Bowman enters national limelight after Area Code Games | NevadaAppeal.com
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Bowman enters national limelight after Area Code Games

Jeremy Evans

An at-bat at the Area Code Games is something most 17-year-old baseball players only dream about but never get. Even if they did, it’s an-bat most 17-year-old baseball players wouldn’t know how to handle. For Carson High’s Willie Bowman, it was an at-bat that vaulted him into the national spotlight.

“I was kind of nervous before the first game. I noticed a lot of the scouts watching us when we were just taking infield,” Bowman said. “But it’s kind of like the first game of the season. You’re nervous before it starts, then you settle down once you start playing. Basically, I got a hit at my first at-bat and it all kind of started from there. I hit a line drive to the outfield. That really helped my confidence the rest of the week.”

For those who don’t know Bowman’s story, the hit was only a single. Nothing more spectacular than the singles he’s hit for Carson High since his freshman year, when he became a varsity starter almost immediately after stepping on campus. But for those who know him, it might have been the hit that completed Bowman’s transformation; from a Lyon County transfer to a freshman phenom, from his difficult sophomore year to his bounce-back junior season.

The confidence gained from that single also helped Bowman put together one of the more impressive offensive performances at last week’s Area Code Games. Bowman went 5-for-10 with a triple and four RBI at the 17th annual showcase tournament, which attracts more than 400 professional scouts and representatives from every major college program in the country. Two hundred players from eight teams compete for 36 spots at the Nike All-Star Game, which concludes the week-long tournament.

Last Friday, the day before his team’s final game, Bowman was told he was picked for one of the two all-star teams. He went 1-for-3 and became only the second Northern Nevadan to play in the game. Galena’s Billy Paganetti played in the 2000 all-star game.

Only a few Carson City or Carson Valley players have ever participated in the Area Code Games. Carson High’s Donovan Osborne played in its inaugural year of 1987 and Douglas High’s Shawn Estes played in 1990. Osborne and Estes later became first round draft picks and Paganetti most likely would’ve been had he not honored his scholarship from Stanford University.

In the 2000 major league draft, 24 former Area Code Game players were drafted in the first round and 13 more were selected in the second round. Since the tournament’s inaugural year over 300 of its participants, including some of baseball’s biggest stars, have went on to play in the major leagues. Guys like Dontrelle Willis, Barry Zito, Jason Giambi and Albert Pujols.

Three years ago, though, the closest Bowman was connected to those players was when he held their baseball cards.

IN THE BEGINNING

Anybody who watched Bowman play before high school probably isn’t too surprised to hear of his recent success. Bowman, a third baseman who stands 6-foot-2 and weighs 200 pounds, was almost that size as a sixth grader. Spectators knew he had potential when he whizzed 80 mph fastballs past overmatched batters in Silverada Little League.

“I think everybody thought he was a protege because he was so big back then,” said Carl Henry, the father of two Carson High baseball standouts, Ryan and Aaron. “He was an imposing pitcher and you could tell he had athletic ability.”

Dayton doesn’t have a senior Babe Ruth team, but Bowman continued to make a name for himself on various other teams. By the time he graduated from Dayton Middle School, he was a star both on the field and in the classroom and Bowman and his parents thought another high school would be better for him. So when his family moved to Carson City before his freshman year, Senator baseball coach Ron McNutt had yet to realize that a four-year starter had just moved into his infield.

“I never watched Willie play in middle school,” McNutt said. “I can say that when we saw him play as a freshman I could tell the kid had some talent. I knew it was just a matter of how he developed that talent. We put him on the Carson Capitols at a young age and I think the competition has just made him better and better. The skills he has were evident back then.”

As a freshman, he was one of Carson’s best hitters. He earned first team Sierra League honors and firmly planted himself as the future of the Senator baseball program. But back in Dayton, where he had grown up, the whispers swirled. Not hurtful voices, but Bowman noticed them nonetheless.

“Some people thought, like my friends of whatever, that I thought I was too good for Dayton but it wasn’t like that,” said Bowman, who has a 3.9 GPA. “I really did it because Carson had a better school and had a lot more resources and gave me more opportunities. Don’t get me wrong, Dayton is a good school and a great place. Carson was just bigger and offered more classes and they had a great baseball program. Playing 4A baseball is a lot easier to get noticed by colleges and stuff than playing in the 3A.”

THE SOPHOMORE SLUMP

After his sensational freshman season, Bowman and his family moved back to Dayton. Off the field, Bowman didn’t break any rules because both moves were allowed under NIAA rules. On the field, though, Bowman never really managed to break out of a season-long slump, some of which was caused by noticeable problems between himself and a few upperclassmen teammates.

“I’ve seen a lot kids have a good freshman season, then have kind of a down sophomore year, then have a good junior season that leads into a great senior season,” McNutt said. “I can see that happening with Willie. I’m not sure if there were any emotional things going on. I don’t know if there was any problems with the seniors because I never asked them about it. I do know that it’s always been my philosophy that the best kids will play.”

Some of the seniors felt he wasn’t deserving of his extensive playing time. Bowman, who made a team-high 17 errors as a sophomore, just wanted to start playing better.

“I guess it was the sophomore curse or whatever,” said Bowman, who still hit .359 with five home runs and made the Sierra League’s second team. “I was younger than everybody else. It was kind of like being the kindergartner hanging with the fourth-grade kids. I put a lot of pressure on myself to perform. I expected to hit 1,000. When it didn’t happen, it was tough. I wasn’t getting picked on really but it was a difficult year. I had a lot of pressure on me but I came back and had a decent year last year.”

Bowman definitely returned to form as a junior. He helped lead Carson back to the state tournament for the first time in three years and was again named to the Sierra League’s first team. Suddnely, his sophomore year became a distant memory.

THE BREAKTHROUGH SUMMER

This summer Bowman worked harder than in any previous summer. Throwing, lifting weights, taking batting practice. He did everything more frequently. He did everything more intensely. His hard work made a difference last month when he beat out more than a 150 players from Arizona, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado to make the Cleveland Indians’ 25-man roster for the Area Code Games. He became only the second Carson High player to play in the annual showcase tournament, which is usually staged for the best incoming high school seniors.

Just to play in the eight-team wood bat tournament puts you on the national radar. But last week in Long Beach, Calif., Bowman went from a little known regional recruit into a player everybody wants, including major league teams. Besides being selected to play in the all-star game, Baseball America voted him the Area Code Games’ ‘Best Pure Hitter.’

“All this is happening in such a short amount of time,” said Bowman, who said he plans on signing with UNLV next season. “Agents are calling now. The UNLV coach and I have been talking and he’s telling me all these things are getting written about me. It’s exciting. It’s cool but it’s kind of hard to believe.”

LOOKING AHEAD

McNutt thinks Bowman has the potential to play professionally. But he also thinks Bowman needs more time to fulfill that potential, which means spending at least the required three years at a four-year college before becoming draft eligible.

“Willie is able to kind of put things in perspective,” said McNutt, who has had only three four-year starters during his 27-year tenure at Carson High. “He’ll kind of take what he can from this and then work hard and build on it. He’ll go about his business. I think down the road, he might play second base or first base. But he certainly has the size and arm strength to play third base at the next level. He’s just that type of athlete.”

Bowman is just trying to make sense of everything.

“Right now I want to be at UNLV but if the opportunity (of playing professionally) presented itself I would consider it,” Bowman said. “It’s been a dream of mine to play major league baseball and if I had a chance I would want to do it.”

When the conversation turns back toward his senior season, though, Bowman appears more sensible. Even though it’s perfectly normal for a 17-year-old to have his head in the clouds, Bowman believes all his newfound success only means that everybody will expect amazing things from him this season.

“I thought I could be an impact player (at Carson) but I didn’t expect this,” Bowman said. “I’m hoping for an even better season next year. It’s what I’ve worked hard all summer for.”