By Brad Fauber
WOODSTOCK -- Campbell Henkel is getting his first true taste of collegiate summer league baseball as a member of the Woodstock River Bandits this season, and the rising senior from Virginia Military Institute plans on making the most of it.
After experiencing what Henkel refers to as an "up and down" career in his first three seasons with VMI, the Richmond native hopes the extra work he is putting in during the 2013 Valley Baseball League season will help him become a more consistent pitcher for the Keydets in 2014.
"That was really the goal for me this summer, was to get more innings on the mound and work on how I want to face hitters ... really just become more of a student of the game than I have been," Henkel said. "After three years playing at VMI you get to look in the mirror and see how you've been as a college pitcher, and I can be honest and say that I'm not where I thought I would be after three years at VMI, but that's on me."
Henkel is doing his best to change that perception of himself, and he sees the experience that he is gaining as a member of Woodstock's Valley League franchise as a huge step towards achieving that.
For Henkel, the wins against opposing Valley League teams -- while certainly nice -- have taken a back seat for now as the 6-foot-3, 220-pound lefty focuses solely on improving every aspect of his pitching.
"The cool thing for me is whenever I go out on the mound up here in Woodstock, I am trying to beat the other team, but it's more like I'm trying to learn and grow as a pitcher," Henkel said. "I'm going to go out there and compete and really try to fine-tune my pitches and make myself a better player. That's what we're all trying to do for our school teams, is get better over the summer and say, 'What can I do over the summer to make myself better for my school team?'"
Henkel has certainly made an impact on the mound for the North division-leading River Bandits this summer, as he has pitched to a perfect 3-0 record with a 2.54 earned run average in five starts so far for Woodstock.
He also leads the River Bandits with 26 strikeouts in 28 1/3 innings pitched.
Henkel has just two career wins in two seasons as a starter for VMI (he went 3-0 as a reliever his freshman year in 2011), but Woodstock manager Phil Betterly looked past the numbers when looking at Henkel as a potential candidate for the River Bandits' rotation.
Henkel -- who throws a fastball that tops out at around 92 mph to go along with a curveball, slider and changeup -- said he's at his best when he limits his per-inning pitch count to single digits, as it means he is effectively using his sinking fastball to miss the barrel of the bat and force weak contact by opposing hitters.
"He can locate a fastball, and that's huge in this league. That's huge anywhere," Betterly said. "He's a hard-throwing lefty, and you can have success with that in this league.
"He's been able to get us deep into ballgames. Getting into the sixth and seventh inning is huge for our bullpen. It keeps our bullpen fresh. He's been a bulldog for us."
That bulldog mentality on the mound is something that Henkel has held since he first stepped onto a baseball diamond at a very young age, and it was certainly one of the reasons why he was named the VISAA Player of the Year during his senior year at St. Christopher's School in Richmond in 2010.
Of course, it also helps that Henkel has a reliable source of information to turn to whenever he needs help perfecting his pitching mechanics. Henkel's father, Merle -- the current head of school at Massanutten Military Academy -- pitched for four seasons at Wake Forest University in the mid-1970s, and Henkel said his father's impact on his baseball career has been unmatched to this point.
"I always say he's been my best coach, biggest supporter and biggest critic, as well. It's been a blessing to have somebody as close as my father be such a good coach and such a good teacher of the game," Henkel said. "I still think he's one of the best pitching minds that I've been around, so I'm really thankful to have him be there critiquing and praising my effort when it's been necessary."
Henkel remains focused on preparing for his senior year at VMI for the time being, but he said it's been hard not to think about a potential career in the professional ranks, which is something that Betterly believes could very well be in Henkel's future.
Henkel will worry about that more when the time comes, but he is confident that the Valley League will only benefit him as he shoots for his ultimate goal.
"I really hope that opportunity does present itself sometime in the near future. I'm pretty excited about it, I've had talks with some of my coaches about it, but we'll see what happens," Henkel said. "I'm pretty excited about this summer and the opportunity that I have to play here, and hopefully this just helps me out further along in that process of playing after college."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or email@example.com