After a disappointing sophomore season pitching at Lafayette College (Pa.), former Westminster standout Trevor Houck had to make a tough decision. While many of his teammates opted for an internship or summer job, the opportunity to play against quality players during summer league baseball was too good to pass up.
Houck found that chance with the Coastal Plain League, and passed on working in the real world for at least one more summer in favor of joining the Edenton Steamers in North Carolina.
"I wanted to get away one summer. I thought it would be a cool experience," said Houck. "Get the minor league experience."
According to its website, the CPL is ranked behind the Cape Cod League by both Baseball America and Perfect Game Crosschecker in summer league action. Some of its notable alumni include 2011 AL MVP and Cy Young winner Justin Verlander, Ryan Zimmerman, Kevin Youkilis, and Seattle Seahawks Super Bowl-winning quarterback Russell Wilson. The league runs from May through August, with a playoff tournament to decide the Pettit Cup winner.
Mostly pitching out of the bullpen, Houck finished 2-1 for the summer with a 3.58 ERA and 20 strikeouts in 13 appearances — a big jump in the right direction from the spring, when he gave up an average of more than 12 runs per nine innings for the Leopards in the regular season.
"My spring season, I didn't have as great a year as I wanted to," said Houck, whose efforts for the Steamers (40-15 during the regular season) helped the team to a Cup title. "Going down there and pitching as well as I did was a big boost."
Houck graduated from Westminster in 2013, when he won Times Player of the Year honors. He finished 7-2 that season with a county-best 1.17 ERA and 50 strikeouts. He also won the Triple Crown at the plate, leading or tying for the tops in the county in batting average (.541), home runs (three) and RBIs (31).
During his freshman year at Lafayette, he held opponents to a .174 batting average, allowing only 20 hits and eight walks over 32 2-3 innings. He was also a member of the Patriot League Academic Honor Roll.
His sophomore year was a step back, but those who have kept a close eye on Houck's performance said the problems weren't unfixable. With what the coach called an "even-keeled" attitude, all Houck needed to do was simplify things.
"Last spring up at school he wasn't happy with his control," said Westminster baseball coach Mark Winebrunner. "I think he was a little concerned with his velocity and I think he tried to make up for that."
The difference between the spring and the summer, said Winebrunner, who still keeps in regular contact with Houck, was getting back to the way he used to pitch rather than trying to throw it past people.
Aside from gaining better command on his fastball and learning how to pitch against some of the best collegiate talent around, taking a bus to games, getting back at 1 a.m. only to do it all over the next day, and staying with host families, was as close as he'd been to playing minor league baseball.
That experience served him well, he said, and he was excited to bring what he learned back north.
"I think the biggest thing is that you're always learning," Winebrunner said of his former player's opportunities this summer. "You get around other guys who play at a level you have. You're always learning from other players."
The success that Houck enjoyed in the CPL, which features teams from Virginia to South Carolina, earned him an invitation back next summer.
He'll have the same decision to make next year.
"I told myself I can work the rest of my life, but I can't play baseball the rest of my life," he said. "We'll see what my parents say, I guess."