BY STEVE KRAH
Hayden Wynja hasn’t had far to go to prepare for his next diamond destination.
The 6-foot-9, 220-pound left-handed pitcher who graduated from Heritage Christian High School in Indianapolis in 2017 has been getting ready to join the mound staff at the University of South Florida by taking part in the College Summer League at Grand Park in Westfield, Ind.
On Thursday, July 16, Wynja (pronounced Win-Yuh) relieved during the CSL All-Star Game at Victory Field in downtown Indianapolis.
“It felt like baseball again,” says Wynja, who is with the A-Team in the 12-team circuit. “We were on grass and dirt and in front of people.
“It was awesome.”
The CSL came together when other summer leagues were shutting down during the COVID-19 pandemic. Most games are played on Mondays and Tuesdays with the option of training at Pro X Athlete Development at Grand Park Wednesday through Friday.
“It’s not like any summer ball I’ve ever played,” says Wynja. “I like the structure of it, too and that it’s close to home.”
At Lincoln Trail College in Robinson, Ill., Wynja and the Statesmen were coming off a win against No. 1-ranked Logan A. Logan on March 7 when they learned that the 2020 spring season was over.
A similar storyline has been echoed across college baseball.
“This is our season and people are treating it like that,” says Wynja of the Grand Park league. “Players are extremely motivated. They want to play ball. The level of competition is really, really high.”
It was while training during the quarantine that Wynja heard about the opportunity put together by Pro X and Bullpen Tournaments from ball-playing friends.
“It’s crazy how quickly word traveled,” says Wynja.
Besides working on his pitches, including a four-seam running fastball that is clocked in the low 90’s, a hard-biting slider and four-seam change-up generally coming into at 81 to 83 mph thrown from a three-quarter overhand arm slot, Wynja has been carrying a full online college course load.
He’s taking two through Lincoln Trail and two through USF, which is located in Tampa, Fla.
“Art History is kicking my butt,” says Wynja of one South Florida class. He intends to major in Communication at his new school.
Wynja helped Heritage Christian to IHSAA Class 2A sectional titles in 2015 at Park Tudor, 2016 at Heritage Christian and 2017 at Triton Central. He began pitching as a junior and impressed enough to be selected in the 30th round of the 2017 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Atlanta Braves, but did not sign.
“It didn’t make sense,” says Wynja. “I needed more confidence.
“When I get into pro ball, I want to stay there. I want to make baseball a career. It’s about when I’m ready.
“Hopefully my name is called next year (in the MLB Draft) and I can get started in pro ball.”
Thanks to the pandemic, the southpaw still has three years of NCAA eligibility (one added in 2020).
South Florida’s head coach is Billy Mohl. Karsten Whitson is the Bulls’ pitching coach.
Wynja went to Purdue University in the fall of 2017 as a Selling and Sales Management major. He broke his back and was redshirted for the 2018 season.
The lanky lefty helped the Vic Evans-coached Owensboro (Ky.) RiverDawgs to an Ohio Valley League championship that summer. Aaron Biddle was the pitching coach.
Pitching for Purdue in 2019, Wynja got into eight games (all in relief) and went 0-0 with 12 strikeouts and nine walks in 11 2/3 innings.
Mark Wasikowski was then the Boilermakers head coach. Wynja worked closely with then-pitching coach Elliott Cribby.
“I loved Cribby,” says Wynja. “He’s one of the best pitching coaches I’ve ever had. You could talk to him. He was relatable.
“He pushed us really hard, but he was always there. You knew he had your back. That’s important in coaching.”
In the summer of 2019, Wynja wore the jersey of the Washington-based D.C. Grays of the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League. He relieved in five of eight appearances, going 1-2 with 28 strikeouts and 21 walks in 21 innings.
Michael Barbera is the Grays’ founder, president and chairman.
Deciding to go the junior college route, Wynja selected Lincoln Trail. But he did not commit before Statesman head coach Kevin Bowers had secured a pitching coach.
That turned out to be Andrew Elliott, who pitched at Wright State University and played two years in the Baltimore Orioles organization and two in independent pro ball.
“We clicked right away,” says Wynja of Elliott. “He was similar to Coach Cribby. He was always motivating you.
“He played pro ball, so he knew what he was talking about.”
Wynja made five mound appearances (four in relief) for Lincoln Trail in 2020, going 1-2 with 17 strikeouts and 18 walks in 13 1/3 innings.
Most of the K’s came courtesy of the slider.
“It’s nasty,” says Wynja of a delivery that is more horizontal than vertical. “That’s my pitch. I love that thing.
“It bites and it bites hard.”
Wynja saw Bowers as a father figure.
“He’s the closest thing to a parent you can have away from home,” says Wynja. “My cousin (Blake Wynja, who is one year older than Hayden) passed away during the season. He told me to go home and spend time with my family.
“It was family, academics then baseball. He always makes sure we’re handling our academics. That’s something I really appreciated. He was always in your corner.”
Hayden is part of a large blended family. There’s mother Kristi, father Brad and siblings Grace Wynja, Bella Wynja, Max Lock, Hunter Drook, Harper Drook and Logan Wynja.
Mom is in pharmaceutical sales. Dad is an accountant. Grace is a 2020 Heritage Christian graduate bound for Purdue. Bella is a 5-foot-11 HC sophomore-to-be on the HC volleyball team. Max is entering eighth grade. Twins Hunter (a boy) and Harper (a girl) are going into sixth grade. Logan is 5.
When Hayden Wynja closes the books on Lincoln Trail, he will have two associate degrees (Sport Management and Science) and a load of baseball knowledge.
“It’s best decision I ever made regarding baseball,” says Wynja of deciding LTC would be his junior college home. “It was amazing. There was great competition.
“Everyone has the same mentality — get better. Everyone wants to be the best versions of themselves.”
Wynja says a big college town can offer many distractions. Not so in tiny Robinson.
“It was baseball and school strictly,” says Wynja. “There’s nothing else.
“Junior college is not for everyone. It’s for people who love baseball and being around the game.
“That’s what made it more enjoyable for me.”
Wynja was born in Des Moines, Iowa, and moved to central Indiana at 2.
He played T-ball then at Billericay Park in Fishers. His first travel ball teams were the Cats and HSE Royals.
During his high school summers, he was coached by Ken Granger with USAthletic and then the Pony Express.
Wynja attended Heritage Christian from kindergarten through eighth grade then transferred to Indianapolis Cathedral High School, where he was cut from the baseball and basketball teams as a 5-foot-10, 110-pound freshman. He went back to Heritage Christian.
It was after he hit a walk-off grand slam in travel ball in the seventh grade that Eagles baseball coach Dan Ambrose sent Wynja a congratulatory letter and he later had him on his team.
“(Ambrose) made baseball fun,” says Wynja. “He was one of my teachers, too.”
Wynja split time between varsity and junior varsity as a sophomore in baseball and basketball then played varsity after that.
Heritage Christian, coached by Corey Jackson, made a run all the way to the 2A southern semistate in basketball with Wynja among the five seniors.
“That’s the favorite team I’ve ever been a part of without a doubt,” says Wynja. “We had great chemistry.
“We broke countless school records and were super, super close.”
HC’s annual senior trip to New York came during regional week and the players opted to miss it for practice. During that week, they got to go on a helicopter ride, go-karting and sat curtsied at an Indiana Pacers game among memorable events.
After winning the Speedway Sectional, the Eagles reigned at the Greenfield-Central Regional before being stopped by eventual state runner-up Crawford County in the Richmond Semistate.