Leader Blues

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

SPORTS >> Making the grade

By TODD TRAUB
Leader sportswriter

Brandon Eller plays a game where they count everything, so it’s a good thing he excels at math.

Eller, the former Sylvan Hills High standout, has concluded his baseball career at Arkansas State and will wrap up his academic career when he graduates as a first-team academic All-American in December.

A math major, Eller posted a 4.0 GPA throughout college and joined football player Brian Flagg, the former defensive end who graduated in May, as Arkansas State’s first-teamers on the 2008-09 Academic All-American roster.

“It was definitely real challenging sometimes,” said Eller, who played mostly first base last season and is planning to coach and teach. “It just depended on what the semester was for me. I’m pretty good at math, but some of the education classes and some of the upper education math classes took some studying on road trips and online.”

Flagg and Eller are among a record 10 Sun Belt Conference athletes to make the All-American team, topping the previous high of seven who earned the honor in 2005-06.

“I’ve always taken a little bit of pride in being able to make good grades,” Eller said. “I’m almost done now. … The classes get a little harder. I didn’t know if I was going to lose that 4.0 but I’ve been able to keep it.”

The academic team is chosen by the College Sports Information Directors of America (CoSIDA). To be eligible, a student-athlete must be a varsity starter or key reserve, maintain a minimum, cumulative GPA of 3.30 on a 4.0 scale, have reached sophomore academic and athletic standing and be nominated by the sports information director.

They don’t come more qualified than Eller from a GPA standpoint. As for the on-field stuff, he had that pretty well taken care of too.

Eller started all 53 games for the Red Wolves in 2009. He batted .311 and was third on the team in hits (64) and RBI (39).

“We are so happy for Brandon Eller,” first-year Red Wolves coach Tommy Raffo said. “What a special honor that has been bestowed on him and the ASU baseball program. He is very deserving, with all the hard work he has put in on and off the field.”

A Sherwood native, Eller came to Arkansas State as a slugging shortstop and pitcher out of Sylvan Hills. He won three state tournament games in relief and batted .570 his senior year, when the Bears won a state championship, and he also helped the team to a title as a sophomore and a runner-up finish as a junior.

Eller’s biggest collegiate thrills were beating No. 2 Ole Miss his junior year and hitting his second career grand slam to beat Louisiana-Monroe in a Sun Belt Conference game as a senior.

Eller, 6-1, 175 pounds, didn’t worry too much about his statistics, but given his major field of study, they were never very hard to figure.

“I usually knew what my batting average was and stuff because I could do most of that in my head,” Eller said. “But I didn’t think of stats too much; I just tried to play.”

It was a little more challenging to balance baseball and school, but Eller was able to get to the field with teammates and get his hitting in his spare time. On road trips Eller flip-flopped his schedule, using his time off the field to hit the books.

“It really wasn’t too bad, balancing the time,” Eller said.

Eller still needs his student- teaching internship to graduate, but he figures to complete that this fall with his prefect GPA intact.

“I want to coach. I’m getting a coaching endorsement,” Eller said. “It’s 20 extra hours but I’m almost done with that too.”

Eller went to Arkansas State on an academic scholarship, though he was good enough to earn at least a partial athletic ride.

“It’s a balance,” Eller said. “I would stress education. For me, I got all my scholarships through education. That’s something you’ve got to fall back on.”

Eller learned the value of a fallback plan when a shoulder injury ended the pitching half of his career his freshman season at Arkansas State.

He was 3-3 with a 5.06 ERA and hit .667 as a freshman. He played mostly first as a sophomore and senior, mostly second as a junior and was always available as the designated hitter.

“Before I got hurt I thought I had a chance to get drafted,” said Eller who batted .347 as a sophomore and .290 as a junior.

“But my last couple years I wanted to enjoy my college career. I just wanted to have fun playing college ball.”

His sterling GPA made that a certainty.

“That was obviously another incentive to keep my grades up,” Eller said.