Whiteland Community High School shortstop Branton Sanders has been close friends with Jacob Roberson since middle school.
Much of the reason Sanders sees more of his buddy on baseball diamonds in and around Johnson County this spring is because he’s seeing less of him.
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During the offseason, Roberson took it upon himself to trim his once-doughy 220-pound frame to a lean 180 through a determined combination of diet and exercise.
“Oh, my gosh. It was crazy,” said Sanders, a three-year starter who is also the Warriors’ leadoff hitter. “Jacob came out of nowhere, and it’s awesome to see him playing this well.”
The senior duo are playing a major role in Whiteland’s 8-6 season to this point. The Warriors are 4-2 in the Mid-State Conference standings entering today’s crucial home game against Franklin.
Roberson is hitting a searing .474, with other team-high numbers such as doubles (five, tied with junior Christian Curry) and runs (14). He’s also tied for third among Warriors players in RBIs (nine) and second in hits (18).
He’s attempted one stolen base (and succeeded), definite progress for a player who a year ago at this time consistently finished near the back of the pack during pre-practice jogging drills.
Long story short, Roberson, who played sparingly in 2014, had grown tired of watching his teammates from the comfort of the Whiteland dugout.
“Last year I didn’t play that much, and I felt like I was lazy. I was slow and wanted to get in top physical shape so that I could make the team and start,” Roberson said. “Mostly because this was my last year, but I was just tired of sitting. I didn’t like watching.
“I wanted to play.”
Roberson now bench-presses as much as 185 pounds, 50 more than during his junior season.
Warriors coach Scott Sherry said he noticed the transformation in Roberson’s 5-foot-11 frame early this school year.
“The kids started making fun of him. The old Robo, the new Robo. It was probably early fall, and we were like, ‘Man, he looks good. He’s getting in shape,’” said Sherry of Roberson, who, hitting aside, is leaning heavily on a knuckleball to so far post a 3-0 record as a pitcher this season.
“Jacob has been the big surprise of the year. We knew that he could compete and were hoping he would do well, but the pace that he’s on now, he’s exceeded all expectations.
“It’s his overall mindset. Just the belief he has in himself. Jacob has worked his tail off in everything from his diet to his conditioning, and he’s reaping the benefits.”
Sanders’ contributions through 14 games — a .312 average, 15 hits, 13 runs, 9 RBI and a team-high six steals — have been less startling but every bit as vital.
Then again, he’s been a fixture in Sherry’s lineup since the start of the 2013 season.
Not an everyday occurrence at a Class 4A program like Whiteland.
“We don’t have too many players at a 4A school who start for three years. Branton is just one of those that was skilled and talented enough to do that,” Sherry said.
“It’s just some natural baseball instincts. Things you can’t teach. Branton has played at a high level while growing up. He can run, he’s got a good arm. It’s just his poise and his demeanor.”
Sanders, by signing to play at Anderson University beginning in 2016, will help form a Johnson County reunion of sorts.
Former Greenwood player Connor Morris and one-time Center Grove Trojan Mark Garrett will be seniors for the Ravens next season; current Center Grove senior pitcher Jade Doyle joins Sanders as part of the Ravens’ incoming freshman class.
Pressure, yes. But not anything Sanders shies away from.
“I like the pressure. It gets my adrenalin going, especially if you lead off the game with a nice hit. That really gets you going the rest of the game,” Sanders said.
“When I was a freshman I came in here and worked really hard. I think it’s paid off. I had a pretty solid season my sophomore year and kept getting better.”