BLOOMINGTON -- A ground ball skids past the diving third baseman and looks headed to the outfield for a single.
The surprise is not that Naperville Central shortstop Nick Ryan sprints to his right and gloves the ball -- backhanded, with his knee on the dirt, deep in the hole near the edge of the infield.
It's that Ryan, by shifting what weight there is inside his 5-foot-5, 125-pound frame, somehow slings the ball to first before the runner gets there.
"I don't believe what I just saw!" says Dave Avers, the father of one of Ryan's teammates, after all the whooping and applauding stops. "I thought he had no chance."
Ryan's gem was a part of Naperville Central's 3-2 supersectional win against O'Fallon on Monday at Illinois Wesleyan University. (Naperville Central will play St. Rita for the state title Saturday night.) As impressive as it was, the play likely wasn't the best of the season for Ryan, the ESPNChicago.com Prep Athlete of the Week.
Since a midseason call-up to the varsity team, the sophomore has taken on a seldom-heard role for the Redhawks: designated fielder.
He is usually replaced in the lineup by a designated hitter and bats only when one of the team's weaker-hitting pitchers is on the mound. Ryan has just one hit, in limited at-bats, with the varsity squad. But, for now, Seiple couldn't care less. Ryan has strengthened a defense that Seiple said was mediocre early in the season.
"He's got the best defensive actions of anybody we've ever had come through here," said Seiple, Central's coach since 1982.
Ryan's fielding brilliance starts before each pitch. Like a big leaguer, he constantly smoothens the dirt in front of him with his cleat, sweeping back and forth several times. He licks his right hand and then rubs it in the palm of his lifeblood, his glove -- a tan, 11¼-inch Wilson A2K -- which he always keeps inside his house.
During the pitcher's wind-up, he takes four or five small – extremely small – steps forward, turning his glove up like a basket as he crouches slightly. When a grounder is hit toward him, Ryan purposely moves to the right of the ball so he can field it on the left side of his body, positioning himself to get maximum momentum behind his throw.
Once the ball gets to his glove, Ryan cradles it, lifts his glove against his right cheek and whips the ball for an almost guaranteed out. It all happens in one motion.
To those who preach fundamentals, watching Ryan field the most routine grounder is breathtaking. Proof: The Bulls/Sox Training Academy in Lisle used Ryan to demonstrate fielding a ground ball in its own instructional video, Seiple said.
Ryan credits the academy's Justin Stone for teaching him his smooth footwork, but his training started with his dad.
"When I was little, my dad used to hit me tennis balls with a tennis racket and hit them really hard at me in the cul-de-sac," said Ryan, whose teammates and friends call him "Nicky J" because his curly dark hair used to be longer, resembling Nick Jonas of the pop boy band the Jonas Brothers. "Now I go to an indoor facility that has a turf baseball field."
He spends a lot of time on that turf field. Opposing coaches can tell all too well.
"Every single … and I'm not making this up … every single game that we played, the opposing coach said something complimentary to me about him," said Mike Albiniak, Ryan's coach on Central's sophomore team. "Every single game."
Albiniak described a play against Waubonsie Valley when a ball was hit up the middle -- Ryan ran full speed, caught the ball without diving, spun, and made a strong throw to first, all in one motion. It's his favorite play to make.
"Umpire comes up to me after the inning and says, "That's a major league play right there,'" Albiniak said.
A play made by a kid who's a head shorter than anyone else on the field. As he entered the dugout after an inning on Monday, Ryan was playfully shoved in the chest by teammates. He looks like he could be their younger brother, but Ryan said he doesn't get treated like it.
"I thought I would, but I don't," he said. "I treat them with respect and they treat me with respect."
Eventually, Seiple said Ryan will have to gain strength and improve offensively. But for now
"His job is to pick the ground ball," Seiple said.
To Ryan, that sounds great, just like the crack of a fungo bat.
"If I could do anything for 24 hours a day, it would just be to field ground balls," he said.
Alex Ruppenthal is an intern for ESPNChicago.com