---- — By Marion Valanoski
For The Daily Item
HACKETTSTOWN, N.J. -- Scott Kushner took a gamble most coaches in the Division III ranks all eventually must take when dealing with the unknown qualities of high school athletes. They don't have the luxury of their Division I brothers who can recruit in bulk and afford to sometimes come up short in the talent evaluation pool.
So despite Danville's Mitch Renz having pitched only his junior year in high school and missing all of his senior campaign with a torn ACL, Kushner, the Centenary College head baseball coach, felt something good about the Danville and recruited the former Ironmen standout for his program.
"When you see high school athletes, in many cases, you don't get a look at the finished product," the Cyclones coach said. "We were aware of his injury but, after spending time with his family and coaches, I came away with a good feeling and got the impression based on his work ethic and other reports he'd be a good fit for our program.
"We had to shut him down his freshman year after pitching only five innings in relief but what we saw in that short time indicated we had something special and only had to cultivate it and bring him along and good things could possibly happen."
Good things might be an understatement when discussing the breakout campaign Renz had for the Cyclones this past year.
Renz finished with a respectable 4-2 record but his statistics were out of this world and impressive on any level of pitching, ranking him with some of the best in the country in NCAA Division III play.
In nine games started, the sophomore hurler allowed only 50 hits in 58 innings on the mound and allowed only nine earned runs, finishing with an earned run average of 1.40. That was good enough for a ranking of 24th nationwide. But the best was yet to come.
Renz gave up only two walks the entire season, ranking him first in Division III (0.31), and managed only four 3-0 counts all year. He garnered the top spot in his class for strikeouts-to-walks ratio, whiffing 33 opposing batters while giving up those two paltry free passes. He tied Joe Frankosky of Western Connecticut for first with a 5.0 margin in his nine starts.
His fielding percentage was 1.000, handling 22 chances with six putouts and 16 assists, and he held opposing hitters to a miniscule .229 mark.
In other words the gamble has more than paid off, but how and why?
"My pitching coach, Brett Stout, really pushed me hard and I watched plenty of tape on Greg Maddux and how he approached pitching in the professional ranks," Renz said. "I learned the importance of location and never wasting a pitch. Plus, I finally was healthy and able to throw pain-free."
Kushner also points to Renz's ability to throw all three of his pitches for strikes and his unbelievable concentration while on the mound.
"Mitch has great command of his fastball and his change-up was phenomenal," Kushner said. "He's great at concentrating when he has to make that big pitch, and, on those rare occasions when he needs that something extra, he can step behind the mound and take a deep breath to control his emotions and then throw that big pitch for a strike.
"He also was able to learn while watching from the sidelines as a freshman, learning the importance of pacing yourself as a starter in comparison to a reliever."
Renz's desire to try to make a career for himself on the collegiate level came after playing travel ball with the Lehigh Valley Baseball Academy and observing the passion of the players on the squad as they competed against players from Division I during the summer.
"If it wasn't for them I probably would not be playing in college today, said Renz, son of Rich and Marlene Renz. "Those guys eat, sleep and dream baseball and their passion for the game has no limit. All of my 20 teammates for those two years played in college and we went up against some of the best in the country and were successful.
"When you can see you're capable of performing well against D-I guys it motivates you to want to continue on and show what you are capable of doing on your own team."
The Cyclones were 18-21 last season and advanced into the Colonial State Athletic Conference playoffs for the first time in school history, fueling the desire of Renz to try to duplicate or better his accomplishments of last year.
"My goals are to make it through all of my games and push myself to get stronger and be totally healthy for the season," Renz said. "There are 30 guys on the roster and 22 are underclassmen so we would like to improve as a team record-wise and in the postseason."
Is it possible?
"We are counting on Mitch to be our ace of the staff," Kushner said. "He always gives us that opportunity to win regardless of who we are playing and getting him to the point where he can pitch deeper into games is another priority of the coaching staff.
"Is he capable of moving on to the next level? From a pitching standpoint he knows how to pitch and how to get good hitters out but we also know pro scouts are infatuated with velocity and that player with the raw skills but a very lively arm. However, if he continues to progress and put up numbers like he did last year the scouts have to take notice."
Not bad for a player who was the No. 3 man on his 9-10-year-old team in Danville that captured the Pennsylvania State Championship. But he displayed an ability to hit as evidenced by his place in the batting order, leadoff.
"I want to get better and will never stop working to achieve that goal," Renz said. "And along with my coaches and teammates I would be remiss if I didn't thank my father for being there for me right through the formative years until now, he's truly been an inspiration."