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Thursday, June 29, 2017

Highlands Alum Lifting KWC to New Heights

Jones Helps Panthers to NCAA Division II Tournament

Kentucky Wesleyan Sports Information Photo. Mitch Jones, a 2015 Highlands alum, delivers to the plate in a game during the season for Kentucky Wesleyan College.
Prior to his senior year, the Highlands Bluebirds baseball team had not made it to the last day of the post-season.

Mitch Jones, 20, helped the Bluebirds to a state runner-up finish as a senior in 2015. As a sophomore this past spring, Jones did the same for the Kentucky Wesleyan College Panthers. Kentucky Wesleyan is a small NCAA Division II Methodist-affiliated college located in Owensboro.

Jones was not alive in 1988 when the Panthers last made the NCAA Tournament. But that changed when the Panthers won the first conference championship in school history going 4-0 to win the Great Midwest Athletic Conference crown. Kentucky Wesleyan finished the season 29-24 overall including 12-8 in conference play.

Jones started 11 games this year and appeared in two more. He finished with a record of 4-7 with four complete games, one shut-out, 56 strike-outs, 21 walks, 72 hits and 37 run with 30 earned in 70 innings pitched. But Kentucky Welseyan Head Coach Todd Lillpop said the record is deceiving.

"He really, really pitched well. He had some tough-luck no-decisions and losses. He threw well enough to beat whoever he pitched against," Lillpop said. "In games he pitched in, we didn't score, made a few errors or whatever it may be. He's wants the ball in big games. He wants the ball in key situations. He has 100 percent trust in his teammates. He just competes and he's gotten better. That's the good thing."

Kentucky Wesleyan earned the eighth seed in the double-elimination Midwest Region Tournament at Northwood University located in Midland (Michigan). The Panthers lost to the host Timberwolves, 10-2 before winning twice in the loser's bracket. The Wayne State Warriors from Detroit ended Kentucky Wesleyan's season by a 4-3 count.

Jones pitched in the 10-2 win over Bellarmine University out of Louisville in the loser's bracket. Jones pitched into the seventh inning striking out four, walking two and allowing five hits and two runs with one earned run.

"I threw a bunch of first-pitch strikes. I was relaxed," Jones said. "I didn't look at it as a do-or-die (game). We're going to have a good year next year if we play as a brotherhood, as a family, as a team. We're a goofy team if you got to know us. This is all new to us."

The Division II tournament has 56 teams in it. Unlike the NCAA Division I Tournament that has 16 four-team regions then eight super-regions, the eight region winners advance to the College World Series. The West Chester University Golden Rams located 25 miles west of Philadelphia won the crown.

"I had never seen their name Tweeted," Jones said. "They got hot at the right time. They weren't the one seed for their region. But they wanted it."

Jones started five games as a freshman going 4-2 with a 4.73 Earned-Run Average and 35 strike-outs in 45.2 innings pitched. Jones threw two complete games and was the lone pitcher on staff to throw 40-plus innings without allowing a home run. Jones started the year in the bullpen before entering the starting rotation. Jones said the speed of the game took some time to adjust to. He noted that in the 9th Region, a pitcher could blow hitters away throwing 80 miles per hour. But college hitters smack around straight fastballs so pitchers have to add to it.

"From the first day of practice freshman year, it seemed like a really quick game for high school ball. It helped playing at a high-level summer ball team with Division I players on my team," Jones said. "Even practices seemed to be going by quick. Everyone's hands were quicker. Everyone's arms were better. The other day I was watching a 9-year-old game and I felt like I was watching everything in slow motion. But I've already adjusted quickly. It has been a fun process. If it were stressful, I wouldn't want to do it."

Jones has huge arsenal of pitches. He mixes up the fastball and chance-up with curves and sliders. Lillpop said the entire pitching staff is back next year so big things are expected. Lillpop said he wants pitchers to be as consistent as possible. He's hoping Jones gets stronger in the weight room to help his velocity among other areas grow.

The next goal for Kentucky Wesleyan is to make it to the Division II College World Series. Jones even said he'd like to see the Panthers win a national championship. Kentucky Wesleyan's men's basketball team owns eight national titles in school history.

"A lot of us things can happen for us to get there. We may not have the best overall team," Jones said. "The way that I want it to happen is we're one of the best eight teams. Our coaches preach the basics. If you do the simple things well, you'll succeed. If you try to exceed at the difficult things, you've overlooking little things. We weren't as talented this year as we were my freshman year. But everyone had each other's backs. Everyone had fun. At the end of the day, this is a game. If you don't have fun doing it, you're not going to win. The conference tournament was a blast."

Jones said he has a lot of faith in Kentucky Wesleyan pitching coach Victor Diaz. Diaz had a stellar career pitching for Old Dominion of Conference USA. Diaz just finished his first season on the Panther coaching staff.

"Our pitching coach is young, but he knows his stuff," Jones said. "He's taught us everything he knows. But he even said he wants to learn more. Next year, the coaches are all going to say, 'Do what you did at the end of the year. Have fun.' At the end of the day, there's a bull's eye on our back, but embrace that."

Jones said he enjoys watching the other teams at Kentucky Wesleyan play. The Panther football team finished 3-8 last year, but did face NCAA Football Playoff Subdivision Davidson College out of North Carolina at home this year.

"It's hard for a small, non-public school to grow. But our President (Barton Darrell) is awesome. We're trying to grow at everything," Jones said. "We have good boosters. It's a marathon, not a sprint. We're getting better and better at every sport each year. It's fun not to watch just my sport, but every sport."

Jones said he has to balance his time among social, athletic, academic and resting lives. That includes workouts at 6 a.m.

"The coaches make it work. There's NCAA rules," Jones said. "You only have so many hours to practice in a week. Going to a small school, it's mostly athletes anyway so the professors understand. In every class you go to, there's going to be one kid, or two or more who is playing a sport at that moment. They don't overload you with homework. It's still hard because it's like a full-time job. You just have to relax and realize it's a process. Try to enjoy it and not think of it as a job. It's fun to be part of."

Jones came back to the state tournament this fall. He's proud that his class started the current run of three straight region championships for Highlands. He recalled playing baseball at eight years old. His teammates were Luke Hennigan at catcher, Joseph Martin at first base, Todd Ramey at third base and Jake Whitford at shortstop. Those were the positions they played on the 2015 state runner-up squad.

"It's the start of something nice. My mom (Jennifer Jones) has said it and I've said it. It'd be nice to turn the silver trophy into gold," Jones said. "To get success, you have to start with success. It all starts with the coaching. When we were eight years old, we were playing with each other. I think the future is bright for them. Not only are we good players, we're good people so you want to root us on. We want to do well."

Jones majors in Business with an emphasis in Marketing. He said he has a 4.0 grade-point average in his Business classes. He even does Phone-A-Thon for the school in the fall to help raise money.

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