NORTH STONINGTON — Much in the way Wheeler High baseball alumni Tom Gavitt and Troy Stefanski did earlier this decade, Lions' senior Bowen Baker proved a lot of baseball pundits wrong.
You can make it in Division I college baseball from the tiny North Stonington school. Baker has signed a national letter of intent to attend Fairfield University and play baseball with the aid of a 30 percent academic scholarship.
"That's the morale of the story — that you can get there from here," Baker said. "When I had a solid freshman year here, I mentioned to some that I had aspirations to play college baseball in Division I. I was told, "It's going to be hard to fulfill that dream at Wheeler — it's too small. It was suggested I transfer to Ledyard, Montville or somewhere else. I didn't have to."
The left-handed pitching Baker dominated ECC Division IV last season, posting a 4-0 record, 1.16 ERA and striking out an astounding 82 in 36 1/3 innings. He was equally dominant as a hitter with these numbers: batting average (.515), slugging (.848), runs scored (25), hits (34), doubles (5) and home runs (5).
Despite the excellent stats, Baker did not make the Connecticut High School Coaches Association Class S All-State team — another sign of bias against uber-small Wheeler.
It would seem the Lions would have opened eyes with Gavitt playing at Division I Bryant and being an Oakland draft pick in 2016 and Stefanski shining as a UConn senior outfielder in 2018.
The 6-foot-1 Baker compensated for Wheeler's competition level by playing summer ball for the AAU Connecticut Hurricanes U18 team with the likes of North Stonington resident Ken Turner, who was an All-State pitcher at Ledyard last year and 20th-round draft pick by the Rangers. He took a full scholarship to play at the University of Hartford.
"Playing and succeeding at AAU in tournaments and showcases answered any questions about the high school competition I played against," Baker said. "I went the AAU route because I wanted to challenge myself against the best players in the state and area."
Dennis Long, the Mystic Schooners' pitching coach and former Class AAA professional who runs PitchingEasy LLC training in southeastern Connecticut, said Fairfield is a great fit for Baker. Boston College, Massachusetts among others were also recruiting Baker.
"Bowen is polished beyond his years," Long said. "He has a perfect combination of natural physical talent and internal drive to play at the Division 1 level. He continually asks questions because he wants to be better."
Baker started as a Wheeler freshman, recording one of the program's biggest wins in an ECC Tournament triumph over Fitch. Last year, he struck out 18 against Windham on just 85 pitches, 16 against Putnam and 17 against Windham again.
While he is leaning toward focusing on pitching, he didn't rule out trying to contribute as a left-handed hitting outfielder if Fairfield has needs in that area over pitching.
"I think I could be an every day player with my hitting," Baker said. "We'll just have to see how the pitching staff is and whether they have innings for me. At this level, you pretty much have to decide if you're a pitcher or hitter. I hit for power in high school, but at AAU, I'm more of a gap-to-gap line drive hitter."
That decision may not be his, but Baker is excited about whatever opportunity presents itself. Until then, he will continue his three-sport career at Wheeler and keep up his high honors academic profile. He played soccer goalkeeper and also plays basketball.
"It feels great to be going Division I," Baker said. "It's nice that I got a partial scholarship, because it's expensive to attend Fairfield. They got involved with me late in the recruiting process, didn't have athletic scholarship money left but had the academic offer."