High School Sports

From overconfident to determined, Liam Clarke enjoys bounce-back season for State College baseball

State College's Liam Clarke gets a hit during the Friday, April 29, 2016 game against Central Dauphin. Central Dauphin won, 3-2.
State College's Liam Clarke gets a hit during the Friday, April 29, 2016 game against Central Dauphin. Central Dauphin won, 3-2. adrey@centredaily.com

State College coach Troy Allen created a new award to recognize Liam Clarke’s stellar season — and future Little Lions who receive the same honor will know Clarke’s name.

Moving forward, the team’s Most Outstanding Offensive Player Award will be called the Liam Clarke Award. Allen decided to name the award after the State College senior outfielder because he forgot to give it to him at the team’s banquet Sunday — but Clarke also earned the name recognition with his .404 batting average and team-high 12 RBIs.

Allen presented Clarke with the award before practice Monday as the No. 1-seed Little Lions began to prepare for the District 6 Class 6A championship game against No. 2-seed Altoona, set to be played at 1 p.m. Friday at Peoples Natural Gas Field.

“For as proud as I am of him and how far he came back from last year, when you name an award after somebody like that, you want it to mean something,” Allen said. “And that kid certainly came back from a dark year.”

Allen said he could have named Clarke the Comeback Player of the Year — Clarke’s batting average was in the .200s a year ago — but the coach knows he’ll always have a deserving candidate as the team’s top offensive player. So the Liam Clarke Award will be State College’s version of major league baseball’s Hank Aaron Award, given to the most outstanding offensive player in the National and American Leagues.

It would have been hard to imagine Clarke emerging as the Little Lions’ best hitter after last season. Clarke said he realized he wasn’t ready to contribute in 2016 as he struggled against the pitching in the Mid Penn Conference. He admits now that he didn’t take batting practice seriously and went into the year overconfident.

“I had a pretty good sophomore JV season,” Clarke said. “I thought I could roll into varsity and take my success from JV into varsity, but then there’s a big jump from JV into varsity.”

Clarke received support from a pair of seniors on last year’s team in Greg Copenhaver and Brandon Raquet. Copenhaver gave Clarke pointers and tried to lift his spirits when he gave him rides home from practices and games. Raquet tried to motivate Clarke to hit well during batting practice.

But it never came together for Clarke, who Allen described as a “defeated player.” The coach didn’t see Clarke smile or laugh much during the challenging season.

“You can see it on the face of a player when it’s just not there anymore, and quite frankly, I wasn’t sure what Liam I was getting until about halfway through the summer,” said Allen, who coached Clarke on the Keystone Railsplitters travel team. “It was like last year didn’t happen.”

By midsummer, Allen saw Clarke laughing and having a good time playing the game. Clarke entered this high school season with the same swing, but he made an effort to take swings in the cage three times every week this year. He hit off the tee during the offseason and throughout the season, replacing his junior-year overconfidence with determination in his senior year.

Clarke credits part of his success to his approach at the plate, saying he’s recorded most of his team-high 21 hits by attacking first-pitch fastballs. He’ll chase pitches out of the zone for hits, too.

“Some balls, I don’t know how he hits,” teammate Gavin Schaefer-Hood said. “But he hits ’em square and hits ’em by guys.”

The senior smiled when asked about his aggressive approach.

“I don’t think anybody’s really been able to teach me plate discipline, and I know Troy’s tried it a while,” Clarke said. “I think it’s all just if I see a first-pitch fastball, I’m going to hit it.”

It paid off as the hits piled up and Clarke finished the regular season with a .404 batting average, earning the right to add his signature to the program’s .400 bat.

While his name is surrounded by other Little Lions to hit .400 in a season, it will stand alone on the team’s Most Outstanding Offensive Player Award in the future.

“I think it’ll take me a year or two of kids getting it to set in,” Clarke said. “That’s a great thing to think of. Fifty years down the road, if this program’s still around, that’s something to look back on.”