Madison’s Ryan on the mound for the Cubs last year. (Courier file photo)
Madison’s Ryan on the mound for the Cubs last year. (Courier file photo)
Ever since he was a little kid Ryan Thurston has worked toward his goal of becoming a Division I baseball player. When other kids were riding bikes or hitting the pool during the summer, Thurston was on a mound working in his craft.

On Friday all of that hard work paid off in a big way when the Madison senior officially signed his National Letter of Intent to play baseball at Western Kentucky University next year.

Never one to let his emotions get in the way, Thurston downplayed the accomplishment even as friends and family surrounded him at a signing ceremony at the high school.

"It's not really that big of a deal for me," Thurston smiled. "It's something that I've been doing since I was four years old. It's another accomplishment."

While Thurston may have not been outwardly excited, his parents Dan and Jackie Thurston were overjoyed. It's been a long 14 years of car rides and long trips to help their son reach his dream.

"I'm very proud as a parent but as a coach I know that it's something that he has worked very hard on and put in a lot of time and effort, not only during the high school season but in the summer," said Dan Thurston, who coached his son at Madison during his first two high school seasons before resigning last year when he was promoted to chief of police in Madison. "It's not something that has been given to him; it's something he's earned."

Ryan Thurston was considered one of Madison's top pitchers from the moment he stepped on a high school diamond. And he hasn't disappointed.

His 16-12 career record is more indicative of the struggles Madison has had recently than his ability as a pitcher. He has posted a 3.23 career ERA with 261 strikeouts in 197 innings and has been dominate at times. Last season Thurston was 7-5 with a 2.88 ERA and 126 strikeouts in 74 1/3 innings.

Those pitching accomplishments have Thurston rapidly moving up the school's record book and he will own at least two school records by the time he is done. In the process, he will pass some of the greats in school history.

His 197 career innings stands third to only Bryan Bullington (216 2/3) and Chris Bass (210) while 261 strikeouts are fourth behind Todd O'Neal (314), Bullington (274) and Greg Gosman (270). All of the former Cubs had outstanding careers at Madison and Bullington eventually pitched in the Major Leagues.

Thurston has had a stellar career away from Madison as well. Playing for the Cincinnati Flames over the summer, Thurston went 7-0 with a 2.18 ERA with 53 strikeouts and 28 walks in 41 2/3 innings. He allowed only 29 hits while playing teams stocked with Division I signees.

Of course the most visible part of Thurston's game may be his pickoff move. The southpaw is a deadly pickoff artist and has well over 30 of them in his three-year career. On more than one occasion he has claimed a pick-off just moments after the runner dared him to try.

If there is one knock on Thurston's game it is walks. He walked 54 a year ago and has 132 in his career. He suffered a knee injury during the basketball season last year but refused to use the injury as an excuse.

"I have no excuse, I just need to execute my pitches better," Thurston said.

Dan Thurston noted that the walks were a problem but also said that his son has a psychological edge in his favor.

"He has walked too many but I think in the back of his mind it doesn't bother him because of how good his pick-off move is," the elder Thurston said. "One thing the coaches at Western told us was that the Sun Belt Conference is a running league and his pick-off move will be valuable."

Ryan Thurston had no shortage of choices when picking a college. Among those vying for his services were Ohio State, West Virginia, Miami (Ohio), Evansville, Cincinnati, Xavier and Wright State.

But Thurston chose Western Kentucky, partly because of the program's history but partly because it just felt right.

"It is a beautiful campus, great baseball field and a great program," said Thurston, who plans on majoring in a subject that deals with mathematics. "They had 11 kids drafted two years ago and six last year. That made me want to go there."

Thurston said he will be willing to do whatever it takes to see action as a freshman at Western. He said the coaches would like to see him add three or four mph to his fastball and continue to get stronger.

But make no mistake about it, WKU was pleased to land the lefty starter.

"He needs to throw harder but the coaches told me his curveball was college-ready now," Dan Thurston said. "They were impressed."

Ryan Thurston verbally-committed to Western Kentucky in August and signing during the early signing period allows him to relax for the rest of the school year. He will be a starter for Madison's basketball team before hitting the diamond in April.

"Senior year is going to be a breeze," he said with a smile.

Shannon Barger has been Madison's baseball coach for just a few months and has yet to coach Thurston in a game. But the former Switzerland County coach and Scottsburg athletic director has known Dan Thurston for years and has seen the younger Thurston pitch on multiple occasions.

"I think it's a great thing for Ryan. I know the hard work that he has put in. But it's also good for his parents," Barger said. "They have put in a lot of time and effort in getting him to games and making sure his grades are up. When you get to the D-I level, that's a pretty big deal. It's a full-time job. But with the family he has had and the upbringing he has had, he's going to do extremely well."

Thurston is the latest in a long line of Madison baseball Cubs to earn Division I scholarships but he is the first since Bass signed with Purdue in 1999. Bass never played for the Boilermakers; however, opting instead to sign a professional contract after he was drafted in the ninth round by the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Bullington played three years at Ball State before being drafted by the Pirates No. 1 overall in the 2002 draft. Chad Liter, a teammate of both Bass and Bullington, eventually played for the University of Dayton after two years in junior college. He was drafted twice by the Colorado Rockies.

Yet another Cub from that era, Kyle Harsin, signed with the University of Louisville before finishing his college career at Hanover.

"For the program, anytime we can get a kid to college it's a great thing," Barger said. "Anytime you get a kid who puts in that hard effort and it pays off, it looks good for everybody involved. That's the exciting part."