It hasn’t been the college baseball experience Keegan Watson expected.

It’s been six-years long and had its ups and downs.

Unfortunately for Watson he’s had more downs than ups.

He’ll tell you it’s all been worth it.

“It’s hard to really say what kind of process it takes (to be where I’m at now), because it’s random,” Watson said. “Injuries kind of spring up out of nowhere. Unfortunately, I’ve had the ‘pleasure’ of being riddled with injuries. It’s tough but being able to get back out there, healthy, and playing baseball is the best feeling in the world. I wouldn’t trade my experiences for anything.”

Nagging injury after nagging injury, a much more serious injury — resulting in Tommy John Surgery — and a school that said it didn’t want him anymore is a lot to handle.

But here he is, preparing to play in an NCAA Division I Super Regional after his home run helped seal Indiana State University’s first regional championship since 1986.

A 2017 New Palestine High School graduate and standout for the Dragons baseball team, Watson is wrapping up his sixth year of college ball, getting additional years with a redshirt transfer season and an additional year after COVID-19. The Trees, as they are affectionately called by their fan base, are in Fort Worth, Texas this weekend for a best 2-of-3 series against TCU. The series winner will advance to the College World Series.

“He went through a tough time with injuries and not playing as much as he wanted to at Nebraska, he got hurt, it affected his play, he had Tommy John …” New Palestine baseball coach Shawn Lyons said. “He didn’t hit bottom, but he was close. I think it’s a testament to him as a person, but also his mom (Amy) and dad (Dan) who’ve been with him through the good times and bad times.

“His mom texted me after the game on Sunday when he hit that home run. She said she never gets emotional during the game, but she cried tears of joy during the game. She was so happy for Keegan because of what has transpired throughout his college career.”

Watson was a star with the Dragons. Along with multiple Hancock County Player of the Year honors, he was a MaxPreps All-American and Perfect Game honorable mention All-American.

He went on to the University of Nebraska. After two seasons of limited action, he was faced with a coaching change.

“(The new coaching staff) kind of told me I wasn’t the player they were looking for,” Watson said. “So I hit the transfer portal in the fall of 2020. I reached out to a bunch of schools. Indiana State had recruited me out of high school. Indiana State assistant coach Brad Vanderglas (now an assistant at Florida State) reached out to me. I got in touch and it went from there.”

There was Tommy John Surgery in the Fall of 2021.

He was working on being a two-way player, both pitching and playing outfield. During in-and-outs in pregame at a series at the University of Tennessee, Watson threw a ball back in from the outfield. He said it felt like someone took a knife and stabbed him in the elbow.

After recovering from major surgery and missing the remainder of the season, his 2022 didn’t start off very well either. He suffered a wrist injury that hurt so bad he couldn’t swing a bat.

There was another injury this year, too. After being plunked in the ribs in an intrasquad game, Watson, in the season opener, dove to make a catch, re-injured the ribs and missed two weeks.

He’s back in the lineup and has been a key part of the Sycamore run that has garnered regular season and tournament championships, national rankings and a regional title. Indiana State heads into this week’s super regional with a 45-15 record. They were 2-8 at one point with a seven-game losing streak. They’ve won 37 of their last 41 games since going 8-11 to start the season.

“It’s hard to put (this season) into words.” Watson said. “We had a shaky start to the beginning of the season, but I think that made us better as a team as the year went on because we got hit with adversity quick, right from the get-go. We lost incredibly marginal games. A play or two here or there could have changed the outcome of a lot of the games.

“But, this is what we grinded all fall for. This is what we’ve worked so hard for. Our coaches prepared us for moments like this. To put it into words is incredibly difficult, but I’m extremely grateful to be part of this team right now.”

Watson is hitting a team-best .309. His six home runs are fourth most on the club and 14 doubles rank third. He’s driven in 28 and is one of 10 players with 25 or more RBIs on the season. He made a leaping catch in left field to rob an Illinois player of a home run on May 3, earning an ESPN Top 10 Plays spot.

But it didn’t get any better than it has the last two weeks, winning the MVC tournament and regional title on home turf at Bob Warn Field at Sycamore Stadium.

“It’s been a great couple of weeks. We had a huge crowd for (the MVC) tournament and the Sycamore faithful were unbelievable last weekend,” Watson said. “The stadium was packed. I’m standing on third base and I can’t even hear my third base coach talk …All those people packing Bob Warn Stadium, backing the Sycamores was an absolutely incredible experience. It got so loud in there you couldn’t hear yourself think sometimes. It was awesome to have that many people supporting the Sycamores.”

Sunday’s regional championship game against Iowa was a back-and-forth affair. Iowa scored first. ISU tied it. The Sycamores took the lead and the Hawkeyes tied it and then went ahead 6-4 in the fourth. ISU tied it in the fifth, 6-6, and led 8-7 in the seventh when Watson came up with two runners on base.

“I saw a boat-load of pitches that game. One of the announcers said I averaged 7.3 pitches per at-bat. I think every count I had went to full except for the first one when I walked on four pitches. I was seeing the ball extremely well,” Watson recalled. “The three-run homer, that at-bat I got a good hack off on a fastball and just missed it, just missed it to send it to a full count. They threw the exact same pitch again. It was almost an identical pitch and I was ready for it and didn’t miss that one.”

It was a great moment for him and a great moment for a program that has been one of the nation’s hidden gems for decades.

“Who doesn’t want to hit the game-winning home run or pitch the last couple innings to give your team the win?” Watson said. “I think every baseball player, that’s what you dream about, being the hero of the game, though it’s a full team thing. Whether it comes down to one guy coming up with the big hit or if it’s a guy eating up innings during a game, doing their job, contributing to the team, it’s a great feeling to be able to be that guy in that moment.

“Credit to our team. It was punch after punch after punch, one team to another that game. Iowa was kind of dried up on the pitching side of things. They gave us a ton of free bases and sometimes we couldn’t capitalize on it. At any point, either team could have taken a five- six- seven-run lead. Credit to our guys for hanging in and credit to our pitching staff for taking some punches. We got right back in it on the offensive side of things.”

Six years and it has culminated to the moment all college players would love to have.

Watson and the Sycamores are just two wins away from heading to Omaha, one of eight teams that will play in the College World Series for a national championship.

“A lot of kids would have quit. This is my health. It’s not worth it,” Lyons said. “He’s stuck it out and has had a really good season at Indiana State. I am really happy for him. He’s grown up a lot and the maturity level he’s at now from where he was his freshman year, it’s been cool to watch him grow up since eighth grade.”

“It’s been a heckuva six years.” Watson added. “They told me (after last season) I had another year to comeback and I couldn’t refuse it. Last year was really the year I got to see a bunch of action on the field. They said they’d love to have me back. How could I refuse another year of baseball? Lo and behold we’re in a super regional this year.”