May 14, 2009
By Phil Collin
Ryan Wheeler had plenty to think about, and it was all his fault. His sophomore season at Loyola Marymount was so good, all of a sudden he shot up the major league draft rankings.
It's a crucial time for a college baseball player, who doesn't become eligible for the draft until after completing his junior season. The bounce he got from his second season was resounding like a shot off the Mikos Blue Monster at Page Stadium.
"Yeah, I was looking at the draft at the beginning of the season," said Wheeler, the former Torrance High standout. "Coming off the summer, I knew the draft be something I would go through during June. It's been in the back of my mind the whole year and I'm excited.
"It's always in the back of my mind. It's been my dream all my life to become a pro baseball player."
A funny thing happened to his thoughts, though. No, he's still a borderline first-round draft pick, if you have the courage to peruse the numerous scouting services.
Something interrupted his thought process. It's called winning.
Since a 40-19 campaign in 2000, the Lions had a winning record only twice and in Wheeler's previous two seasons, they went 45-65-1.
Now, even the future could take a back seat for the first baseman. Where he might rank on someone's stab-in-the-dark list doesn't seem as important, and it doesn't consume Wheeler anymore.
"It did in the beginning a little bit," Wheeler admitted. "It got in the way of what I was trying to accomplish. People who put together those lists, some have decent sources, but it only matters June 9-11 (the days of the draft). "It's fun to look at if your name is on there. You're kind of bothered if you're not ranked as high as on other lists. ... But it never like seriously rattled me to look at a list. It just kind of got ridiculous. There are so many who have lists, it's stupid. It doesn't mean anything."
Certainly not as much as a share of first place in the West Coast Conference, which is where the Lions (29-25 overall) stand today, tied with Gonzaga (30-15) with 12-6 records.
This weekend, LMU travels to Spokane, Wash. for a regular season-ending three-game series with the Bulldogs. A win clinches a spot in the conference championship series; two wins earns home field for that best-of-3 event, which determines the WCC's automatic NCAA Tournament representative.
And while LMU's season under first-year coach Jason Gill has turned heads, internally it's no shocking development.
"I'm not surprised," Wheeler said. "I knew coming into this year we had a good lineup. I knew we had a good freshman class coming in. ... We've had some freshmen step up in the lineup too, which has been awesome.
"I know people outside the team are very surprised to see where we're at when we were picked to finish seventh. We turned some heads, but we set out to win a national championship. As crazy as it sounds outside the team, we knew we could do it."
Well, that secret is out. So's the one on Wheeler, who had to choose to be a recruited walk-on at LMU over playing at El Camino College.
The pros were a long way away.
"It was pretty much go to college for sure," Wheeler said of his post-high school plans. "No pro interest, that's for sure. A couple of D-II teams, one D-III school - only one D-I school showed any interest and that was Loyola Marymount as a walk-on. I took a risk and my parents forked over the money, and I think they've been happy I earned a scholarship over my three years."
As a freshman, he hit a modest .261, but in 13 conference games he hit .375 and then played in the Cape Cod League and batted .285, earning all-star honors.
He started every game as a sophomore, hitting .345 with six home runs and 45 RBIs and led the WCC with 20 doubles. In addition, the business administration major was a WCC All-Academic selection.
This year, Wheeler is batting .324 with nine homers and 48 RBIs. He already has 20 doubles and has made only two errors for a .996 fielding average.
Maybe some time ago the slight production improvement would have been irksome, but that's just not the way Wheeler thinks about it.
"It's average," he said of his season to date. "I would like to hit for a little higher average and I have decent power numbers. ... .324 is not horrible, but at least in my eyes, I was shooting for .400. I have high expectations for my self.
"But I think the team accomplishments outweigh what I've done individually. Even though the numbers are down individually, I've helped the team win more this year."
Now that's something to think about.