MAROA — Ian Benner never gets too deep into the wormhole that his looking at his statistics.
At this point in his athletic career, he's a veteran. But he could feel his sophomore season wasn't going very well on the baseball diamond, and when Maroa-Forsyth head coach Sean Martin handed out the season-ending statistics, it was confirmed. Benner hit .188 and had a 5.75 earned run average with nearly as many walks (18) as strikeouts (24).
He figured if he wanted to keep his options open to play college baseball, he'd better get to work. He got extra hitting lessons and joined CBSI — a summer travel team based out of Chatham.
That work paid off. He hit .500 for the Trojans this season with 19 runs scored and 16 RBI in 17 games in a rain-shortened season. On the mound he had a 0.84 ERA with 45 strikeouts in 33.1 innings pitched. He was a versatile player for the Trojans and helped the team go 16-3 before a one-run loss to Class 2A runner-up Pleasant Plains in the regional championship. Benner is the Herald & Review Macon County Baseball Player of the Year.
“I wasn’t really too worried about what I was going to be able to do," he said of the season. "I kind of expected that I might do better than I did last year because I put in all the work that I did. I didn’t know I would do as well as I was going to do. I wouldn’t say I was super surprised but I was still pretty happy with the way I performed."
CSBI is a high-end summer team. If Benner wanted to fit in and play well, he had to adjust on the fly.
"He kind of got his eyes open," Martin said. "When you play on a travel team like that you’ve got to step your game up or you’re going to get eaten alive."
Benner had a strong summer and followed it up with a Class 2A state football championship game appearance — his third in as many years and the second season as the team's starting quarterback. He entered the baseball season with his confidence soaring and plenty of versatility for Martin. Benner can play any of the three outfield sports, third base, shortstop or pitch. Martin said he could have made Benner, a senior-to-be, the first- or third-base coach and he would have thrived. Benner was raised on versatility. He was open to any position asked of him if it bettered his chances of playing sports for as long as he could.
“You know what he can do in football," Martin said. "That’s got to bleed over. When you start doing well in other sports, that confidence kind of goes with it. I’ll tell you right now, he could be as good a baseball player as anybody."
At the plate, Benner was a singles machine. He knows better than to think that he was going to park many, if any, home runs over the fence in Maroa's monster home field. Doubles and triples are nice (he combined for six of them), but as long as he came up with a hit that drove in a run or allowed him to later come around and score, that was just fine.
If he was pitching, any run the Trojans' offense could score was more than enough. Benner allowed four earned runs all season long while sharing a majority of the pitching duties with Aaron Agee. Benner's pitching repertoire starts like most high school kids. He's got a fastball and a curveball that combine to keep hitters off balance. Then there's the rare knuckleball that was born when he wasn't allowed to throw a curveball.
His father and youth coaches prohibited him from throwing a curve until his freshman season of high school. That pitch, they told him, has a way of taxing his arm that could lead to trouble down the road.
Benner's control over his knuckleball is fairly consistent. If it gets erratic, he just breathes and goes back to the basics. The mix of all the pitches kept hitters fooled. If Benner had his druthers, he would cut back on his 18 walks — seven of which came in a cold season-opener against Mount Zion.
“I think I threw pretty well," he said. "I probably could have kept my walks down a little more than I had. I think I got pretty wild."
A strong junior baseball season has Benner squarely on the map for college coaches. The truth is, he has no idea what he's going to do in college. Football coaches are also attracted to the quarterback with a strong arm and quick feet. His showing at The Nike Opening in St. Louis was an eye-opener. His numbers in several drills placed him in the upper echelon with some of the state, and St. Louis-area's, best prospects.
He's not beholden to pick a sport soon. Until then, he'll keep with his heavy summer workload. He wakes up, goes to weights, hops on the computer for some football review and heads over to a baseball game in the evenings. About half of his days are consumed by sports right now and football isn't far from gearing up.
Such as life for a kid with an option to play whichever sport he chooses.
“It’s really fun to have both of those options open if one doesn’t work out," Benner said. "It’s a unique situation. I love having the opportunity."