DANVILLE – When Dylan James was in junior high, seemingly a lifetime ago, Brian Bratton saw it coming. One day, he thought, the do-it-all kid would make history.
Years passed by and dreams started inching towards reality. James grew into a rangy, athletic shortstop with an above-average arm. His versatility would allow him to play for one of the state’s premier club teams, where he’d gain national exposure.
Everything seemed to fall in-line, as James received interest from a long list of NCAA and JUCO schools heading into his senior year.
Still, it didn’t make Thursday any less surreal.
James signed with the University of Akron that morning, making him the first Danville baseball player to commit to a D-I university. A small group of friends, family and coaches gathered in the high school lobby to witness history, as the senior made it official.
“That’s huge for our program, and it just says a lot for Dylan himself. He is a very hard worker,” Bratton, the varsity coach, said afterwards. “Ever since I’ve known him in junior high and stuff and watched him play, all he’s wanted to do was play D-I baseball and just get better at baseball. And that’s what I’ve seen year-in and year-out from him.”
James said he chose Akron over several other mid-majors, such as UNC-Charlotte, Indiana State and Wright State. He also considered Wabash Valley College, one of the nation’s top JUCO schools, and Lincoln Trail.
Ultimately, James said he connected best with Akron’s coaching staff. The Zips are returning to the diamond in the 2019-20 school year after laying dormant since 2015, when the university ended the program due to budget constraints. Akron announced in 2017 that it planned to bring the program back, and the university hired Chris Sabo to be its next head coach the following year.
Sabo is a former MLB All-Star and Rookie of the Year. He spent six seasons in Cincinnati playing for the Big Red Machine, and the third-baseman led the Reds to a World Series title in 1990. He was inducted into the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame in 2010.
James said he is looking forward to playing for Sabo, who has spent the last decade-plus coaching in college and the minor leagues. He’ll also get to be a part of Akron’s first baseball team in five years, which means the competition for playing time will be ultra-competitive.
“I had a great relationship with them when I went up for the visit,” an excited James said Thursday. “It just felt like home there.”
James plans to study either sports management or integrated marketing at Akron. On the diamond, he said the coaching staff is considering him as a two-way player heading into his freshman year; he could have the opportunity to pitch or play shortstop, depending on where they need him.
“I am given the opportunity to play two positions, which is pretty rare,” he said. “So I’m excited for that.”
James has sat out the majority of his senior season due to a broken bone in his pitching hand. While Bratton remains optimistic the team will get him back by tournament time, sitting out hasn’t been easy for James. The young Blue Devils have slipped to 1-12 without their star player.
“We have a really young team and I feel bad I’m not able to get out there and help them on the field,” James said.
But Bratton believes James has stepped up as a leader during his time off the diamond. He’s served as “another coach on the field,” Bratton said, sharing his years of experience with the team’s underclassmen.
“He just steps into that role and the younger kids really follow him,” said Bratton, whose program graduated six key seniors last year. “We really needed someone to step up. And then when (James) went down, it really hurt. But it really didn’t hurt as much off the field because he’s there constantly leading and constantly helping move forward, and making the younger kids better.”
Before James’ injury-riddled senior season, he was voted preseason first-team all-state by Prep Baseball Report. He was also named to the Rawlings/Perfect Game all-region team. As a junior, he earned honorable mention all-state honors.
James has hit .323 with 55 RBIs, 3 home runs and 30 stolen bases in his three years as a Blue Devil. He’s also accumulated a .507 on-base percentage. On the mound, James has a career 3-2 record with 71 strikeouts and a 3.08 ERA.
He gained substantial exposure over the years by playing for the Ohio Elite club baseball team, which is comprised of some of the area’s top talent. The team traveled across the country – from Arizona to New York to Chicago – to play in tournaments.
“Playing against top talent around the country... is a pretty cool experience,” James said. “So I think that’s what kind of really helped, getting around and playing with those top kids.”
Bratton believes James will be ready for whatever is asked of him at the next level. His “first to get there, (last) to leave” mentality will transfer anywhere, Bratton said, and the results so far have spoken for themselves.
James hopes to one day play pro baseball, but he isn’t ready to look that far into the future yet. He’s focused on “getting back to work” after his injury, first and foremost, and then thinking about college when it gets here.
On Thursday, though, James had a chance to reflect. Making history takes years of hard work, discipline and talent. Soon, he’ll be off to a bigger school in a bigger city with bigger goals in mind. But he’ll never forget where it all started.
“In the end, I hope I can make Danville proud,” James said. “This community has supported me so much and I will never forget that.”