Future first-rounder? Top prospect continues to hone his craft at UC

Happ is on the preseason 50-player watch list for the Golden Spikes award presented by USA Baseball to the top amateur player in the country.

Ashley Kempher/ UC

CINCINNATI — The sun beats down on the bleachers at Marge Schott Stadium, warming a February day better than usual. It only adds to Ian Happ’s anticipation for the start of the baseball season.

"This is our last day of practice," said the University of Cincinnati junior right fielder. "We’re all champing at it to get on the bus tomorrow. That’s the most fun part, getting on the bus at 8 a.m. and you get to travel with the guys… This is the fun part for us. This is what we’ve been waiting for."

UC opens its season this weekend in Starkville, Miss., playing in the Mississippi State Classic. They face rival Miami University first on Friday, then No. 14 Mississippi State. UC and Mississippi State will play single games Saturday and Sunday.

UC’s baseball team, coming off a 22-31 season in Ty Neal’s first season as the head coach, is a work in progress. Happ is its base of foundation, the kind of player who hasn’t been seen often in the program. His list of preseason accolades is extensive, a product of what he’s done his first two seasons at UC as well as in the Cape Code League where he went from a temporary player on a two-week contract to a two-time all-star in the prestigious summer circuit.

Happ is on the preseason 50-player watch list for the Golden Spikes award presented by USA Baseball to the top amateur player in the country. He was named a first-team preseason All-American by Baseball America, Perfect Game and D1Baseball.com and is the preseason pick as the Player of the Year in the American Athletic Conference.

UC has never had a first-round draft choice in baseball but that could change with Happ, who is listed at No. 16 among MLBPipeline.com’s top 50 draft prospects.

Not that he’s thinking about it much, if at all. One of the reasons Happ came to UC instead of one of the other schools that recruited him out of Pittsburgh’s Mt. Lebanon High School was the chance to be part of a turn-around. He knew he’d get a chance to play right away. He’s hit .322 in each of his first two seasons. He’s been on base 200 times either by hit or walk in 107 career games entering this season and his on-base percentage of .447 is fourth on the program’s all-time list, which is topped by former Boston Red Sox and Cincinnati native Kevin Youkilis at .499.

"(The accolades) mean a lot and they’re appreciated but I’m just trying to do what I can every day to get better," said Happ. "There’s still a lot of room for me to improve and a lot for our team to improve. I think the things that really matter are the wins. There haven’t been enough of those yet."

Happ was already a Bearcat when Neal took over the program following the 2013 season. Neal was an assistant coach under Tracy Smith at Indiana before being hired by UC. The Hoosiers went from the bottom of the Big Ten to becoming the conference’s first College World Series participant in 29 years when they went to Omaha in 2013 while Neal was on Smith’s staff.

Neal understands the complexities of building a program that hasn’t had much sustained success or tradition to build upon. He has a freshman class of 22. There are seven juniors and one senior on the UC roster. Neal has tapped into some of the UC history, including having current major leaguers and alumni Josh Harrison and Tony Campana come back and be talk with the players.

The biggest asset available to Neal will be Happ.

"I think deep down there is probably some internal pressure that he’s putting on himself to have a good year, and there’s always that pressure from the draft, but he’s handled it well," said Neal. "Not just is he a good baseball player but he’s a good human being and he’s one of our best students, too. I think he has the capacity to handle it."

Happ will be more important than just whatever numbers he puts up.

"There are some things on the field that he does quite well that’s put him in the position to be one of the best players in the country and one of the best prospects in the country," said Neal. "It’s good for our freshmen. They’re hearing it out of my mouth but seeing him doing it."