Doug Nelson knew what he had when he first saw Jesse Wilkening play baseball in middle school.
Hanover Central holds a fall middle school league and Wilkening's star shone even as a seventh grader.
"He spends a lot of time working at it," Nelson said. "He's just a baseball player. He loves it, he works at it, he understands it and spends a lot of time on it."
Wilkening is second in the state in batting average at .676 in 46 plate appearances. Jacob Heller of Prairie Heights is hitting .700 in 24 appearances.
The junior Wilkening has 25 hits – halfway to his sophomore total of 51 – four of those are doubles and five are home runs. His goal this season, without citing a specific number, is simply to improve on last year.
He had 50 hits as a freshman and he entered this season halfway to the career state record of 202, held by Andrean grad Adam Norton. The record for hits in a season is 67, and not out of reach for a player who has yet to strike out.
"I didn't pay too close attention to (the average), because it just gets in your head," Wilkening said. "I want to just play. You get your knocks when you need to, just get a base hit in your first at-bat and it gives you an idea of what kind of day you'll have. ... The hits record I'm far away, but I have two years and we'll see what happens, just to see what happens. It's a goal."
"He doesn't get cheated," Nelson added. "He gets rips and he has an idea what he's trying to do and he has an idea what the pitcher's trying to do, too."
Pursued by Big Ten and southern schools alike, Wilkening is a master of all and can play anywhere on the field. He spent two seasons for the Wildcats (10-1) at shortstop before being moved back to his natural position as a catcher. He can pitch, though he prefers not to, and has been clocked in the mid-80s.
"You could put him in center field, if we had another catcher, we'd put him on the mound and he'd be our hardest-throwing pitcher," Nelson said. "He just wants to play."
Just as Porter County Conference pitchers were starting to figure him out, Hanover Central joined the Greater South Shore Conference. Nelson said that Wilkening didn't see many fastballs last season, yet he still hit .510.
As he makes his way through the second half of the GSSC teams, many are finding how to throw to him.
It hasn't helped much. Wilkening spent his offseason working on his ball placement. He wants to make sure that he can hit to all parts of the field.
"I want to make sure I can score for my team, or get the runners in," Wilkening said. "I've gotten better at hitting fly balls when I need to get runners from third to home, hitting just to get the team started. Everyone has to do something like that."
Wilkening was named a preseason Under Armor All-American and tried out in Arizona in January for the summer game at Wrigley Field. The final team hasn't been released.
Meanwhile, taking a team to a sectional final is first on his list. He was in the eighth grade when Hanover Central reached the 2011 Class 2A state championship game. The Wildcats jumped up to 3A the next season.
"This year, I want to do better than last year, just get one hit more than last year, one more home run, and win state," Wilkening said. "I want to win sectionals. I want to get that for my team."