Never underestimate the value of a Clinton County sports connection.
Former Central High left-hander Bryant Holtmann was one of the top pitching prospects in Southern Illinois, but missed his senior season in 2011 because of Tommy John surgery to repair an elbow ligament injury.
In the summer before Holtmann's senior year, former Carlyle High and St. Louis University baseball standout and minor-league player Nick Crocker brought Holtmann to a showcase that included coaches at Florida State.
Florida State and most other top baseball programs in the south don't typically include Clinton County on their recruiting trips throughout the country.
"I played with some really, really good player in that area and played in the (Clinton) County League a few summers," said Crocker, who runs the Pinnacle Prospects baseball training facility in Marietta, Ga.. "Had they been more exposed to southern schools, they might have gotten a shot, too. But the odds of making it are extremely low because there are so many good players south of Tennessee.
"That's what made Bryant very unique -- and why he beat the odds. It was obvious when he started throwing in front of the (FSU) coaches. He would have looked good in any part of the country because the skill set and what he was doing was rare."
After watching Holtmann at a showcase event, the Seminoles extended him a scholarship offer and the 6-foot-5 left-hander has been building a solid career ever since.
He is a combined 10-1 in his first three years at FSU, including 5-1 this season.
"They liked what they saw and I fell in love with the place instantly," Holtmann said. "I came back in two weeks for a football game and that put everything over the top."
Holtmann, 21, has steadily worked his way up from the bullpen to weekday starter to gaining some of the highly valued weekend starts for the nation's fourth-ranked team.
Holtmann is 5-1 with a 3.86 ERA and 29 strikeouts in 36 2/3 innings this spring, throwing in the 89 to 92 mph range and reaching as high as 94. The Seminoles (33-11 overall, 17-7 in the Atlantic Coast Conference) are ranked fourth in the nation.
Holtmann also thinks he has a good chance at playing professional baseball.
"The buzz has definitely been there and hopefully it keeps going," he said.
Florida State began Saturday with a 33-11 record, including 17-7 in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
"It's incredible here," Holtmann said. "Last weekend in the three games we had 15,000 people here because we played the No. 1 team (Virginia) in the nation. We lost two games by one run and beat them the other game, so we held our own."
As a freshman, Holtmann realized a dream by getting to pitch in relief at the College World Series, calling it "an incredible experience."
Holtmann was injured in last Sunday in a start against top-ranked Virginia. He said it immediately brought back the frustration of being forced to miss his entire senior year at Central, but this time doctors diagnosed the injury as a forearm strain.
He said he is expected to resume throwing Tuesday.
"It was really disappointing, but it's good news that it's not anything serious," Holtmann said. "I've just got to rehab it and that's what I've been doing."
A big step
Once he got to Florida State, Holtmann realized there was a big transition to be made from the Cahokia Conference to the ACC.
"In high school I was one of the harder throwers for the area, so I didn't have to worry about location," Holtmann said. "Here anybody can hit an 89- or 92-mile-per-hour fastball, so you really have to be able to locate your pitches. We pitch backwards a lot (in the count), so you really have to fine-tune your off-speed pitches."
Holtmann also faced the uncertainty of returning to the mound at a major Division I program after missing a year of his career.
"It took me a while after my surgery to get that confidence back," he said. "Opening week my freshman year I could definitely tell it was a different game. I was questioning myself at first, then I started to throw really well after that and have done it since then.
"I finally got the feel back for my curve ball and changeup."
That lost year made Holtmann work harder and become even more determined to succeed upon his return.
"I wasn't able to throw in games for a year, so you kind of lose everything that you'd worked for," he said. "Just sitting out one full year, you really have to work hard to get back to where you were. Going from starting in high school to the bullpen (at FSU), you don't get as much of an opportunity to work on things.
"It was tough at first because I couldn't get my curveball and changeup back, but summer ball really helped."
Two of his best starts this season came April 6 against Notre Dame and March 29 against Boston College.
Florida State was ranked first at the time and Holtmann went a career-high six innings in a 4-3 win over Notre Dame that completed a series sweep. He won his fifth straight start, allowing two runs on four hits while throwing only 67 pitches.
Holtmann came out on a top in a pitching matchup with Notre Dame's Pat Connaughton, also a starter on the Fighting Irish basketball team.
"That was really big for me because watching college basketball, you know who the guy is because Notre Dame's one of those teams that's always on TV," Holtmann said.
The big time
One of his Seminoles baseball teammates is bullpen closer Jameis Winston, better known as the Heisman Trophy winner who helped lead Florida State to the national championship.
"It's really cool," Holtmann said. "I've been asked to get more autographs from him than anything I've ever been asked in my life. There's always a line for him before and after games to sign autographs."
Winston is currently suspended from the team for shoplifting.
Another teammate is pitcher Brandon Leibrandt, the son of former major league pitcher Charlie Leibrandt.
Crocker recalled watching Holtmann throw for Florida State coaches the first time.
"The guy throwing right next to him was the Friday starter there now, Luke Weaver, who was hitting 92 or so," Crocker said. "You had the whole Florida State staff there and there's Bryant throwing hard with really good stuff, showing off his cutter.
"You have to be in the right place at the right time. Bryant certainly was prepared and made it look like he had been through that 1,000 times. All the credit goes to Bryant."