Newman center fielder Tyler Bugner cleaned out his locker on Tuesday afternoon.
He stuffed a fungo bat into a bucket. He collected a couple of sweat-soaked hats, folded up some jerseys and laid them on the bottom shelf of his locker. He spun a batting helmet in his hands.
And in the moment it struck Bugner, a junior, that this could very well be his last time doing all this. All he could do was shake his head in disbelief.
“It’s crazy to think where I’m at now to where I was three years ago when I first got (to Newman),” Bugner said. “Lots of hard work. Lots of focusing in on what my coaches told me to do to get to this point. It’s crazy to think I could sign a pro contract and go wherever they need me.”
Crazy to think three years ago Bugner, an Andale product, was considering an offer to walk on at Hutchinson Community College before Newman snatched him up.
Crazy to think Bugner (6-foot-3, 195 pounds) has a good chance to be taken in next month’s Major League Baseball Draft after winning back-to-back Heartland Conference batting titles and possessing the type of size, range and speed in the outfield and on the basepaths that pro teams covet. He was named conference player of the year Wednesday.
“Since the season started, we haven’t gone more than 2-3 games without a scout showing up to watch him,” Newman coach Zane Ehling said. “It depends on what he wants to do, but there’s no doubt in my mind that the opportunity will be there for him.”
I know school is important and my education is important. But if the opportunity is there to go play pro ball, I’m going to do that.
Newman center fielder Tyler Bugner
Newman hasn’t had a player drafted since 1995, when Philadelphia selected pitcher Brian Dunne in the 33rd round.
Bugner, the 2014 Heartland Freshman of the Year, has been on pro scouts’ radars since last season, when he hit .436 with 14 doubles, 30 RBIs and finished second in the league with 22 stolen bases. He was named All-Heartland and honorable mention NCAA Division II All-American.
He led the Heartland again this season with a .439 batting average, was second with 82 hits and led the league with 20 stolen bases — he also hit the first four home runs of his career. On defense, Bugner reduced his errors – from five to three – and increased his putouts from 77 to 118, showing increased range in the outfield.
“The first two years there were times he slapped the ball, bumped it for hits and used his speed,” Ehling said. “This year, he was driving the gaps and getting doubles and not getting as many ‘cheap hits’ because he really developed his strength and his swing. He became a different player thanks to his work ethic ... weight room, hitting, you name it and he’s getting after it.”
Newman also posted its first winning season since 2012, going 28-20 and finishing in fifth place – one spot in the standings out of the Heartland Tournament.
“I’m just trying to advise him the best I can, give him all the info I’m getting,” Ehling said. “Either way, I’m happy for him. Obviously, if he comes back that’s going to be great. But if he goes, that’s also good for our program and good for him, too, because we want to develop people and players. It’s going to be gratifying either way.”
Bugner can complete his degree next spring – if he stays in school – and he has a definite plan if that ends up being his path. A path that includes, if the pros don’t come calling, possibly sitting out summer ball in favor of an internship and extra summer courses.
But if the opportunity is there....
“A lot of people have told me that baseball is only going to be around for so long,” Bugner said. “It’s not a decision of whether school is more important than baseball. I know school is important and my education is important. But if the opportunity is there to go play pro ball, I’m going to do that.”