By Blake Baxter
EUREKA – The 2020 baseball season ended just when Braxten Ary was starting to get comfortable at the plate.
You couldn't tell from the Eureka senior outfielder's numbers, though. He'd been the Red Devils' most consistent bat in the order since the first week of the season.
It just took a couple of road trips and adjustments for him to start reaching some of his own expectations.
In 14 games this spring, Ary batted a team-high .308, slugged a team-high .404 and was only 11 points away from leading the team with a .429 on-base percentage. He notched a team-high 16 hits, posted two doubles, homered once and led the team with five stolen bases.
"It was a good start," Ary said. "Not as high of an average as I would have liked, but it was going up. It was better than I'd done the past three seasons, so I was happy with that. Finally got in the .300s.
Ary, a Midwest Central graduate from Green Valley, Illinois, started the season off with a five-game hitting streak in which he went 9-for-21 (.428), but he still didn't think he was hitting the ball as solidly as he would have liked.
After going hitless in the team's home opener against Knox, Ary decided to make a change.
"It was (assistant) Coach (Dave) Lingle's game plan," Ary said. "He noticed I was jamming myself, so I just stepped off the plate about six inches and started barreling the ball and seeing it pretty good."
That weekend, the team went to Tennessee for a four-game series against Wisconsin-Platteville and Ary saw noticeable improvement. There, he kicked off another five-game hitting streak, batted .470 and knocked the first home run since 2018.
A few days later, the season was abruptly called off due to the COVID-19 global pandemic, thus ending the final campaign of an unlikely career.
The son of Matt and Tanya Ary, Braxten grew up with his sisters, Brileigh and Bristol, as the only athlete in the family.
He played multiple sports growing up, but his favorite was wrestling. He competed year-round for 11 years and placed sixth at the state tournament at 106 pounds in Class 1A as a freshman. But after getting hurt in the postseason as a sophomore, Ary started feeling burnt out by the grind and quit the sport as a junior.
By then, baseball had become his passion and primary focus. Attending college wasn't on his mind until his senior year, when he chose Eureka due to the proximity and chance to keep playing.
He didn't know what to expect or what he wanted to study, but Ary says the past four years at EC have been an enriching experience. Eventually, environmental science professor Dr. Katy Everett helped him find his fit as an environmental science major.
"I love nature, so she talked me into that, and being a conservation officer," Ary said. "I've always wanted to do that and finally it's coming true, so that's nice."
Ary was the Red Devils' center fielder as a freshman and found a permanent home in left field as a sophomore when head coach Jerry Rashid took over the program.
On the last day of his junior season, Ary made one of the most memorable plays of the year. With two outs in the bottom of the ninth, he threw out the tying run at the plate to seal a 6-5 senior-day win over Knox.
During his first few years, Ary was a self-described "hothead" who had a tendency to let his emotions get the best of him on the field. He credits Rashid for helping him control his frustrations and start playing to his potential.
"Baseball, it's a game of failure, and I never really saw that," Ary said. "I just always wanted to be the best.
"He (Rashid) really got me leveled out, and I just started to get my mood right and acting as a leader on the team."
Though the end came sooner than expected, Ary says the 2020 Red Devils were a tight-knit family that all got along well.
"It was a good career," Ary said, "and I'll be suggesting Eureka College to people, not just for the baseball, but for the school overall."