Throughout the summer, USA TODAY High School Sports has published a series called “60 for ’16” highlighting 60 members of the Class of 2016 who we will be watching in the coming 12 months. The final 20 athletes will be presented in order from No. 20 to No. 1 over four weeks. The athletes were selected by the USA TODAY HSS staff.
Name: Austin Bergner
School: Windermere Prep (Windermere, Fla.)
It’s easy to stand out when you are 6-foot-4, 195 pounds and throw a high-90s heater, but what really separates Austin Bergner from the rest of the top pitchers is what he does before and after he steps on the mound.
Bergner has an elaborate pre- and post-game routine that involves exercises he’s learned from his father, a former pro beach volleyball player and licensed registered nurse, and from various pitching coaches.
“I take pride in getting up a good sweat before I pitch,” Bergner said. “My routine involves 10 to 15 minutes of stretching before I throw a baseball. If I don’t do that, my arm doesn’t feel too well. I’ve been doing it since I was 12. What I’ve been taught is to use my back muscles to slow down my arm to keep me from having shoulder problems, so my postgame routine is getting my back muscles stretched, to heal those muscle fibers. Pitchers are creatures of habit. Whatever has gotten them to that level, why mess with it? I don’t.”
Last season, he was 6-1 with an 0.40 ERA and 85 strikeouts in 52.2 innings at Windermere Prep. This summer he is in the final group of cuts for the USA Baseball Team’s U18 squad that is competing at the end of this month in the World Baseball Softball Confederation World Cup in Osaka, Japan.
“He’s very humble,” said Glenn Cecchini of Barbe (Lake Charles, La.), who is the coach of the USA Baseball U18 team. “You never hear him brag and he never makes excuses, even when he might have gotten squeezed at the plate a few times. He’s a team guy all the way. Last year, we used him in a closer role, but this year, we project him to be a starter for us.”
Bergner’s rise has been steady, not meteoric.
“Growing up, I played flag football, T ball and soccer,” Bergner said. “Baseball didn’t get serious until I was in the eighth grade. I was also playing soccer then and was athletic enough to do it on the middle school level, but after eighth grade, it was too much, doing two tournaments a week in two sports, making my parents drive me an hour in one direction and then two hours in the other direction and baseball was clearly my sport.”
He was already occasionally hitting 90 mph with his fastball when he was in the eighth grade and while he’s added other pitches, it still sets up everything else he does now that he can throw 96 or 97 mph.
“It’s always my fastball,” Bergner said. “It’s my go-to pitch. I usually will pick up on a team that is cheating on my fastball the second time through the lineup. I’ve always been a power fastball pitcher. I wouldn’t say my fastball is blowing everyone away like I did when I was younger, but my pitch ability has grown a lot. There’s a lot of growth I still have to have.”
He has committed to North Carolina, but is expected to be a high draft pick, possibly the first high school right-hander to be taken No. 1 in the draft. If he does go pro, he should be ready for anything the minors can dish out after his adventure last summer with USA Baseball’s U18 team Pan American Championship team in La Paz, Mexico.
Midway through the championship game, Hurrican Odile slammed into Mexico. The U.S. squad was declared the winner of the tournament, but the team’s return home became a four-day saga that involved cancelled flights, hotels without electricity or running water, bus rides, a brief stay in an orphanage, a flight from Mexico City to Tijuana by a Mexican military plane and a bus ride home across the border, back to the United States.
“That whole trip gave me a better outlook on baseball and life,” Bergner said.