AJ Cecil asked his mother if he could miss his Oak Harbor graduation to play in an American Legion doubleheader a few weeks ago.
Tari Cecil, who does everything she can to facilitate her kids participation in sports, vetoed this idea. Cecil followed his mother’s orders and attended graduation. But his mind could never drifted far from wondering what was happening to his legion friends on the ball diamond.
“I’m so passionate for baseball,” Cecil said. “Not to say that I didn’t love the other sports I played, I did. But baseball has always been No. 1 for me.”
Josh Warnke (128 hits from 2008 to 2011) is lone Oak Harbor player with more hits than Cecil’s 126 as he holds school marks for RBIs (93), triples (5) and is second in doubles (25).
That was just with the bat.
Cecil, who is Oak Harbor’s News Herald athlete of the year, also won seven games on the mound for the Rockets in 2013 and broke the program’s single-season earned run average mark with an impressive 0.82 ERA as he allowed only eight earned runs in 68 innings of work and tallied 74 strikeouts.
“I knew when he was on the hill that we were going to have a really good chance to win the game,” Oak Harbor baseball coach Rob Schimmoeller said. “He always threw strikes, he always kept the ball down and he always kept us in the game.”
Cecil, who plays center field when he’s not pitching, was a four-time first-team all-Sandusky Bay Conference performer. The Rockets won 64 games in his four years, tying a program record for wins (19) in 2010, earning the program’s first-ever district championship before advancing to the regional finals in 2011, while also ending Perkins rein of six straight SBC titles with their first title in 20 years in 2012. All four seasons ended in district play or beyond.
“You can’t expect to do more than what we as a program, or as a school in general, have been able to do the last four years,” said Cecil, who also led the the basketball team with 14.4 points per game and was all-SBC defensive back and wide receiver in football. “It was awesome getting the chance to make an impact on all three sports and for all three of those programs.”
No more was the impact felt than on the diamond.
Cecil started his career hitting .355 and drove in 20 runs in 2010. His average jumped 42 points as a sophomore when he tallied 10 doubles and recorded 29 RBIs, then jumped another 38 points (.435) as a junior. He hit .414 as a senior as he and Mark Konieczny each went over 100 career hits.
“Sophomore year was probably my best year of hitting,” Cecil said. “I had Mark Konieczny hitting in front of me and Josh Warnke and Brian Mallernee behind me, so teams had to pitch to me. But my senior year I get pitched around so much there was about a five-game stretch where I got impatient and was hacking at everything just because I wanted to do something.”
Cecil said another change he had to adapt to was the change to BBCOR bats between his sophomore and junior seasons.
“It killed me at first, but I can honestly say now that it’s made me a better hitter,” Cecil said. “I can’t just poke at it and put it through on the ground like I use to, now you have to square one up to hit a line drive.”
Cecil never hit out of the top three of Oak Harbor’s lineup.
“That’s saying something right there because when AJ came up as a freshman we were already a pretty good baseball team,” Schimmoeller said. “Even with the change in the bats, it sure didn’t affect his ability to get on base and produce for us. He was always so solid, he was always on base and was always scoring runs.”
Pitching had wait, as Cecil found himself stuck behind arms like Damion McAtee, Alex Bores and Mallernee as a freshman. He threw nine 2⁄3innings as a sophomore before taking over the No. 2 starting role as a junior and he went 6-3 with a 1.41 ERA in 54 2⁄3 innings with 32 strikeouts.
“I throw a heavy two-seam fastball that has a lot of movement,” Cecil said. “I don’t pitch for strikeouts, I pitch to contact and the movement on fastball acts like a sinker, so it made a lot of guys beat it into the ground. And over the summer, I remember taking my first bullpen and coach (Nick) Lance telling me that I had gained three to four miles per hour on that pitch and the movement was just insane.”
Cecil gave up only four hits and one earned run in the Rockets’ 6-1 loss to top-ranked Ontario in a Division III district semifinal this spring. He also allowed four hits while striking out four, walking none and hitting a batter in six innings in a 3-1 loss at Perkins. At one point, Cecil had allowed only four earned runs in 45 1⁄3innings.
“Being a No. 1 is fun,” Cecil said. “Any big game, I knew I was going to be able to go out there on the mound and compete.”
Now the dilemma is does Cecil continue to pitch or just go into college baseball as an outfielder? He originally was suppose to go play at John Carroll University, but has since decided to try walking on at the University of Findlay.
“It’s so hard to pick because I’ve put so much work into both sides of it, which makes it hard to single one out,” Cecil said.
Cecil’s willingness to be whatever he had to be on the basketball floor was just the attitude second-year Oak Harbor coach Eric Sweet wanted. After winning 11 games in three seasons, the Rockets went 11-12 during the 2012-13 season and finished fourth in the SBC.
“Every time he played for me, AJ always gave me everything he had,” Rockets boys basketball coach Eric Sweet said. “As a junior, it was a tough year for both AJ and Greg Haar as they struggled. But this year, they both stepped up and AJ had a great year.”
Aside from leading Oak Harbor in points, Cecil was third in rebounding at 4.1 boards per game, while also averaging 2.8 assists and 2.4 steals per contest. For his efforts, Cecil was a second-team all-SBC pick and a second-team all-District 7 pick.
“AJ just gained more confidence in his self and his ability to play the game as a senior on the varsity level,” Sweet said.
Hard work had a lot to do with it.
“I’ve never been pushed as hard as I was those first few basketball practices,” Cecil said. “They were hell! Coach Sweet absolutely gives his 110 percent effort, he puts his heart out there and he wears his emotions on his sleeve. He wants nothing more than to see Oak Harbor win.”
In football, the Rockets were 5-2 in the SBC this past season and once again threatening to get in the playoffs. Cecil established a single-season school record with over 600 receiving yards.
“The coaching staff really just changed the entire atmosphere of Rocket football and got it back where it use to be,” Cecil said. “We were a blue-collar team and we were going to come out and hit you with our best shot.”
Cecil admits, as good as he is, he may not be the most famous Oak Harbor athlete in his family when all is said and done. His younger sister Andrea was a standout for the girls basketball team that won 16 games and qualified to the state track meet this spring as a member of the Rockets’ 4×400 relay.
“Andrea is by no means any where close yet to what she’s going to be capable of doing,” Cecil said. “Watching her grow as an athlete has been great. I hope I’ve been able to help her out, too, by having her watch me grow as an athlete.”
Still, they are brother and sister. Cecil doesn’t hold back in 1-on-1 games, as he says he usually sends 10 or more shots back in Andrea’s face.
“We had a little running joke on who was averaging more points per game this past year,” Cecil said. “And as much as it should have been in my favor, I only ended up getting her by a little bit at the end of the year.”