First came the athleticism. Next, the power. Finally, Mountain Home’s Sky-Lar Culver evolved into a complete hitter.
Culver always excelled on the baseball diamond and on the basketball court for the Bombers, playing multiple positions in both sports, especially in baseball.
“When I had him as a ninth-grader, we put him at shortstop, third base and the outfield,” Mountain Home head baseball coach Jim Tejcek said after Culver signed a NCAA Division I National Letter of Intent with the University of Central Arkansas during a ceremony held at the school Wednesday.
“We knew with his athletic ability, we could move him to first base, because of his height and his hands and athletic ability. You could see it on the basketball court.”
Next came the power. The long, tall Culver showed he could handle the inside pitch on numerous occasions — the most notable being a walk-off grand slam against Marion in 7A/6A-East Conference play early this past spring.
“If I’m a pitcher, I don’t want to pitch him inside, and I’ve told him that,” Tejcek said. “Teams are going to try to throw him away because, if they don’t, he’ll kill it. You saw the grand slam against Marion.”
And finally, Culver honed his swing to be able to handle all pitches in all locations.
“Hitting-wise, he’s always had the talent,” Tejcek said. “Things have come naturally for him, but over the last two years, he’s made it a point to work on his craft. There are still things he has to work on and he knows that.
“He was a dead-pull hitter, but over the last 18 months, he’s worked extremely hard to hit the ball to all fields. We saw that this spring and summer with home runs he’s hit to the opposite field.”
And Culver learned to shorten his swing, which still has plenty of power after an offseason in the weight room.
“Dead-pull hitters tend to have a long swing,” Tejcek said. “Having that shorter swing will allow him to hit to all fields and hit that 95-mile-per-hour fastball at the college level over the right-field fence.”
A big Legion season
Culver was just getting into the swing of things by the end of the high school baseball season, having played basketball the previous several months.
“It’s the coaching staff, for the most part,” said Culver, who recently wrapped up the American Legion Baseball season with five home runs, giving him nine in just two seasons. “They push me as much as they can. I’ve just tried to make myself the best player possible. Finally getting to hit the weight room after basketball season really helped me out.”
As high school season transitioned into the summer American Legion schedule, Culver started to heat up.
The 6-foot-4, 200-pounder batted 8 of 15 through the Twin Lakes Classic and got even hotter at the Lockeroom team’s next tournament.
“It was a fun stretch for sure, but with every up comes a down,” said Culver.
The downs didn’t outshine the ups, though, as he still managed to finish the season with a .398 average, 35 RBIs, 4 triples and 19 doubles in 38 games with the Lockeroom.
Culver’s progression found a new high after signing with UCA of the Southland Conference. The Bears — a NCAA tournament selection to the Starkville Regional in 2013 — are coming off a 29-24 season in 2015.
“To me it’s a dream come true,” Culver said of joining UCA. “Ever since I was younger, I wanted to play at a Division I program. As I’ve got older, going into my senior year and not having many looks — I knew what I was capable of and so did others. It definitely was a last-minute deal.
“In my opinion, when it comes down to it, you can be one of the best players around, but you have to be lucky in some areas, too. I was fortunate enough to play a decent game with (UCA head) coach (Allen) Gum watching.”
Tests await at college level
Culver is eager to take the field, no matter which position he might play.
“When it comes down to it, I just want to play as much as I can,” he said. “Once I get down there, I’ll figure out my role. If that’s playing, I’ll be ready when I get there. If not, I’ll be a good teammate. Either way, I’ll be having a blast, because I’ll be playing college baseball.”
Culver will look to progress even more to earn more playing time in Conway.
“His first year, he’s going to be tested,” Tejcek said. “They know what he can do physically, but they want to see, ‘How are you mentally? Can I trust you on a Friday night in conference play in the springtime? How do you react when bad things happen to you?’ ”
Culver has rarely, if ever, not started in any sport, but will be working hard to be in the hunt for a spot on the 25-player roster.
“Those are the things he’s going to see right away, 6 a.m. runs in the morning, they’re going to test you,” Tejcek said. “Ultimately, UCA’s going to have to come down to 25 players in the spring. How’s he going to react if they redshirt him or if he gets five at-bats as a freshman? Those are tests. It’s about waiting your time, and when his time happens, he’s going to be ready to take off.”
Culver will have a Mountain Home teammate by his side in Conway as Bomber pitcher Mason Smith also was invited to play for the Bears.
“Me and him are actually going to room together. It will make everything easier,” Culver said. “I’m a kid that doesn’t like to leave home much. I’ll miss my family and friends, and Mountain Home itself, with the lakes and everything. But, I’m sure I won’t have many days off for the next several months. I’m excited.”