Sports

Oral Roberts saw something other schools missed in Bench Award finalist

Oral Roberts catcher Matt Whatley is one of three finalists for the Johnny Bench Award. The winner will be announced Thursday at the annual Greater Wichita Sports Commission Banquet.
Oral Roberts catcher Matt Whatley is one of three finalists for the Johnny Bench Award. The winner will be announced Thursday at the annual Greater Wichita Sports Commission Banquet.

It happens less frequently in this time of exposure camps, travel teams and video highlights. It is, however, possible for a baseball player to proceed through high school largely unnoticed and develop into a star in college.

Catcher Matt Whatley said he received one NCAA Division I scholarship offer. He took it from Oral Roberts coach Ryan Folmar. Folmar noticed Whatley at his camps and quickly moved to secure his commitment. Whatley isn’t sure of his path without ORU — he likely would have landed at a junior college.

“I thought I was going to play like 15 or 20 games,” Whatley said, to recount his freshman expectations. “I ended up starting 54 games. This was all stuff I didn’t really see coming.”

Three years later, Whatley is starting his career in the Texas Rangers organization and one of three finalists for the Johnny Bench Award, given to the nation’s top college catcher. He joins Long Beach State’s David Banuelos and Louisiana Tech’s Brent Diaz. The winner is announced at Thursday’s Greater Wichita Sports Commission Banquet.

Folmar saw superior athletic ability when he watched Whatley, from Claremore, Okla. He also saw an athlete who listened, followed instructions and made changes to his swing, footwork or stance quickly.

“It was a no-brainer for us,” Folmar said. “We snuck one away from everybody. We knew he was physically gifted. All the makeup stuff was off the charts.”

Whatley, drafted in the third round, hit .339 for his career at Oral Roberts and earned All-Summit League honors three times. As a junior, he threw out 43 percent of runners attempting to steal and didn’t commit an error or allow a passed ball. He hit .302 with 11 home runs.

“He made a lot of strides offensively,” Folmar said. “He worked tirelessly and with great passion.”

Whatley didn’t slump often. He hit leadoff as a freshman before moving to the middle of the order. Folmar let him work through rough patches. When Whatley got down on himself, Folmar kept him in the lineup.

“He constantly believed in me and allowed me to fail,” Whatley said. “He allowed me to be myself and play through some stuff. I was really a kid who developed in college.”

Diaz, a junior from Miami, hit .332 with nine home runs. He earned All-Conference USA honors and third-team All-American honors from Collegiate Baseball. Milwaukee drafted him in the 29th round and he signed.

Banuelos, a junior from Ontario, Calif., earned ABCA/Rawlings Gold Glove honors as the nation’s top defensive catcher and three All-American honors. He hit .289 with seven home runs. He signed with Seattle after the Mariners picked him in the fifth round.

Award finalists

▪ High school female: Haley Albers (Cheney), Jewell Bolden (Andover Central), Emma Whitaker (Kapaun Mount Carmel).

▪  High school male: Collin Ellis (Clearwater), Matt Pile (Eisenhower), Thomas Wells (Kapaun Mount Carmel).

▪  Junior college female: Courtney Griffiths (Cowley track and field), Brynn Minor (Butler softball), Taylor Stahly (Hutchinson basketball)

▪  Junior college male: Andre Ewers (Butler track and field), Shakur Juiston (Hutchinson basketball), Mike’l Simms (Cowley basketball)

▪  College female: Chelsea Baker (Friends track and field), Emily Harvey (Newman volleyball), Nikki Larch-Miller (Wichita State track and field)

▪  College male: Toby Baxter (Friends basketball), Dustin Reed (Newman wrestling), Hunter Veith (Wichita State track and field)

▪  Professional: Macoy Erkamps (Thunder), Mikendric Harper (Force), T.J. Mittelstaedt (Wingnuts)

Paul Suellentrop: 316-269-6760, @paulsuellentrop

Greater Wichita Sports Banquet

  • When: 6 p.m. Thursday
  • Where: Hyatt Regency Wichita
  • Guest speaker: Tom Paciorek, former major-league baseball player
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