It's not a stretch to say big things were expected of Joe Dougherty from the first pitch he threw this season.
"We called a fastball inside and he drilled the glove," Morgan Township coach Jason Dorshorst said. "Adam (Rettinger) never moved. Right there, we thought, 'Whoa, we might be on to something.'"
That pitch came in the Cherokees' season opener against Frontier, which was ranked second in the state in Class A in the preseason. Morgan won in nine innings with Dougherty getting the W, striking out nine.
"We pegged Joe as our ace at the beginning of the year whether he liked it or not," Dorshorst said. "As a freshman and sophomore, we'd ask him if he wanted the ball and he might say yes, but I don't think he meant it. We look at him now and he says, 'Can I throw?' You can see it in his eyes. We saw that (game) and we were like, 'Wow, Joe's showing up.'"
Dougherty's shown up all spring, going 8-3 with a 1.78 earned run average and 93 strikeouts over 70 2/3 innings, to guide the Cherokees to a sectional title.
"Beating Frontier was huge for me and the team," Dougherty said. "It gave me confidence for the rest of the season. Before the season started, we really wanted to get rolling. We wanted to show everybody what we were made of this year. We knew we could go far with the talent we have."
After two years of struggling to fulfill his high-end potential, Dougherty came into this season ready to accept the challenge. He put in more time in the winter playing catch and throwing bullpen sessions in the gym. He and teammates also did the Insanity workout, which helped Dougherty strengthen his core, a key component for pitchers.
"My mindset's completely different," he said. "As a freshman and sophomore, I was a lot more nervous, playing with older guys. I felt like I was being compared to seniors and stuff. Being older and working out in the offseason, the confidence just came. I love being in control of the game."
During the fall, Dougherty also developed a cutter, which has become his go-to pitch to complement a fastball that consistently touches 80 miles per hour.
"I feel a lot more confident in my pitches," he said. "Strike one is the most important pitch. I get ahead of the hitter, I can throw what I want. We're really good defensively, so I know I don't have to strike everybody out. I just have to go out and do my job and the team will take care of me."
Dougherty's biggest win to date came in the sectional final against Washington Township, reversing two losses to the Senators and their ace, Justin Landgrebe.
"He's finally starting to grow into his body," Dorshorst said. "He's always thrown hard, now all of a sudden, he's throwing hard for strikes. He has three pitches he throws for strikes. It depends on the day. With high school baseball, sometimes the ace is also the closer, and we've gone to him many times for an inning or two."
Pitchers have 10 innings available for Saturday's regional and it's a good bet Dougherty will throw all 10 if Morgan makes it to the finals. Dorshorst won't have to ask him twice.
"I like facing good competition, pitching in big games that are more important to the team," Dougherty said. "It’s more fun that way and it makes you a lot better. I just want to get us the win."