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Joel Booker: Indian Hills success means Division I baseball awaits, majors could come calling

When Joel Booker left Polk County after graduation for Indian Hills Community College in Centerville, Iowa, he had a plan. A well-defined plan.

“My goal was to build my skills to be good enough to go Division I and potentially get drafted,” Booker said.

As with most other things baseball-related in his life, thus far he is knocking that plan out of the park.

Booker has already accomplished the first part of that goal, signing late last year to continue his college career next season at the University of Iowa. If he continues to play as well as he has this season, though, that call from the major leagues might not be long in coming, either.

Through 39 games, Booker is hitting .402, with eight homers, five triples, 47 RBI and 20 steals. With those figures he currently leads the Iowa Community College Athletic Conference in RBI and triples, and his stolen base, batting average and homer totals are among the top five in the conference.

“(Head coach) Rick Heller at Iowa has a history of developing good hitters into great hitters,” said Indian Hills assistant coach Brett Monaghan, also the team’s hitting coach. “Many MLB scouts have told me Book would be one of the best athletes in that league (the Big Ten) this year if he was at Iowa now, which I believe bodes well for him after another full season developing here with us.

“He has received a lot of attention professionally. Thus I believe he will have a decision to make at the end of the spring when the June First Year Player Draft comes around.”

Booker’s numbers are even more impressive when you consider that, as one of the perennially strong programs in the National Junior College Athletic Association, Indian Hills typically plays a fairly difficult schedule. Conference rival Iowa Western won the NJCAA World Series in 2012 and is currently tied with Indian Hills atop the conference standings. Indian Hills owns a 27-12 record heading into the season’s final weeks.

Booker, who starts in right field for Indian Hills, thinks it could be his team’s turn to make a run at a berth in the NJCAA World Series, held annually in Grand Junction, Colo.

“We’ve got a really good team this year,” Booker said. “I think we could potentially go to the World Series and win it.”

Booker had a solid freshman season at Indian Hills, earning second-team all-region honors after hitting .365 with three homers and 31 RBI. As he prepared for his sophomore season, though, he began worrying about his future after Indian Hills and began pressing offensively during the fall. Signing with Iowa just before Thanksgiving ended those concerns.

“In the fall I felt like because I didn’t sign, I was pressing a little bit,” said Booker, who plans to major in criminal justice at Iowa. “I was trying to do too much. Once I signed, I could relax, and I started playing baseball like I know how.

“I thought Iowa’s facilities were top of the line, and their coaches seemed like they genuinely cared about the players. If I have a problem, it seemed like they would talk to me every time. I’m not just another player in the system, but a family member.”

And, no doubt, the Hawkeyes are more than happy to welcome Booker to the family.

“Joel will be an impact player for us,” Heller said at the time of Booker’s signing. “He is an outstanding all-round athlete with game-changing ability. He will be one of the fastest players in the Big Ten, while also having the ability to hit for power. Defensively, Joel is an excellent outfielder with tremendous arm strength.”

One other bonus from the signing – a boost to Booker’s confidence.

“It has added a chip on my shoulder,” Booker said. “Now, when I go out and compete, I’m thinking, ‘I’m going DI, I’m going to Iowa.’ So when I’m front of my opponents, I’m thinking I’m better than these guys.”

For the most part, Booker has been better than most of his opponents this season. Monaghan thinks there could be even more improvement in his future.

“Joel is an excellent overall athlete, which is probably the most exciting thing about him.” Monaghan said. “He is a plus runner but also has the ability to drive the ball into the gaps and out of the ball park. Having a combination of speed and power is unique and he is really just scratching the surface of his ability right now.

“I truly believe his best years are yet to come. Since we moved him up into the 2 spot, he has been very consistent and I would argue he is swinging that bat as good as anyone in the country at our level.”

It all adds up to what Booker calls “one of the best experiences of my life.”

“Being here has helped me take my baseball game to a whole new level,” Booker said. “Everything is going great.”

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