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Westminster Christian Warriors Baseball

Palmer all area captain

Westminster became right move for Palmer
Westminster Christian's Ben Palmer, left, and Prairie Ridge's T.J. Swank are the honorary co-captains of the 2008 Fox Valley All-Area baseball team.
John Starks | Staff Photographer
By Jerry Fitzpatrick | Daily Herald Staff
Then 13-year-old Ben Palmer faced a tough choice four years ago: Was it better to be a big fish in a small pond or just another fish in the big pond?

Palmer was already a hot pitching prospect in eighth grade, a lanky left-hander with the kind of once-in-a-decade control on his breaking pitches that would make any baseball coach salivate.

Trained as a member of the McHenry County Hurricanes Travel Baseball Association, Palmer's curveball was already freezing hitters in their tracks, making his naturally tailing fastball seem that much faster.

But where would Palmer play high school baseball?

The choice seems like a no-brainer now that Palmer has finished his senior season with a 7-3 record and an ERA of 1.38 in 65 innings with 107 strikeouts and 22 walks -- statistics that along with his .359 batting average, 8 doubles, 3 home runs and 29 RBI, have earned him the co-captaincy of the 2008 Daily Herald Fox Valley All-Area baseball team.

But his path didn't seem so clear four years ago.

Ben's father, Rick Palmer, used to teach at Hampshire, so playing for coach Steve Ream's Whip-Purs was one possibility.

Another possibility was to play for Prairie Ridge, a fledgling program itself four years ago under Glen Pecoraro but one that had already established itself as a winner by securing five straight regional titles between 2000 and 2004.

Many of Palmer's Hurricanes teammates populated the PR baseball program, so the idea of moving to Crystal Lake was one the Palmer family seriously considered.

Then there was Westminster Christian.

Palmer had grown up attending Westminster Christian School in Elgin, but when he was deciding where to play four years ago the program was still in its infancy.

Could a pitcher like Palmer, who aspired to play college baseball and, perhaps, professional baseball someday, afford from a publicity standpoint to play at tiny Westminster, which had averaged 4 wins a year in the program's first seven varsity seasons?

Coach Jeff Moeller, then in his third season, never doubted it for a second. He sat down with the Palmers in 2004 and laid out his vision for the program.

Moeller made the same pitch to three other players: catcher Carter Ward, who was considering going to high school at Burlington Central; shortstop Cory Hodge, a shortstop as talented as any in the area; and Casey Schuring, who eventually opted to attend Jacobs.

"We knew we needed those guys," Moeller said. "Carter came over to my living room and talked it out for a couple of hours because he wanted to know exactly where we were coming from. Ben was talking Hampshire or maybe Prairie Ridge when we talked.

"I'm glad Ben decided to stay. It's pretty easy to build a foundation around a guy who has a bulldog mentality on the mound. When he has good stuff on top of it, that's special."

Palmer started right away on the varsity team along with five other freshmen. It was tough sledding at the beginning.

"I remember freshman year and going into sophomore year we hadn't won a conference game. At all. Ever," Palmer said. "We only won something like 5 games freshman year, which was a big learning experience for all of us."

Two years later Palmer was pitching the Warriors into the Class AA state finals almost single-handedly. The team had jelled, Hodge and Ward had blossomed into two of the area's best all-around players and the supporting players were contributing at every turn.

Palmer, despite a back problem that dogged him throughout his junior season and into the playoffs, was able to pitch both games of the sectional against Rockford Lutheran and Harvard.

He was lifted after 4 innings in the 12-0 blowout of Rockford Lutheran, which allowed him to come back on three days rest (thanks to a rainout) and throw 83 pitches in a 2-1 victory over Harvard for the school's first sectional title.

Due to a playoff schedule condensed by rainouts, the Warriors played their supersectional game against Lena-Winslow later the same day.

Palmer returned to the mound and threw the final 2 innings to secure the Warriors' first downstate appearance in any sport.

He finished his junior season with a record 10-2 and a microscopic ERA of 0.22. He struck out 123 batters in 79 innings.

After another summer playing for the Hurricanes, alongside 2008 all-area honorary co-captain T.J. Swank, Palmer became the first Westminster athlete to commit to a Division-I scholarship last October.

He signed in November to play for Dallas Baptist University, a rising program that this week became the first independent to make the NCAA Baseball Tournament field of 64 since Cal-State Northridge pulled the trick in 1992.

Though his final season didn't work out the way he'd hoped with a return ticket to Joliet -- the Warriors were beaten 5-1 in the sectional final by Immaculate Conception -- Palmer said if given the choice, he'd go to Westminster Christian all over again.

"I maybe could have had more success as a team (at Prairie Ridge) -- maybe," Palmer said. "You never know. But I think going to Westminster Christian really increased my faith as a whole. It made me a stronger Christian. I grew as a person, too, not just as a baseball player."

Palmer would have been a standout no matter where he chose to attend high school. But by remaining with his childhood friends and building a program together from the ground floor up, he instead leaves a legacy.

"Without Ben we still develop a program, but the program wouldn't have seemed as good because you probably wouldn't have had all the wins," Moeller said. "I think we would have developed players to the college level, but without Ben I don't think you get the big wins that draw attention to the program."

Said Palmer: "I know I made the right decision in the end."