Throughout the years, the St. Joseph-Ogden High School baseball team has sent multiple players on to the next level.
The trend will continue once this season is over, with senior right-handed pitcher Crayton Burnett set to play at Illinois. Burnett, who grew up just minutes from the University of Illinois campus, signed with the Illini in May after he committed last fall.
He’s a key reason why the Spartans are 29-2 overall heading into Friday’s Class 2A regional semifinal game at home against Marshall. First pitch is set for 4:30 p.m. in St. Joseph.
“Ever since I was a young kid, I have dreamed of playing for the Fighting Illini,” Burnett said. “Growing up watching them and going to games, when the opportunity presented itself to play for them, I couldn’t pass it up.”
Veteran Illinois coach Dan Hartleb knows what he’s looking for in a pitcher. And Burnett fits those traits.
“He has command of multiple pitches, but the thing that I think stands out most about him is his competitiveness and bulldog mentality,” Hartleb said. “I think that is very important in a player that they are willing to compete, and Crayton definitely shows that ability.”
Burnett follows the tradition of SJO pitchers going on to throw at the Division I level, joining fellow SJO products Dalton Parker (Purdue) and current SJO assistant coach Hunter Hart (Arkansas, Southern Illinois) in recent years to toe the rubber for Spartans coach Josh Haley.
But Haley said there is no magic formula for the sustained success the Spartans have been able to produce under the tutelage of SJO pitching coach Mitch Pruemer.
“First of all, they have the God-given talent to pitch, and then you mix in the competition and the desire to get better, you have the ingredients to success on the mound,” Haley said. “These guys see the players in front of them and want to be like their predecessors, and we’ve been lucky to have several players that have emulated the guys in front of them. If there’s a formula for success, that’s it.”
For Burnett, pitching was something that he picked up at a young age. And it’s stuck with him throughout high school.
“I liked the competition of each pitch and fell in love with the game early,” Burnett said. “I’ve worked hard and give it my all every pitch. Probably one of the things I do the best is my command and throwing strikes.”
Illinois pitching coach Mark Allen thinks he is getting a quality arm in Burnett based on the criteria that he want to see out of a pitcher at the collegiate level.
“First of all, you are looking for someone that has the ability to start coming in,” Allen said. “A lot of factors come into play with this decision, such as makeup, mentality, the ability to throw strikes and land multiple pitches for strikes. We feel that Crayton has those attributes, and while it may not be immediate, can eventually work his way into being in the weekend rotation for us.”
As most players do that compete at the collegiate ranks, Burnett aspires one day of playing at the professional level. He has command on three different pitches and has baffled opponents all season for the Spartans, who are one of the top small-school teams in the state.
“The camaraderie that our team has makes it fun to go out there each time,” Burnett said. “We’re well-rounded and loaded from top to bottom.”
Burnett comes from an athletic family, with older sister Abagail being a standout volleyball player at SJO and then at Parkland College, as well as younger sister Kennedi, who is also a superb volleyball player for the Spartans and will be a senior next school year.
They were all present, along with his teammates and coaches, to witness Burnett make his choice to play at Illinois official during a signing ceremony at SJO in May.
It’s a moment Burnett has long wished for. And one that is now reality.