When Joe Dougherty received his diploma from Grace College in the spring, he wasn't quite ready for the suit and tie world of a career in design engineering technology.

"It was pretty much my plan even before I graduated to go wholeheartedly for baseball," he said. "I wasn't ready for anything less than what I've dreamed of my whole life."

The problem was, Dougherty's career had essentially plateaued from his high school days at Morgan Township when he pitched the Cherokees to a pair of Class A sectional titles.

"I came out of high school feeling pretty good, but when I got to college, reality struck," Dougherty said. "I struggled quite a bit. I never really progressed in college. I was even backtracking, losing my athleticism. I always wanted to pitch professionally since I was a kid, but I knew I wasn't in the right place I wanted to be get seen and be signed."

Last summer, he played on an amateur team out of Mishawaka and attended a couple tryouts to get his name around. Stuck throwing in the same low to mid 80 miles per hour range he was at as a Cherokee, Dougherty knew he was going to have to pick up some pop somehow somewhere. That somewhere was South Suburban College with pitching coach Shane Zegarac, who worked on Dougherty's mechanics and put him through a strength training program that helped him gain about 20 pounds over the course of the fall and winter.

The combination resulted in a marked spike in the 6-foot-3 right-hander's velocity to the low 90s.

"It's really how I was able to get where I am now," he said.

Anxious to see how it translated to competition, Dougherty signed up online for the pay-to-play California Winter League he heard about from scout Paul Noce, whom he'd met in May, and flew out to Palm Springs a few weeks ago.

"It's great baseball weather," he said Friday, "The league's basically set up in order to get seen and signed to a professional contract. There are scouts from all over the U.S., affiliated scouts, independent scouts."

It didn't take long for Dougherty to get noticed. Noce saw the new-and-improved pitcher and told him about the United Shores Professional Baseball League in Michigan where he was managing. On Wednesday, Dougherty signed his first pro contract to play in the four-team independent league.

"(Noce) saw how much I had improved," he said. "From what I understand, the league is very young, only a couple years old, but they've already sent roughly 20 guys to affiliated ball and most of them are pitchers, too."

Last weekend, a Japanese independent league scouting in California also offered Dougherty a chance to play there, but even though the salary would have been better, he declined. Travel was an issue and Dougherty also heard from several sources that going to Japan would likely diminish his chances to make an affiliated team in the U.S.

"That's the ultimate goal," he said.

Dougherty finishes up in California in two weeks and will report to its spring training in Michigan in late April. He knows the money's not great, not anywhere what he'd make using his degree, but he's perfectly fine with that for now.

"My parents and the rest of my family are all very supportive. They totally understand," Dougherty said. "Still being young (23), I figured I'd try to chase my dream as hard as I could. We'll see how it goes, where the season takes me. If I come up short of my goal, at least I'll have no regrets and I always have my degree to fall back on."

For now, the small town kid's living his dream.

This column solely represents the writer's opinion. Reach him at james.peters@nwi.com.

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Sports reporter

Jim was keeping standings on his chalkboard from the time he could print and keeping kickball stats in grade school at St. Bridget's. He covers all manner of prep sports for The Times and is a long-suffering Chicago Cubs fan.