Horn, I did not want to leave Arkansas. They were/are such a great baseball program and I felt like I was improving myself as a player tremendously.

Playing in the Perfect Timing Summer League

After my decision to enter the transfer portal, multiple schools such as Mizzou, Kansas State, the  University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, Wabash Valley College (which is a Junior College out of Mt. Carmel, IL), all reached out with interest immediately. As the summer continued, I started to play in the Perfect Timing summer league in Fayetteville, just to continue to play and get reps in over the summer. At this time it’s around mid-June heading into July and I still haven’t decided whether I was going to leave Arkansas and go play for another school. 

Towards the end of the summer league, the only schools that continued to communicate with me during the time was Kansas State, the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, and Wabash Valley College. Kansas State never offered a scholarship, but they showed much interest in me coming up to play for them after the next season. So at the time, that wasn’t the best option for me. The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff offered a scholarship and was 100% bought into getting me to come to play for them, Wabash Valley College offered as well. I was telling myself, and my family, that if I do leave Arkansas, it has to be the best fit for me to put myself in a position to continue to improve as a player and get great exposure at the same time. Arkansas pretty much put me on the map and I can’t just go anywhere and possibly lose interest in the game or not feel like I’m getting any better as a player. All of those things came into play with deciding where, when, and if I was going to transfer from Arkansas. I did plenty of research on both schools prior, and it was clear to me (at that point in my journey) Wabash Valley College was the better option with what they had to offer for me.

On July 1, 2020, Wabash Valley coaches Rob Fournier and Bailey Montgomery both came to see me play in a summer league game, while my parents were in attendance as well. It was right there, mid-game, I decided I was going to transfer to continue my career at Wabash Valley College. If I’m being honest with you, I felt both happy and upset at the time. Deep down, I knew I was doing what was best for me and my career, but I feel like I failed at the same time.

But in all reality, that was another huge blessing in my career because going to JUCO was a great humbling experience for me and I was able to adapt to many things. Not only on the baseball field but also in life. (Something I’ll touch on in the next part of this series.)

Some Parting Advice

To players that are in or going into the same situation I was in with my career at Arkansas, I can say from experience no matter what your role is, embrace it, love it, give it your all, and have no regrets. That’s not to say it won’t be mentally and emotionally challenging, but you have to believe in yourself. You wouldn’t be putting on that uniform every day if you weren’t good enough. Continue to put the work in, trust in God, and trust the process. You don’t want to be that guy who is upset all the time, either because you’re not playing well or not in the lineup. Your role could ultimately end up being just as crucial as a starter.

So make sure to stay involved in the game, learn game situations while you wait, and when your name is called to do whatever in the game, attack that moment like it’s your last time going to see the field ever again. Because you never know when it’s going to be your last time putting on a uniform. That’s how I played in my last high school game and every game since, and look at how far God has taken me in my collegiate career. All it takes is one game. You never know who’s watching.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series from Curtis, where he’ll discuss his time in JUCO!

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