Three years ago, Brian Wichman and Peyton Gray were the top two pitchers on the Columbus East baseball team.
Their paths took them to different Division I colleges, but now circumstances have them back on the same squad, albeit at a junior college 12 hours away.
Wichman and Gray are part of the Gulf Coast State College team in Panama City, Florida. The Commodores will open their season Friday and Saturday when they host the Gulf Coast First Pitch Classic.
Bridging the gap
Gray, a 2014 East graduate, signed with Western Michigan in high school and played for the Broncos last season. But he wasn’t happy in Michigan and decided to head south.
“I didn’t feel like it’s the place I wanted to spend four years of my life,” Gray said. “I maybe committed too early. I knew I wanted to leave, but I couldn’t make any moves until after the season. I knew I had to go JUCO because I would have lost that year of eligibility.”
So Gray ended up contacting junior colleges in Florida. He went to Gulf Coast State on a visit and threw for coaches, met the team and saw the campus.
Gray, who went 0-1 with a 3.58 ERA in 37 2/3 innings last year at Western Michigan, allowed no runs and only three hits in 16 innings in the fall at Gulf Coast State.
In November, Gray signed a letter of intent to play next year at Division I Florida Gulf Coast University. FGCU coaches had seen him throw at a Sophomore Showcase at Tigertown in Lakeland, Florida, and offered a scholarship a few days later.
“I wanted to email Florida Gulf Coast and tell them my ultimate goal was to be seen by them, but I never did,” Gray said. “I wanted to let my pitching do the talking.”
Western Michigan played a weekend series at Florida Gulf Coast last year, and Gray threw two innings of scoreless relief.
“I thought to myself, ‘Wow, that’s a good school to go to,'” Gray said. “I kind of envied some of the guys on that team. It was like a dream come true to be able to sign with them.”
The 6-foot-4 right-hander was hitting the upper 80s with his fastball and topping out at 90 mph in the fall. He will be eligible for the major-league draft in June, so if he has a big season and catches the eye of a professional team, he may not make it to Florida Gulf Coast.
“I would like to do the best I can down here,” Gray said. “It would be cool to try to win a JUCO national championship or a state tournament and be an All-American. I want to put my name out there more in the draft.”
Road to recovery
Wichman, who graduated from East in 2013, played his freshman year at Murray State. But then he developed arm trouble that caused him to miss last season.
The left-hander underwent Tommy John surgery in March. Following the surgery, Murray State cut his scholarship money.
So Wichman spent the fall at home in Columbus rehabbing and taking classes at Ivy Tech. He couldn’t throw until December.
At that point, Wichman drove to Florida and threw for Gulf Coast College coaches. The Commodores offered him a spot on the team and a scholarship.
“I had to follow the doctor’s orders and stick with my rehab program, and Peyton helped me get another shot,” Wichman said. “Peyton got me the tryout, pretty much. He had been talking to the coaches.”
Now, the 5-foot-10 Wichman is doing bullpen sessions and long-tossing every day. His velocity is back to 88 to 89 mph, which is almost where it was before the surgery.
Like Gray, Wichman will be eligible for the draft at the end of the season. But his main goal is to get back to the Division I level and continue his education next year.
Although many careers have been ended by Tommy John surgery, Wichman didn’t let that thought cross his mind because he knew he still wanted to play.
“Just watching the guys practice and play games (last year) was hard because I was somebody that wanted to be out on the field, and I just couldn’t,” Wichman said. “It was even hard coming here, because I’ve had to sit out a couple days because of fatigue. It’s the game that I love, and I’ve had to take a different perspective on the game.
“I’m very thankful that I was able to come back and be able to throw again and be out on the field again,” he said. “It makes you appreciate the game being out there with guys who love playing baseball, too.”
Gulf Coast State College’s baseball team went 34-20 last year. The Commodores are 399-172 the past 10 years under coach Mike Kandler.
Eighteen former Gulf Coast State players have reached the major leagues. The first of those was Don Sutton, who enjoyed a storied career with the Los Angeles Dodgers.