Inspiration can come from the most unexpected places.
Ryan Newman found his in the Dominican Republic, where he was expecting to help, but not necessarily to be helped himself.
Now a junior at Round Lake, Newman was about 13 years old when he made a trip to the Dominican Republic with his travel baseball team. The plan was to play some baseball against the local teams and then provide some assistance to those in need.
"We helped build houses and we built a dam," Newman said. "We also served food to children and taught them baseball.
"To see the way those kids played the game, even when they had so little, it was humbling. People there live the same way. They have so little, but they still work so hard.
"That made me appreciate what I had and it made me want to work even harder."
Newman thinks about the people he met in the Dominican Republic when he heads to a local gym every morning at 4:30 a.m. He doesn't need to work out before the sun comes up. He already works out every day after school.
But he sees the extra workout as a way to give himself an edge, as a way to become one of the best baseball players in Lake County this season.
"I'm always trying to see how hard I can work," Newman said. "I do everything I can. I show up to every workout, every practice, because I'm determined to be the best I can be. I think that's the best thing about me as a baseball player: how hard I work."
There are plenty of other good things about Newman as a baseball player, which is why he has been starting for Round Lake since his freshman year.
A difference-maker at just about any position, Newman stands out most at shortstop, in center field and on the mound as a pitcher. As the ace this season, he's hoping to make the Panthers a contender in the North Suburban Conference Prairie Division.
"Ryan can play pretty much anywhere we need him to play," Round Lake coach Ed Adamson said. "He's been like that since his freshman year. His skills set has always been so good. When he came in, I really didn't have to do much. I didn't have to break a lot of bad habits and he already had a really strong knowledge of the game. We just let him play. He was just that good."
In fact, Newman was even better than advertised.
Each year, Adamson gets e-mails or phone calls from parents of eighth graders who set out to introduce him to their sons. Often, there is plenty of hyperbole.
"There's a lot of hype," Adamson said. "When I got a letter from Ryan's dad it was just something like, 'My son is hoping to play baseball when he gets to high school.' Then, Ryan comes in and he blew us away with how good he was. We weren't expecting it."
Newman was tough at the plate during his rookie season, finishing with a near-.400 batting average. He also had some spectacular showings on the mound. In one game, he racked up 12 strikeouts.
But then, his ride on the fast track hit a frustrating detour.
Last spring, while catching flyballs on a rainy day at practice, he dove for one, slipped and fell hard. He ended up breaking his collar bone and missed most of his sophomore season.
"Having to watch last year really hurt," said Newman, a near-straight-A student who tried to stay busy with his schoolwork but still couldn't ignore the stinging void left by baseball. "I just wanted to play so badly. I think that's why I've been so anxious to get this season started. I just want to play again."
Newman is happy he'll get that chance this season. Although, it's not just his health that he's grateful for.
"I don't take anything for granted anymore," Newman said. "After that trip to the Dominican Republic, I am thankful for every opportunity I have. I think I appreciate everything about my life a lot more."
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