NEW PALESTINE — Nick Butcher’s name is nowhere to be found among the 2013 local baseball statistical leaders. A key defensive cog for New Palestine, robbing opponents of hits from his shortstop position always came easier to Butcher than collecting his own hits at the plate.
In this, his recently completed final season for the Dragons, Butcher finally found the self-assurance with the bat that he had with the glove, bumping his average a whopping 155 points, from .281 to .436, the fourth best mark in Hancock County. Combined with his usual defensive acumen, Butcher’s hot stick (and .550 on-base percentage) from the leadoff spot helped the club claim sectional and regional championships.
Connor Swain, New Palestine’s senior center fielder, joins Butcher – a lifelong friend and teammate – as The Daily Reporter 2014 Hancock County Co-Players of the Year.
“It’s just been more confidence every single year,” Swain said of his buddy. “He’s always had the talent, but he grew a lot, got stronger and stuff, and he just took off.”
For Swain, he’s forever been good with a bat, or racquet, in his hands. An accomplished tennis player for the Dragons, he was a full-time baseball starter as a sophomore. That season, he hit .402 as New Palestine claimed a regional title. This year, Swain hit .417 with a team-best 28 RBI as the Dragons (28-10) beat No. 2-ranked Lebanon and Edgewood to put another regional crown in the school’s trophy case.
Swain’s athletic reputation preceded him at the high school level.
“My son (Corey) and Connor played together, so I’ve known Connor since he was 8, 9 years old,” New Palestine head coach Shawn Lyons said. “His dad and I coached the travel team together and so I knew about Connor. And, yeah our eyes were lighting up a little bit.”
In the Dragons’ 6-4 regional semifinal win over Lebanon, Swain went 2-for-4 with a double and RBI to help chase Vanderbilt commit Reid Schaller from the Lebanon mound.
It was a typical Swain performance. But Swain, despite the natural ability, has never coasted.
“He didn’t take it for granted,” Lyons said of Swain’s talent. “A lot of times it comes easy for a kid and they take it for granted and then other kids pass them up that work harder. Connor was our hardest worker in our weight room and he did a great job of leading us on the field.
“It makes a coach’s job easier when your best players are also your hardest workers and that’s what Connor Swain is.”
Lyons credited Swain with buying into the program’s “Team before me” philosophy. Probably best suited defensively for third base, Swain has also without complaint played right field, first base, pitcher and, this year, center field, depending on what holes Lyons needed to plug in the lineup.
There has never been any doubt, however, that Butcher belonged in the middle of the infield. The fleet-footed and sure-handed Butcher was part of a first-inning double play that ended an early regional threat by Lebanon, after NP had jumped in front 1-0 to open the game. In the second inning of the 4-0 regional championship win over Edgewood, again with NP up 1-0, Butcher helped complete another twin-killing.
Butcher’s defensive presence was in addition to his county-best 39 runs scored and team-high 16 stolen bases.
“With Nick, you would pick him out of a clinic in terms of groundballs and how he fields it,” Lyons said. “We’ve already had a couple of summer games, and trying to pencil somebody into that position has already been like, ‘Wow, we already miss him.’”
New Palestine’s special season ended with an 8-5 semistate loss to Gibson Southern, which went on to fall to Andrean 6-0 in the Class 3A title game.
Butcher is headed to Anderson University to play baseball and study finance. He, of course, hopes his newfound handiwork at the plate follows.
“They’ve been telling me they had faith in me ever since freshman year,” Butcher said. “But this year is when it finally hit, where I finally started believing in myself, like ‘Hey, I’m actually pretty good. I can do this.’”
Swain will focus solely on earning a Purdue engineering degree from IUPUI.
Both players will be missed by Lyons, who was proud to say that Butcher and Swain provided something other than the requisite talent and leadership.
“Well, I would put another category in there for myself,” Lyons said. “Selfishly, I’m going to miss their friendship. Those kids were great to work with. They’re very respectful, very loyal. And the rest of the program sees that.
“So, yeah, their leadership, their work ethic and their friendship I’m going to miss.”
DID YOU KNOW...
>>Getting to know New Palestine shortstop Nick Butcher and center fielder Connor Swain, recently graduated seniors and the 2014 Hancock County Baseball Players of the Year.
Nick: The Transformer series, also Happy Gilmore
Connor: Captain America: The First Avenger
Nick: Luke Bryan
Connor: Dierks Bentley or Craig Morgan
Most annoying song/artist
Nick: Call Me Maybe
Connor: Justin Bieber
Favorite TV show
Connor: Swamp People
Favorite TV show as a kid
Connor: Arthur and iCarly
Favorite high school class
Least favorite class
Nick: Anderson University, majoring in Finance and playing baseball
Connor: IUPUI, majoring in Engineering
Best nickname on the baseball team
Nick and Connor: “Gilly” for Logan Gilvin and “Scuba Steve” for Steven Clark
Nick: Dustin Pedroia, Boston Red Sox second baseman
Connor: Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels outfielder; Roger Federer, tennis; Novak Djokovic, tennis
Least favorite team
Nick: New York Yankees
Connor: New York Yankees
Toughest pitcher faced this season
Nick: Michael McAvene, Roncalli
Connor: Jake Clawson, Yorktown
THE PEOPLE'S CHOICE
Mt. Vernon’s Noah Powell collected 32 percent of the nearly 3,000 votes cast nationwide to win the Daily Reporter’s online player of the year poll. Powell tallied 871 votes to beat New Palestine’s Nick Butcher (29%, 793 votes) and Greenfield-Central’s Slater Rush (16%, 431 votes).