When it comes to baseball, there are not many time limits.

Life is a bit different.

This season was Jacob McDaniel's time to step up as a balanced leader, represent his young team and play hard for his supportive family. By the end of the 2016 season, the Northland Prep Academy junior achieved his goals and earned the Arizona Daily Sun 2016 Baseball Athlete of the Year Award.

The first Spartans ballplayer in program history to garner the accolade, McDaniel lifted his team into the playoffs with his strong play on both sides of the plate, all while bearing a heavy emotional weight.

In remembrance of this mother Jody, McDaniel before every game drew the letter "J" behind the plate when he caught or behind the mound when he pitched.

"It was just a reminder of who I was playing for out there," McDaniel said of his mother, who died two years ago.

McDaniel said this season was the toughest "in terms of mental strength." 

"There was a lot more emotion for me during this season," he said. "I used to just show up and play baseball like I used to, but this year I was thinking more about the people who have inspired me to play baseball throughout my life, the people who were around me during these times."

Channeling his emotions into a drive to help NPA battle through a tough regular season and reach the postseason, McDaniel elevated his game and his role as a leader. For instance, the starting pitcher threw a no-hitter in April against Monument Valley on a day the Spartans had a limited roster and needed him to pitch a solid and complete game.

"I definitely found motivation knowing who I am playing for and knowing what my abilities are and working on having more of a mental edge, which I felt didn't come around until the latter half of the season. Many aspects of my game came out that I never noticed before," said McDaniel, who ended the year with a team-high 69 at-bats, recorded a .499 batting average and notched 28 RBIs.

WAITING TO HEAT UP

The beginning of the season was a roller coaster ride. The Spartans started 3-5 and looked as if they couldn't handle the one-year experiment of the AIA realignments. The team, made up of mostly of freshmen and sophomores, found ways to win, however.

"It looked a little rough at the start," McDaniel said of the young Spartans taking on the tough schedule. "People were getting one-hit games at the start, we were walking a lot of batters, our defense wasn't the sharpest. But my mental attitude the entire time was that it's just the start of the season, we are getting the rust off everyone, we have five phenomenal freshmen who are going into this."

Soon enough, the Spartans were showing their style of play, with one through nine in the lineup reaching base, bags being stolen and limiting errors in the field. After the shaky start, the team won six of their next seven games to put themselves into the playoff bubble and ended with a 10-8 regular-season record.

McDaniel's faith in his team helped him find the patience he needed to lead a young team in addition to working with freshmen catchers Jack Sullivan and Jacob Marquez.

"I could see at the beginning of the year some of Jacob's frustration because we didn't have anyone who was comfortable enough to catch for him because he threw so hard," said Spartans first-year manager Ryan Johnson. "He was patient with the process and eventually we got to the point where we have two guys I feel comfortable knowing they can get the job done."

LEADER IN THE DUGOUT

With only two seniors on the roster -- Morgan Barta and Taylor Highline -- McDaniel said he was ready to become a presence in the dugout.

"This year I discovered that it's finding a balance being both the kid who has to get on them and tell them 'Hey, let's pick it up right now or else we aren't making state, plain and simple,' and being the kid who has to joke with them and be their friend," McDaniel said.

Johnson said he enjoyed watching McDaniel's voice reach another volume.

"It was something to where he kind of eased himself into that position, becoming more and more of a leader as the season wore on," the skipper said. "He eventually became the guy who, after the coaches would break it down, would say, 'Hey, boys, this is the time, this is the time to step it up.'"

Acting as a leader was a far cry from McDaniel's early days of baseball. One of the necklaces he wore during games reminded him of a time when he was warming benches.

McDaniel played Little League on a Continental team and while on the All-Stars team watched kids such as Coconino seniors Marcus Romo, Christ Tabares and Todd Furr take the field. Now, McDaniel said, he is proud to have had the chance to represent the Spartans, especially during a year when NPA was the only school in the city of Flagstaff to reach the postseason.

"It's great for the program to have one of our boys win this award, because it shows that we are not necessarily the third-tier team in town," Johnson said. "Kids can come to this school, play playoff baseball, face good teams, and they will get the recognition and notoriety they feel they might not get if they feel they have to go to Flagstaff High or Coconino to get that recognition."

READY FOR THE NEXT INNING

For McDaniel, who was named to the Division IV Section One All-Section First Team, his recognition shows how much he is devoted to the program. It also shows how much he appreciates the time his parents spent with him either catching or playing soft-toss with him when he was a kid.

"It's just something I worked at my entire life," McDaniel said.

Both McDaniel and his manager know next season is another chance to make a push for section and state titles.

"We have a big part of the piece coming back next year, with Jacob being a part of that," Johnson said.

Maybe next year will be their time to shine even brighter.

Mike Hartman can be reached at 556-2255 or at mhartman@azdailysun.com.

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