A year ago, it was over.
The dreams Monte Ketchum may have had of continuing his baseball career had died with his passion for the game he played since the age of 4.
A bad experience with the now former head coach at St. Johns River Community College caused the 2006 Hernando High grad and Hernando Today Player of the Year to quit altogether.
Hernando County’s former Player of the Year, Monte Ketchum, has regained his hitting stroke back at St. Johns Community College this spring.
The son of Brooksville’s Monte and Tracy Ketchum with the sweet left-handed swing left St. Johns after his freshman season for Santa Fe Community College.
He spent the year playing softball, sandwiched by a couple of summers of Dixie baseball, but his serious days on the diamond had basically come to an end.
“I thought I was done,” Ketchum said. “I was just going to go to school. Then I started to miss (baseball) real bad. I knew I couldn’t walk-on. So I figured maybe it was over.”
Three weeks away from his first semester at the University of Florida, already settled into a Gainesville apartment, a familiar face from his prep past reached out and changed everything.
It wasn’t over. Not with longtime Hernando coach Donnie Whitehead beginning his first year as an assistant at St. Johns, under first-year Head Coach Ross Jones.
St. Johns offered Ketchum a new scholarship, a new opportunity, a chance to start over again and move forward.
Now Ketchum, a 20-year-old, 6-foot-1, 200-pound first baseman, began the week leading the Vikings with 14 home runs to go along with a .310 batting average and 44 RBI.
“The main thing was just allowing him to have some fun again,” Whitehead said. “He always enjoyed the game of baseball. For whatever reason, his first year he got burned out on baseball.
“We made some changes to his swing and allowed him to relax and play the game.”
Change for the worst
It was changes to his classic power stroke that led Ketchum down a dark road under the previous St. Johns coach, Mike Robins.
According to Ketchum, Robins altered Ketchum’s swing in an attempt to turn him into a “slap hitter” and it resulted in just a .207 average, two homers and 28 RBI.
Ketchum rejected a scholarship offer to return as a sophomore, heading to Santa Fe, where he had originally planned to attend and walk-on out of high school before Robins gave him a full ride.
“He took the love of the game out of it for me,” Ketchum said. “It just wasn’t fun anymore. I didn’t want to go through another year for him.
“It was pretty hard. I played my whole life. But I was so burnt out by that time, I didn’t care.”
He has plans to become a doctor or chiropractor, and began working toward that goal as simply a college student. Re-enter Whitehead.
“That was the only reason I went (back to St. Johns),” Ketchum said. “If it wasn’t for Whitehead, I wouldn’t have come here.
“He’s coached me for five or six years. He’s spent countless hours with me hitting in the cages. He’s helped me out so much all these years. The only time I ever felt bad about not playing is when I was talking to Whitehead, because he put so much time in with me.”
Whitehead was an assistant under Tim Sims during Ketchum’s four-year stint (three varsity seasons) at Hernando.
He replaced Sims as headman the season after Ketchum graduated, before accepting a job with his old friend Jones last summer, paving the way for Ketchum’s return.
“It means everything in the world to me,” Whitehead said of Ketchum coming back. “Monte is the type of kid you want to see succeed. He hasn’t even begun to tap into his potential. He’s more polished than he was coming out of high school.
“He’s the type of the kid that’s a character guy. He’s got leadership qualities. He’s a great guy to be around.
“…He’s got enough respect for the game that he didn’t want to leave it on a sour note. This was a chance for him to get back into the game and be in a comfortable environment.”
That environment includes a familiar roommate, former Hernando pitcher Kyle Neal. Also, former Hernando assistant Jesse Parkin is part of the St. Johns coaching staff.
“It’s pretty relaxing having them around all the time,” Ketchum said. “It’s not like a regular college when you don’t know anyone.”
Less than a year removed from being completely out of baseball, Ketchum, considered a sophomore with two years left of eligibility, now has legitimate aspirations of playing for a Division I program.
Though neither he nor Whitehead would reveal specifics, they confirmed that bigger schools have shown interest.
“The sky is the limit,” Whitehead said. “He’s got to take a little more pride in his defense. He’s got to work as hard on defense as on offense. But as far as being a pure hitter, he has unlimited power potential.
“He’s still learning to hit, learning how to use the whole field, not pull everything he sees. Once he gets all that down, the sky’s the limit. He can play in the SEC, ACC, he could be playing pro ball. He’s that kind of hitter.”
So goes this tremendous turn in fortunes for the Hernando County product, a religious person who thanked God for this opportunity he can appreciate now more than ever.
“It gives you a different perspective,” Ketchum said. “I’m having more fun this year. It’s helped me do better. I don’t get as down on myself. I had it taken away from me. I’m just glad to be back playing.
“…I just want to play as good as I can. I try not to put a number on home runs. Just try to do as good as I can. Hopefully I’ll hit some more before the end of the year.”
BY THE NUMBERS: MONTE KETCHUM (THRU 04-04)
YR AB H 2B 3B HR RBI AVG
2007 121 25 07 01 02 28 .207
2009 158 49 05 02 14 44 .310
TOTAL 279 74 12 03 16 72 .265
Sports writer Chris Bernhardt Jr. can be reached at 352-544-5288 or firstname.lastname@example.org.