By BLAKE TOPPMEYER
Herald-Whig Sports Writer
CANTON, Mo. – It's hard to picture Austin Keaton's 2011 baseball season going much better.
Keaton claimed first-team All-Heart of America Athletic Conference honors at Culver-Stockton College. His steady play at shortstop helped the Wildcats win their first HAAC crown since 2006 and reach the NAIA Tournament.
Still, something was missing.
"I missed playing basketball," Keaton said.
Keaton sometimes slipped into the gym with his baseball teammate Will Fisher for pick-up games. Jack Schrader was just getting settled into his role that spring as C-SC men's basketball coach when he caught wind of Keaton.
"Somebody said he was the best basketball player on campus," said Schrader, who later got a glimpse of Keaton playing in a 3-on-3 pick-up game.
So Schrader didn't hesitate when Keaton wanted to wrap up his long and winding five-year athletic career by playing a season of basketball this year for the Wildcats.
"He's just what he is – he's a man," Schrader said. "He's a multifaceted player. He's a competitor."
Keaton is also a prime reason why the Wildcats are 14-6 overall and 5-3 in the HAAC entering Saturday's game against No. 25 MidAmerica Nazarene. C-SC is almost certain to attain its first winning season since 2004-05.
Keaton is third on the team in scoring at 13.9 points per game, while also supplying 4.2 rebounds per game.
Better yet, he's completing his collegiate athletic career by competing in the sport he enjoys most.
"Basketball has always been my first love," Keaton said.
Nonetheless, it was Keaton's skill on the ball diamond that he said led to interest from some professional scouts during his days at Pitman High School in California.
After two years as a starting infielder at Modesto Junior College in California, Keaton transferred to C-SC.
In his lone season on the diamond for the Wildcats, Keaton ranked first on the team in stolen bases (24), second in batting average (.391), second in on-base percentage (.490) and third in RBI (32).
A chance at pro baseball didn't follow, however, and with C-SC's coach at the time, Chris Terry, leaving at the end of the 2011 season to coach at Eastern New Mexico, Keaton decided to return to California.
His plan was to play both baseball and basketball at Menlo College.
But after an offseason coaching change occurred there as well, Keaton opted to return to where his college career began and play a season of basketball at Modesto.
He averaged 17 points and 7.8 rebounds per game, landed All-Big 8 Conference accolades and helped Modesto attain an 18-12 record.
Then Keaton looked for another landing spot where he could finish his degree and, ideally, play a final season of basketball.
"I only had one year of eligibility left, so it was kind of hard for me to find a school that wanted to take me in, knowing I only had one year," Keaton said.
After leaving C-SC, Keaton had stayed in contact with Brad Witherspoon, the former Kansas University basketball player who is now an assistant coach at John Wood Community College.
Witherspoon spent the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons as an assistant at C-SC, and Keaton got to know him while Keaton was playing baseball for the Wildcats.
"He said, ‘Just keep in touch, and if we can help you out, let me know,'" Keaton said. "That's kind of how it worked out. He showed Coach Schrader my highlight tape, and Coach Schrader was interested."
After C-SC went 4-24 during Schrader's first season in Canton, he wanted to upgrade his roster heading into this season. Keaton fit the profile for the type of athlete he was seeking.
"I said, ‘Yeah, I'm interested. ... No ifs, ands or buts about it, I want you,'" Schrader said. "With him, the important part was this was where he could graduate from the best."
Keaton plans to graduate from C-SC in December.
He's not sure what lies ahead from there, but he's sure he wants basketball to remain in the picture in some capacity.
Being away from basketball for a few years showed Keaton just how much he loved the sport.