By JOSH RIZZO
Herald-Whig Sports Writer
HAMILTON, Ill. -- Austin Hardy grew accustomed to pitching in tight spots in front of big crowds at a young age.
Most of those crowds were imaginary, but they served a purpose.
They made practice fun.
Pitching off a mound his dad put in the backyard with a 5-foot-5 chain link fence serving as a backstop, Hardy got a lot of pitches in as he grew up.
The fence did more than stop wayward pitches. It also served as a stage for Austin and his brother Andrew, who will be a junior.
"We would pretend like it's a game situation," said Austin, who will pitch for NCAA Division III Monmouth College next year. "We would throw a fly ball against the fence and rob home runs. We would hit groundballs and throw people out at first. It got you into a game people think is boring, but it's a lot more exciting."
The Hardy brothers experienced it all.
"We would do our own umpiring, too," Andrew said. "It was a lot of fun."
Of all the pretend scenarios, standing on the pitching mound was the most appealing to Austin. He liked being in pressure situations. As a senior, the 2013 Herald-Whig Baseball Player of the Year never wilted in the spotlight.
He was 7-1 with a 0.56 ERA and helped lead the Titans to an 18-2 record and their first regional title since the co-op of three Hancock County schools -- Nauvoo-Colusa, Hamilton and Warsaw -- started in 2007. He also led the team with a .548 batting average and drove in 22 runs.
"This year, he continued his maturation process to where he had more confidence in his pitches than he ever had," West Hancock coach Lee Purchatzke said. "That was a matter of having confidence on the mound. He wasn't threatened often, but when he was, he kept his composure and kept his mechanics the same."
Having everyone's eyes on him was something Austin welcomed.
"A big part of my life, I want people to depend on me and be accountable for my actions," Hardy said. "It's the same on the field. Everyone on the field is depending on you, and you have to take control and help your team win."
Whatever it takes
Hardy knew he was never going to a vocal leader. His focus as a freshman was trying to earn the upperclassmen's respect. So he did whatever it took to earn a way on the field.
Purchatzke asked Hardy to play third base his first year. While he was more comfortable playing shortstop, he didn't shy away from the challenge.
"I just went over there and did what I could," Hardy said. "I just wanted to go in there and work hard. I think when you go out and lead by example and aren't showboating, people tend to give you more respect."
So he went to work. Hardy hit the gym and continued to hone his craft in the backyard. What he wanted to avoid was wasting potential.
"I put the time in," Hardy said. "There are a lot of people with great ability who don't work hard. Then they wonder why they aren't successful."
It didn't take long for Hardy to prove he belonged. With how he hit the ball, Purchatzke knew he was going to see increased time.
"He probably was the ideal player," Purchatzke said. "Of course, he had ability. He was willing to play wherever he was needed. Being a freshman upperclassmen get first shot at starting positions.
As the year went on, we needed his bat in the lineup and knew he could play whatever position we'd put him at."
What Hardy showed as a freshman continued as he matured. He was willing to fight hard. As a senior, Hardy only struck out four times in 62 at-bats.
"He's a great competitor," Purchatzke said. "He's going to fight tooth-and-nail at the plate."
Over the hump
Despite the effort, success still eluded West Hancock. During Hardy's junior year, the Titans were upset in the regional semifinals by Illini West.
Awarded the top seed in the Class 2A Macomb Regional this season, West Hancock was the unabashed favorite against fourth-seeded Rushville-Industry, which came in with a 13-12 record.
The nightmare from a year ago nearly repeated itself. The Titans trailed 4-3 in the fifth inning, and the Rockets had two runners on and no outs. So Purchatzke summoned Hardy to replace starter Paxton Harmon.
He struck out 10 batters in four innings of work and delivered a walk-off single in the eighth inning to send West Hancock to the title game.
"I think the difference was winning that game at Rushville-Industry," Hardy said.
"That was a big boost to our confidence. The years before, we've played in those games and haven't made the plays to win those games."
Hardy also took the hill in the regional final three days later, hurling seven shutout innings in West Hancock's 5-0 win over Macomb. In the Titans' 2-1 loss to Eureka in the sectional semifinal, he once again threw a complete game and struck out eight.
"I just want the ball all the time," Hardy said. "Any big game, I want the ball. All three of those games were big for us and I was confident in my abilities."
Hardy's work off the field allowed him to throw so many big innings.
He threw in the backyard as often as he could and stayed in shape playing football and basketball.
"He was in great condition," Purchatzke said. "He kept himself physically fit. I felt pretty good with the way the schedule went that if I pitched him on three days rest that he would still be effective."
That's something Hardy had been preparing for his whole life.
Only this time, there were real people watching.
The championship was real, too.