When Tommy Burton was slotted in as Boone Grove's center fielder last season, he joined a select group of Wolves to start as freshmen.
"In my nine years as varsity coach, I haven't been afraid to play freshmen, if they were ready to play," coach Rollie Thill said. "I thought he was a little timid at first, but we felt he belonged there. Guys that came back, (Nick) DiMarco, (Drew) Kidd, said he was going to be a good one."
You can pardon Burton for being a little apprehensive. He stepped into a lineup with several seniors, not to mention in the position previously held by DiMarco, a four-year mainstay in center.
"I was pretty intimidated at first," Burton said. "It took some time, getting to know everybody. That was the first time I'd ever played with guys who were much older than me. I was nervous, trying to impress everyone. But the seniors helped me out. I knew (the coaches) trusted in me. They were coaching me through my mistakes. They told me just do what I thought I could do."
Thill eased Burton through the transition by batting him down in the order. He bumped him up briefly after a hot stretch, but promptly moved him back down when he struggled.
"The pitching definitely threw me off the first few games, the off-speed stuff and the speed of it," Burton said. "I had to get my groove going. Not being in one of the top spots helped me relax. I didn't feel as much pressure to produce. I wasn't trying to blow everybody away. I was just going out and playing every day, learning, trying to push myself a little harder."
At season's end, Burton's stats matched up favorably to acclaimed freshmen who came before him. He hit .447 with 22 runs and 26 RBIs, striking out just 10 times in 87 plate appearances.
"Once he started to get the approval of the older players, he really took off," Thill said. "They want to win. They want the better players to play. They knew his abilities. He got off to a much better start than any freshman ever did. He likes running the field. He gets pretty good reads on the ball. He has the ability to be better than them, if he keeps his heads screwed on straight and keeps working at it. He loves playing baseball."
Bigger and stronger than he was a year ago, Burton will move into the middle of the order this season. This time, he's looking forward to it.
"I want to be explosive. I want to be in a spot to produce instead of having to work my way through," he said. "I feel like there's a lot less pressure on me. I'm a lot more confident with pretty much everything. My bond with the team is a lot stronger."
The only standard Burton is holding himself up to is his own.
"I don't look at myself like that," he said. "I have three more years left. I just want to get better every year and be as good as I can be by the time I graduate."