There was plenty of heat amid the wintry early-season conditions for the Catholic Memorial High School baseball team. A scout from the Pittsburgh Pirates was on hand April 7 and told CMH coach Tim Gotzler that he recorded left-handed senior pitcher Ben Dragani hitting 87 mph on the gun, and that’s just the beginning.
“The scout told me, ‘We know 90 to 93 is in there; it’s just when it’s going to happen,” Gotzler said. “It could be this summer, next year, or in three years. He just projects so well. He’s going to a school like Michigan, and a couple pro teams are going to be foaming at the mouth.”
Dragani, who has already courted some interest from the Texas Rangers, as well, will almost certainly end up at his intended destination of the University of Michigan next year, following the path of former Arrowhead standouts Jack Bredeson and Dominic Clementi. It’s apropos that those players are precisely why programs such as Arrowhead and CMH switched from summer baseball to the spring season three years ago, enabling those players to compete in the spring while still participating in the summer travel circuit around the country.
Dragani spent his freshman year in the summer circuit, then got a chance to suit up with the Crusaders each of his final three years after the switch.
“That was exciting to hear,” Dragani said when he learned of the swap. “It allowed me and a couple other kids to play. That’s what every kid wants to do, really; they want to play the spring season and that summer season to get the best of both worlds.”
Dragani is the best of many worlds.
He stands 6-5, throws left-handed and has a mental makeup that Gotzler couldn’t say enough about.
"He came into Memorial with a really good idea how to pitch,” Gotzler said. “His mechanics are really clean, he was a Racine Hitters kid, and he had done a lot of work over there, before high school, during high school, during basketball season when he drives down a couple days a week. He’s an ultra-focused kid on his craft. He knows that he's obviously a high-level pitcher; nothing's a secret to him. He's been a highly recruited big name for a while, and he really embraced that process and that pressure.”
Dragani will have the opportunity to compete in the Big Ten for a program that has risen steadily under fifth-year coach Erik Bakich, earning the Big Ten Tournament title in 2015 and a current spot in the top 15 of the NCAA national rankings.
“I visited there a couple times, and I really liked how the campus was,” Dragani said. “It’s kind of like Madison as a college town. I really liked the coaching staff. They’re trying to turn things around and have had some really good years recently. Seeing how they're managed, it was something I wanted to be a part of.”
Dragani throws a fastball, slider and changeup, but he’s not done establishing his repertoire.
“I’m pretty comfortable with all three (pitches),” Dragani said. “I’m working on a curveball and maybe a cutter and see what can happen with that.”
It won’t be a surprise to hear his name called in the Major League Baseball draft come June, even if Michigan is the likely ultimate destination.
“It’d be really exciting,” he said. “I’m pretty set on going to Michigan, but it’s something I can say, that I was drafted out of high school. It would be really exciting and an honor to be drafted.”
A strong student as well, not to mention a key member of the CMH basketball team in the winter, Dragani has already succeeded in a number of arenas.
“He’s a very competitive kid with himself, in the classroom, basketball court, practice,” Gotzler said. “One of the biggest things I've seen is his laser focus in practice. He does not take a rep off. The batting cage, ground balls, bullpen … I’ve never had a player that has been this focused on building his craft every chance he gets. Genetically and physically, he's got the gifts, but he's putting in the extra work to take him to that next level.”
It comes as no surprise that he’s a standout at the plate, as well. Dragani, who bats second for CMH, started the year 8-of-10 with a home run and five doubles. He hit .430 last year and reached base at close to a .500 clip.
He’s the latest in a line of Wisconsin players to get national attention. Waukesha West’s Jarred Kelenic, who doesn’t play with the high-school team, is seen as a potential top-10 pick in the 2018 draft. Arrowhead’s Nate Brown, Menomonee Falls pitcher Ty Weber, former Wauwatosa West pitcher Austin Jones and former Germantown standout Brian Keller were all drafted last year, with Kenosha Indian Trail’s Gavin Lux getting taken in the first round by the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“I played 15 years ago and was always told the north hadn’t been developed yet,” Gotzler said. “They hadn’t done enough long toss to really stretch their arms out and were really three to four years behind the kids in the south. Over the last couple decades, there have been a couple Wisconsin kids that have gone on to have success at high-level programs, and a couple schools (in college) started to take notice. People look at how powerful Whitewater has been and La Crosse and (Stevens) Point. Along with that, indoor academies have given kids opportunities to train year-round.”
While the relationship between traveling academies and high school programs can be tenuous, Gotzler embraces their presence.
“I love that our kids have the opportunity to train all offseason at a place of their choice and then come play for the high school team in the spring and their travel team in the summer,” Gotzler said. “Kids like Dragani are playing high-level tournaments in warm weather, and they have the facilities and resources to build their arms and take ground balls in the winter. Those things just haven’t existed, and the stars have aligned and business has grown because of it.”
Dragani isn’t the only reason why CMH is ranked No. 3 in the most recent state coaches poll for Division 2. The Crusaders have never been to the state tournament in spring or WIAA summer ball.
“We have a really talented pitching staff who can pitch and compete in games and keep the teams to a low run total like we’ve seen so far,” Dragani said. “We have a pretty balanced lineup with power, speed, good contact, and our defense has really come around. That’s going to play well behind our pitching staff, turning a lot of weak contact into outs.”