West High School’s best hitter of the past two decades has finally chosen a new home.
Earlier this week, Austin Howard, the Senators’ hard-hitting first baseman, signed to play baseball for Rio Grande University this upcoming season.
“I loved everything about it,” Howard said. “I loved how close it was. I love how down to home it felt. I loved the atmosphere.”
“Rio Grande is getting a good ballplayer, there’s a lot of potential there in Austin,” West coach Chris Rapp said. “I look for (Rio Grande baseball coach) Brad Warnimont to bring the best out of him.”
The All-Ohio selection batted .524 this season for the Senators, the highest average of any player that Rapp has ever coached. Howard chose Rio Grande over the likes of Shawnee State University, the University of Northwestern Ohio and the University of Northern Ohio. He’ll join a cast of former local stars already playing for the RedStorm, including former Senators Brady Knittel, Anthony Knittel, Daulton Kenyon and CJ Adkins. He’ll also be playing with former a teammate and friend; Northwest’s Flip Cassidy.
“Coach Warnimont has a good program up there,” Rapp said. “We’ve got a bit of a pipeline going. It’s a nice atmosphere up there. It’s a small campus where they know your name; you’re not just a number there.”
Howard also expressed his excitement in playing for Coach Warnimont.
“I loved how he gave us straight facts. He gave us everything we needed to know about Rio, he didn’t try and beat around the bush,” Howard said. “The weight program is really intense, I’m looking forward to it. I’m looking for to getting stronger.”
The RedStorm’s weight program is certainly a big draw to a power hitter like Howard. The right-handed slugger was West’s leading home run hitter last season, something he hopes to bring to Bob Evans Field.
“I want to bring my power to Rio. I want to stay consistent and make big hits,” Howard said.
A former winner of Southern Ohio Medical Center’s Branch Rickey Award (awarded to area athletes for Christian and team leadership), Howard has been just as active off the field as he is on it. An active member in the area’s Community Bible Church, he remains devoted to his faith, no matter where he is.
“Me and my friend Trevor Welsh, we pray before every game, and we weren’t ashamed. Someone in the stands questioned us up at the VA in our district game, and we went ahead and did it anyway,” he said. “We stuck with what we believed in.”
That wasn’t the only struggled he faced during his senior year at West. Transitioning from catcher to first base, Howard was forced to rework his throwing mechanics for his new position.
“I had a lot of trouble transitioning,” Howard said. “I wanted to quit.”
With hard work and extra practice, he was able to help lead West to the second overall seed in the Division III district tournament.
“I think a lot kids get to thinking too much They want to put the ball in the perfect spot instead letting the mechanics take over,” Rapp said. “We told him to not think about, just go out there and do it, and it paid off.”
“(Coach Rapp) taught me a baseball lesson and a life lesson: Never give up and always work your hardest,” Howard said.
Though West fell in its first playoff game to Chillicothe Huntington, Howard hopes he leaves behind a legacy of hard work and resiliency. He also left behind some advice to his Senator teammates.
“I told the boys ‘Don’t let anybody tell you you’re going to be bad next year, because no one sees how hard you work in that gym but you,” he said. “You never know when your last baseball game is going to be. You want to work as hard as you can to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Alex Hider can be reached at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1931 or on Twitter @PDTSportsWriter