Maybe the best change-up Center Grove pitcher Jacob Cantleberry ever delivered came during the offseason.
A hard-throwing left-hander, Cantleberry, a senior, was in Houston, Texas, in early December mulling his options as they pertained to his athletics and academics future.
In November, Cantleberry signed a National Letter of Intent to play baseball at Tulane University, beginning the 2016-17 school year. A month later, he was looking into enrolling at San Jacinto Community College in time to be part of the Gators’ season this spring.
Had he done so, it would have ended his career at Center Grove, where in 2015 he was the Daily Journal’s Player of the Year after posting an 8-1 record with a 0.77 earned-run average as a junior.
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In time, Cantleberry realized the wisest decision would be to remain right where he was.
“There was a time where I planned on enrolling early at San Jacinto, but I changed my mind and decided the best thing to do was to stay,” Cantleberry said. “I’m definitely focused right now on helping us win conference and state this year.”
Cantleberry is the ace on a Trojans pitching staff that includes veteran arms in junior Jack Kellams (4-1, 0.65 ERA) and seniors Conner Cantrell (4-1, 1.69) and Joey Drury (4 saves).
Cantleberry’s uncertainty about where he would be this spring initially concerned third-year Center Grove coach Keith Hatfield, who didn’t want the senior making such an important decision in haste.
“It was more about the kid. Whatever decision he made, I just wanted to make sure he had all the information more than anything,” Hatfield said. “That’s what we did for about a week, week-and-a-half, and then Jacob made his final decision.
“The (Major League Baseball) draft played a little bit of a part in it. I think more so he just wanted to compare himself to the competition at the college level. At first he thought the college competition may be what would prepare him for the draft better, but that really wasn’t the case.”
Hatfield said his relationship with Cantleberry is as strong as it’s ever been.
“There was maybe (strain) for a day or two, but that’s really all it was. The initial shock when he first told me, it was really bothering me because I knew he didn’t have all the information. Other than that, our relationship hasn’t changed at all.”
Improving upon what Cantleberry accomplished in 2015 could prove difficult, though it won’t be from lack of preparation.
Cantleberry dedicated his off-season to strengthening his 6-foot-1 frame and now weighs 195 pounds compared to 170 a year ago. His fastball is clocked anywhere from 88 to 91 miles per hour.
One of the state’s top pitchers, Cantleberry also worked to develop total confidence in a third pitch — a change-up — to go along with his fastball and slider. A year ago, he struck out 101 batters and walked only 28.
Center Grove, which finished 24-6 last year while securing the Metropolitan Interscholastic Conference title and winning the Class 4A Whiteland Sectional, opens the season March 31 at home against Roncalli.
Having what could be one of the central Indiana’s elite pitchers on the roster certainly benefits the Trojans as they bid for what would be their first state championship.
“It’s hard to improve off the year he had, but as far as location, working out of jams, it’s really more refining anything than finding different stuff,” Hatfield. “People knew about Jacob last year, but people really started to take notice about halfway through the season.
“That’s when you could say he was kind of becoming a marked man. I don’t think that ever really affected him, and I don’t think it’s going to this year.”
THE CANTLEBERRY FILE
Name: Jake Cantleberry
Family: Parents, Rick and Connie; sisters, Devin, 29, and Riquel, 17
Favorite TV show: “SportsCenter”
Favorite food: Greek
Favorite movie: “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”
Favorite athlete: Trevor Bauer
Favorite team: Cleveland Indians