By Travis M. Smith | KBEC Sports
WAXAHACHIE — As Ryan Allen sat inside his uncle’s pick-up truck in the Home Depot parking lot Wednesday, he couldn’t help but smile.
Sure, his college roommate was still asleep and wouldn’t answer the phone to hear the news. And, yeah, the circumstances that led to his seat in the truck and not on a bus traveling to the next game were both concerning and unfortunate.
The reason for the ear-to-ear grin was, however, already known by both of his parents, Jeff and Kelly, as the three had spoken about his baseball future the night before.
His mom had gone so far as to send a text that encouraged Allen to, “Go for it” that same Wednesday morning. He listened.
So there Allen sat, beaming, after making a call some 13 years in the making to a coach he’d known for fewer than a calendar year. Allen had just accepted an offer to continue his baseball career at the NCAA Division-I level with Georgia State University and his uncle, Thomas Pieper, was about to hear the news for the first time.
“My uncle got into the truck and after I made the call. He was like, ‘What’s up,’ because I was smiling ear to ear,” recalled Allen, noting Pieper had returned to the truck with landscaping supplies. If Allen couldn’t play baseball due to the COVID-19 outbreak, he certainly had enough free time to work for his uncle and Pieper Landscaping in Waxahachie. “And I told him that I had just committed to play Division I baseball for Georgia State.”
He recalled his uncle replying, “Over the years, we have watched you play and seen how much it means to you, so to hear you say that is awesome.”
Allen explained the post-phone call mindset as “just a rush of emotion.”
“I was just so excited and I couldn’t have been any more excited. Everything had paid off. The past 13 years of playing and telling my parents that this is what I wanted to do and play at the highest level and get my education paid for, it all came true.”
The impromptu phone in that parking lot also made Allen the sixth Waxahachie High alumnus from the 2017 area finalist team to join the nation’s top collegiate baseball ranks. A team feat that is special in its own rite.
“At the time, we knew that we had something special,” said Allen, a 2018 WHS grad who started at first base in 2017. “And it was because of the way that coach [Tracy] Wood farmed us and we grew up knowing the culture around Waxahachie baseball.”
Allen and Peyton Graham (University of Oklahoma) are, as of now, the lone underclassmen from that Indian team to join a Division-I program.
The two have joined 2017 WHS grads Tyler Navarro (University of Central Arkansas), Jackson Leath University of Tennessee), Levi David (Northwestern State University) and Alec Sanchez (University of New Mexico) at the Division-I level.
“When we got there, we put in work and coach Wood kept reminding us that, in order to be better than your opponent, you have to outwork your opponent. We just took that and ran with it,” Allen added. “[…] I’m excited and I’m happy for every single one of them.”
“[…] Playing the game at a high level is easy to do with great coaches like coach Wood and coach [Jim] Miller who continually push you and remind you to keep your head down and keep working. That’s really all it is and when they instill it on you for four years, it sticks.”
He also gave a tip of the hat to youth baseball coach Gerald Chancellor, who helped mold Allen into the player he’s become.
Allen has spent the past two seasons at Redlands Community College in El Reno, Oklahoma.
As a freshman, Allen appeared in 51 games and recorded a team-high 31 base-on-balls on his way to a .401 on-base percentage with 44 hits over 161 at-bats (.273 BA). He slugged eight doubles, one triple and five home runs with 34 RBIs and 31 runs scored. Even more impressive, Allen posted a .994-fielding percentage with just one error and 157 putouts over his 163 total chances in the field.
A fractured right ankle suffered after landing on a base runner’s foot at first base during the fall of his sophomore season did not slow the slugger come spring. The injury, now considered minor, did not deter GSU head baseball coach Brad Stromdahl from pursuing the first basemen, either.
Allen first received a call from Stromdahl just before the first pitch of the 2020 spring season. Stromdahl informed the slugger that the program was in search of a left-handed bat to put in the middle of the Cougars’ order.
The GSU skipper eventually caught a plane from Georgia to Oklahoma City in late February to watch a slate of Redlands’ games. He ultimately arrived too late and missed the outings but stayed to watch Allen and a teammate hit in the cage.
“He said I had the swing they needed and was exactly what he was looking for and that he’d be in touch,” Allen explained of the visit. We now all know how that promise turned out.
The 6-foot-3 first baseman began the spring season with a 6-for-10 showing over the opening weekend with eight RBIs and one round-tripper.
— Jeff Allen (@jeff_allen5) February 9, 2020
Allen ultimately finished the COVID-19-shortened season with 7 doubles, which was tied for 26th in the NJCAA Division II rankings and just a few behind the nation-leading 13 slugged by Jackson Ross of Pasco-Hernando State (New Port Richey, Florida).
His seventh double was the most memorable of the season, too.
Allen was in the on-deck circle during the ninth inning of a one-run game when he learned the NCAA had canceled the College World Series. It was the mother of his roommate, Holden Tate, of Red Oak, who delivered the news. Allen admitted that, in hindsight, he understood his final at-bat as a Cougar was upcoming.
Allen ultimately dug into the left-handed box with runners on the corners and the Cougars trailing by one, 9-8. He then laced a double — one of six “wall scrapers that will just embarrass you” on the season — off of the outfield fence. He was promptly removed for a more fleet-footed runner and received a, for all intents and purposes, curtain call.
Allen had recorded 20 hits over 55 at-bats (.339 BA) with 15 base-on-balls for an impressive .471 on-base percentage. His doubles combined with one long ball helped the sophomore to a .509-slugging percentage across 18 games.
He’ll now take that approach in the batter’s box to Atlanta, Georgia.
Georgia State University is a Division-I program that competes in the Sun Belt Conference, which is broken into two divisions for baseball — East and West. “There are no scrubs,” Allen assured.
The West Division includes Georgia Southern, Appalachian State, Troy University, South Alabama and 2016 NCAA College World Series champions, Coastal Carolina. The West Division is comprised of Texas State, University of Texas-Arlington, University of Louisiana Monroe, University of Little Rock, University of Louisiana and Arkansas State.
In 2019, Georgia Southern won the Sun Belt East Division with an 18-12 mark and 35-24 overall, while Texas State finished with a conference-best 20-10 league record and 36-20 overall.
Georgia Southern ultimately fell to Coastal Carolina in the 2019 Sun Belt Conference tournament championship, 9-7.
Between playing catch with his dad in the street and hitting short toss into a net held together by shoelaces and zip ties, Allen said his focus remains on stepping foot on the Georgia Southern campus in the best shape and mental state possible.
“I just can’t be at 80%. I have to be at 100% ready to go,” he said. “If that means losing five unhealthy pounds or gaining six or seven good pounds, whatever their strength coach is telling me, I have to be ready to go. All I can really do now is make the most of these home workouts and fundamentals.”
And, as Allen took a few moments to look back on his journey from Waxahachie to a Division II JUCO in Oklahoma and soon to be Atlanta with an NCAA Division I program, he stressed his gratitude for the opportunity to continue his post-high-school baseball career, regardless of the level.
“Junior college baseball is not what it used to be,” Allen explained. “There are some absolute dudes in junior college. I couldn’t tell you how many people that I have played with this year and last year that aren’t getting the looks that they should because there are just so many good recruits in junior college. I believe wholeheartedly in the JUCO route.
“[…] You have to make the best of any situation that you can. If the game means that much to you and you get offered to play, you’ll play. If the game means enough to you, you won’t even question an opportunity to go to junior college. You’ll take that opportunity and run with it.”
He added, “This is the best game on the planet.”
Travis M. Smith, @Travis5mith