May 18, 2011
By Shawn Sell
They've been teammates nearly every year since the first grade. Though they took different roads to get to where they are now, they are back together once again. The only difference is they are nearly 2,000 miles from the place they call home.
From about the age of five, UC junior baseball players Jake Saylor and Sam Vandenheuvel have been nearly inseparable. Beginning in the first grade, the two Chandler, Arizona natives have played on the same team, whether it was t-ball, Little League or high school for all but two seasons. And now, they are closing in on the conclusion of their first season wearing Bearcat Red and Black and they couldn't be happier with their new surroundings.
"We were in first grade together in Mrs. Reeser's class," Vandenheuvel says. "If you can believe it, he was a math star back in the day. We met in first grade and played t-ball together and coach pitch together. His Dad was the pitcher on the coach-pitch team. Then in high school we won a state championship together. It's been great growing up with him."
Saylor's life actually started in Cincinnati, where he was born and lived in Colerain until his father's job moved the family to Arizona. His first friend in the Grand Canyon State? Of course, it was Vandenheuvel.
"Sam was the first friend I made in Arizona," he says. "We lived about a half-mile from each other our whole lives. We went to the same elementary school through high school together and then we played in the same junior college league against each other. We've been best friends since we were five years old so it's been really cool."
For high school, the duo both attended Chandler's Hamilton High, where they led their team to an improbable state championship as seniors, batting 1-2 in the Huskies' line-up.
"We scored four runs in the bottom of the seventh to win," Saylor recalls with a smile. "He was the lead-off hitter and I was the two-hitter so we are always next to each other in the line-up."
After the magic of being seniors at Hamilton, Saylor and Vandenheuvel went their separate ways for the first time since meeting at a young age. Saylor stayed close to home, enrolling at Arizona State, while Vandenheuvel made a cross country trip to play ball at the University of Rhode Island. But neither situation proved to be the right spot, so both made the move to the Arizona junior college ranks, Saylor at Paradise Valley Community College and Vandenheuvel at league rival Mesa Community College for the 2010 season. After two years apart, the duo was about to be reunited in a rather unlikely new place.
Saylor was the first to grab the attention of the UC staff, particularly assistant coach Greg Mamula, who handled the recruitment of the pair, along with fellow Arizona junior college transfer Nic Spence.
"When I signed they asked if I knew of any good infielders and I told them about Sam," Saylor says. "I knew he was a good player and a gamer and knew the game well. So they checked him out and liked him and now we are living together again."
"They went out and got Jake locked up and I was actually committed to Eastern Michigan," Vandenheuvel recounts. "But he talked to Coach (Mamula) and when I looked at both programs, in my opinion it wasn't close. I was trying to do whatever I could to get here with Jake and it came through and worked out that I came here."
Even though Cincinnati is an up-and-coming program in the BIG EAST with some of the Midwest's finest facilities, how in the world did the UC coaching staff convince the pair to move nearly 2,000 miles from home to continue their playing careers? According to Mamula, it really wasn't that difficult of a chore.
"Arizona is well known for its strong junior college programs, but there are only two DI schools in the state," he says. "So there is a lot of good talent playing junior college baseball. We are one of several schools that have been down there the last couple years recruiting JC's players."
"There is a lot of talent out west and the choices are kind of limited with only two Division I schools in Arizona," Vandenheuvel adds. "But in Ohio, there are a bunch (of Division I schools). It's tough to find Division I money out there so any chance we get to play, we just sort of move out east and that's the way it works."
While their numbers don't necessarily reflect it, Saylor and Vandenheuvel have been important factors in UC's success this season. Saylor has been outstanding behind the plate, starting 42 games at catcher and throwing out 41 percent of would be base stealers. Vandenheuvel has been a starter at second base on 47 occasions this year, hitting .259 and has even appeared in five games with one save on the mound. Throw the steady improvement of the pair, along with fellow Arizona import Spence and Mamula for one is pleased with the contributions they have made.
"No question," he says of the trio meeting the coaching staff's expectations. "All three have been good players and done a good job. The thing about all three of those guys is they are great team guys. They are all about winning and the right things; they practice hard, they play hard, all that stuff."
Nearly all their lives, Jake Saylor and Sam Vandenheuvel have been connected by the common threads of friendship and baseball. And now thanks to an opportunity presented by the UC Baseball program, they will get to wrap up college careers sharing the same field as they have for so many years.
"When they told me that I had the opportunity to come here, it was something that we really wanted to do," Vandenheuvel says. "We've been together since we were four or five years old and we think it's neat that we are going to be able to finish up together."