WAPAKONETA — Big games have become the norm for Wapakoneta’s baseball program.
When a team has the type of recent success the Redskins have had, and competes in a highly competitive league like the Western Buckeye League, the term itself tends to get thrown around more often than a rosin bag.
And much more often than not, the guy standing on the mound in those “big games” has been a tall, powerful right-hander named Chace Culver.
He’s gone head-to-head with WBL pace-setter Defiance in the regular season and the postseason.
He’s pitched against top aces from Bath, Van Wert, St. Marys, etc. He’s pitched in three district tournament games, a regional semifinal game, a regional final game and a state final game.
All of those games ended in either a victory or a nail-biting loss.
And that was all before his senior year, this year, which started with Culver pitching a no-hitter in a 3-0 win over Piqua.
“That was a confidence-booster, that’s for sure, not just for me but for the whole team to show us what we’re capable of,” said Culver, who signed to pitch for Division I Northern Kentucky University in late winter.
The confidence-boost was good for a Wapakoneta team with little varsity experience.
But if the team follows Culver’s lead, finding success shouldn’t be a problem.
As a freshman, he was called up late in the season and got four starts with three victories and a save. Then came his sophomore season, pitching behind ace Johnny Crawford, now pitching at Bowling Green.
That Wapakoneta team rolled all the way to the 2012 state finals behind the arms of Crawford and Culver. And while Crawford was the ace, Culver was the starter for some of the biggest games in the program’s history.
“He’s thrown in more big games than any pitcher we’ve ever had here,” Wapakoneta coach Jason Brandt said.
That’s not just including the tournament finals. During the regular season the past two years, the way Brandt set the rotation was to have Crawford pitch the Tuesday WBL games and Culver throw the Friday WBL games.
“Our Friday league games have been really tough,” Brandt said. “Defiance, Bath, St. Marys … those kinds of games helped get him ready. Throwing behind Johnny, (Culver) threw in the district finals, the regional finals and the state finals. Then as a junior, he pitched in both of our district games (in relief in the semis and starting the finals) and our regional semifinal, as well, with Johnny hurt.”
The real confidence-building performance as a sophomore, according to Brandt, was a dazzling effort in a 3-2 regular season loss to Defiance. That game gave Culver the confidence he could pitch with anyone.
“I wouldn’t say those games were intimidating, I was definitely nervous,” Culver said. “But in my opinion I was playing with the best defense I had ever played with. I knew we were capable of beating anyone, they were capable of getting me through it.
“(The state finals) was definitely a big jump, an experience I’ll never forget that’s for sure, there’s nothing like it.”
He delivered a 5-1 record his junior season — his career record is 13-6 with a 1.40 ERA — and pitched Wapakoneta to another district title. But a 6-5 loss to Granville in the regional semis stung.
“We had a little case of thinking it would be easy almost,” Culver said. “Returning the same exact team (following the state final run), when in reality we had a lot of things go our way that year. We knew what we were capable of and we had a good season, but it was disappointing.”
Neither Culver nor his current teammates spent the offseason wallowing in self-pity. Most of this Wapakoneta team either worked out or played other sports.
Culver spent five days a week working out, putting on about 15 pounds, and playing summer baseball with Ohio Elite, an 18-and-under team in Columbus.
Around fall, he started getting interest from Division I college programs. And once Northern Kentucky made him an offer, he jumped on it.
“I’ve always had my eye on them,” said Culver, whose brother Reid lives in Cincinnati. “I’ve always wanted to play Division I baseball, I like the Cincinnati area and they have my major (Sports Business).”
Culver is the fourth Wapakoneta pitcher in recent years to reach the Division I college level. That list includes Crawford (BGSU), Brian Garman (the University of Cincinnati) and Josh Varno (Indiana State).
Culver, however, is the only right-hander on that list. With a two-seam and four-seam fastball which reach the high 80s, Culver’s best pitches might be his offspeed stuff: His change-up and curveball.
“To have command of all three pitches like that is what really sets him apart,” Brandt said. “He’s not intimidated ever. He can fall behind in a count and he’s not afraid to come inside or throw an offspeed pitch. He’s very confident, and he has the mentality that he’s going to give you his best effort every time out.”
In fact, according to Culver, it’s his work-ethic that’s made him what he is.
“I’ve always considered myself to be a hard worker and that’s never changed, if anything it’s gotten better,” said Culver, who’s also batting around .500 this season in the cleanup role.
His experience and work ethic are important attributes for the entire team, considering all the new faces to the varsity, with just two returning letterwinners. But who better to help an inexperienced group than Culver?
A player who practically grew up in high-pressure games.
“We have a lot of young guys who are just pure athletes, 50 percent of these guys are three-sport athletes,” he said. “They’re all hard workers and they get after it every day in practice. I look to see us make another good run if a few things can go our way.”