After weighing all his options, Gibault High pitcher Zach Neff felt making an early commitment to Division I Austin Peay State this week was definitely the right decision.
Neff is one of the top incoming senior pitching prospects in Southern Illinois.
"Austin Peay offered last September," Neff said. "My family and I started to crunch numbers and everything and it just made sense for me to go there. It's a big stress reliever for sure and I'm really enthused."
The hard-throwing 6-foot-1 left-hander helped Gibault win the Class 1A state championship this season, going 8-2 with a 1.91 ERA. He was a first-team All-State and News-Democrat All-Area selection and perhaps his most noteworthy stat was striking out 90 and walking only five in 66 innings.
"When you talk about ratios that are that high at any level, that's pretty remarkable," Gibault coach Andy Skaer said.
Playing for the St. Louis Pirates travel team last week at the University of Missouri, Skaer said Neff topped out at 86 mph and consistently hit 81-83 mph.
"He's already got good velocity and he does have the big frame where he can add on to it," Skaer said. "I know Austin Peay was the first one that threw their hat in the mix and all spring he sounded pretty excited about them. I talked to him several different times about what his thoughts were and every single time the conversation always went back to Austin Peay."
Austin Peay had five players selected in the recent Major League draft. Three former Governors are playing in the major leagues: Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis, Yankees reliever Shawn Kelley and Diamondbacks reliever Matt Reynolds.
Austin Peay (47-15) reached the NCAA Bloomington Regional finals this season before losing to the host Indiana Hoosiers.
Since taking over in 1987, Austin Peay coach Gary McClure has helped produce five major league players, 25 draft picks and 46 players that competed professionally.
"Austin Peaty went to the regional three of the last four years and they're a really successful program," Neff said. "I'm really happy with my decision right now. It was a stressful one. I'm not gong to lie, there were a lot of schools that had interest piling on in the last couple months."
Neff said he had also been contacted at various times by Missouri State, Bradley, Eastern Illinois and Morehead State. Did he think about waiting longer to see if more scholarship offers were forthcoming?
"It was more of a decision on my part," Neff said. "I wanted to play right away and go to a winning school -- and all those fingers pointed at Austin Peay. The offer's been on the table for a long time."
In two years as a varsity starter, Neff is 12-5 with 139 strikeouts in 123 innings.
Neff's summer travel team coach with the Pirates, Rick Strickland, also played baseball at Austin Peay State.
"He's a good pitcher, but probably the most important thing about it is he's a left-hander and there's not enough of those to go around," Strickland said of Neff. "We're talking about a Zach Neff that only walked only five guys all year long. He's projectable and will throw harder and get even bigger in the future."
Strickland said Austin Peay came through with a solid offer for Neff.
"You're talking about him committing to a school that's really on the upswing," Strickland said. "Considering the type of money he's getting down there, I don't know that there's going to be a whole lot of better offers. The sky's the limit for him and he's got an opportunity to pitch in some very competitive situations."