May 20, 2016
After a decision was made to discontinue the baseball program at the University of Akron, it suddenly left John Valek III in a difficult predicament. The left-hander had just wrapped up his third year with the Zips, finishing the season as the No. 1 starter, boasting a 3.25 ERA with 62 strikeouts, and his future in baseball, at that moment, was suddenly up in the air.
Valek had grown up with a strong background in the sport. His grandfather played in the majors for the Brooklyn Dodgers, St. Louis Browns and the Pittsburgh Pirates. His dad played growing up, and Valek himself lived and breathed baseball.
“Immediately when I was able to walk, I always had a bat and ball in my hand,” said Valek, So ever since I could walk, I played baseball.”
Despite his situation, Valek knew he was going to find himself a new home.
“When I found out about (Akron discontinuing the program), I really didn’t know what to do,” said Valek. “I was panicking, and I had no idea where I was going to end up. Throughout the next couple of weeks, I started receiving phone calls from schools across the country, and I realized I was going to be blessed to end up being in a great place.”
The amount of calls he was fielding was something different for Valek. Coming out of high school in his hometown of Parkland, Fla., he wasn’t heavily recruited, and Akron was one of the few schools that offered him a scholarship and a chance to play immediately.
“I honestly didn’t get too many offers or looks out of high school. I didn’t throw as hard as everybody else, so I didn’t get as many looks,” explained Valek. “I had never even heard of (Akron) until they recruited me. With the scholarship they gave me and the opportunity to compete for a starting job in the rotation as a freshmen, that was big for me.”
Valek quickly earned his stripes with Akron, earning Mid-American Conference All-Tournament honors and 2015 First-Team All MAC accolades in his three successful years on campus. When Akron officially shut the program down, LSU was one of the schools that immediately caught Valek’s attention.
“I have a history of knowing the Ochinko family when (former LSU catcher) Sean Ochinko won the College World Series back in 2009,” explained Valek. “I came up here and saw a series with their family. I’ve always watched games on TV, and this is one of the most elite programs in the country. When you think of college baseball, you always think LSU. When I was fielding calls from different schools across the country, when I got a call from LSU, they were going to jump to the top of the list.”
The connection helped Valek make his decision as he decided to enroll at LSU for his final year of eligibility, and while he had been the No. 1 guy at Akron, Valek quickly realized there was initially going to be an adjustment period.
“I pretty much had my role solidified after being (at Akron) for three years,” said Valek. “(Being here at LSU), I think it has made me better, to be honest, because it lights a fire under me because I had to compete with the best of the best. It drove me to work hard and hone my skills and be an overall better pitcher because I knew I had to compete for a job again.”
With his hard work and dedication, Valek earned himself the role of Sunday starter as well as the opportunity to pitch in front of thousands of fans for one of the most storied programs in college baseball history.
“When I was out there (in my first start at LSU) in that first inning against Cincinnati, it was a blur,” said Valek. “I couldn’t tell you what happened because my mind was spinning. My mind was racing, but once I was able to get back into the dugout and settle down, the rest of the game and the rest of the year has been just like any other game I’ve pitched.”
As of May 11, Valek has a recorded a 6-2 record, firing just over 53 innings with 41 strikeouts and a 4.36 ERA in one of the toughest conferences in the country.
“It’s crazy pitching in front of thousands of fans every week,” said Valek. “In the SEC, there’s a lot less room for error. Every game means everything. Every week here is just a blast. Coming up to the field and seeing people tailgate, and the fans after the game. Dealing with all the media here every week and before practice; it’s just on another scale.”
Although he is in his first and final year with the Tigers, Valek wants to leave an impression and be recognized as a guy who will do whatever it takes to help secure a win for his team.
“When I look back at the whole year, I think it’s been pretty successful,” said Valek. “I had a little bit of a rough patch, but that’s baseball, and you have to keep working hard and trust the process. I want to be the guy who goes out there and gives it his all and does everything he can to help the team win a baseball game. I’m proud of what I’ve done to this point, but the season’s not over yet. We still have a few more weeks, and hopefully we’ll play deep in the postseason. I’m just going to continue what I do.”