Denver Stuckey is not old by any means, but even he sometimes wonders where all the years have gone.
That's what happens in the life of a college baseball player when he's had so much fun -- and such a productive career -- playing for his local university.
"Last night, I was actually lying in bed thinking back to my redshirt freshman year, remembering how I was walking to the stadium and thinking this is the start for me," said Stuckey, Southeast Missouri State University's senior third baseman. "It seems like it was just yesterday, and it's been almost five years ago."
Stuckey, a product of Kelly High School in Benton, Mo., will begin his fourth season as a starter for Southeast when the Indians open the season Saturday at Oklahoma. Friday's scheduled opener with the Sooners has been canceled because of bad weather, but the teams will still try to get in the full three-game series.
"I've been nervous for days. Not really nervous, but it's more anxiety, waiting for the season to get here," Stuckey said, smiling, prior to Wednesday's practice. "We're ready to get going."
It won't be hard to be excited about a new season after Southeast's success a year ago.
The Indians had their best season on the Division I level last year, going 37-20, winning their first Ohio Valley Conference regular-season championship, capturing their second OVC Tournament title and winning their first NCAA regional game.
Stuckey played a major role in that success, batting .349 with five home runs, 17 doubles, 37 runs batted in and 18 stolen bases to lead the squad. He made the all-OVC first team and is Southeast's only returning first-team selection.
"It was an unbelievable season for us," Stuckey said.
And Stuckey doesn't expect any dropoff this year, not with six returning position players, including fellow four-year starter Zach Borowiak at shortstop and catcher Tristen McDonald, the team's top returning hitter.
"The way we look at it, we laid the foundation last year, and now we're looking to build on it," Stuckey said. "We don't want to just win a regional game, we want to get higher than that. We feel like we can play with anybody."
Stuckey, 6-feet-1 and 170 pounds, actually saw his Southeast career get off to a slow start.
After starring in baseball and basketball at Kelly High School, Stuckey sat out his first season with the Indians but was able to practice with the team as a redshirt, then struggled during his freshman campaign, batting just .221.
"I had always set high goals for myself, and it was the first time in my career that I really struggled," Stuckey said. "It was a rough time. There were definitely times I knew I shouldn't be in there because I was such a liability at the plate."
But Southeast coach Mark Hogan basically stuck with his young player, and that move eventually paid major dividends. Stuckey batted .311 as a sophomore, with five homers and 28 RBIs, before improving even more at the plate last year.
"Denver has such high expectations for himself, which is one reason he's such a great athlete," Hogan said. "I know his first year was tough, but once he learned to relax he was fine. He puts a lot of pressure on himself to succeed every time, but baseball's not that way, and I think he's learned that.
"He had a great season last year, and I think he'll improve a lot this year."
While Stuckey has been a solid offensive performer for the Indians, defense is where he has truly made his mark. Stuckey, who has exceptional quickness, has turned in too many highlight-reel plays to count over the last three years.
"No question, he's the best third baseman I've ever had in any program," Hogan said.
Said a grinning Stuckey of his numerous spectacular plays at third base, "A lot of times, I try to imagine stuff before I do it, and sometimes it comes true, but a lot of times I can't even believe I did it. Defense can affect a game as much as offense. It's a big part of my game."
The speedy Stuckey, who is fourth on Southeast's career stolen base list with 36 and had a school-record 229 at-bats last year, would eventually like to give professional baseball a shot, something that Hogan believes is a strong possibility.
But no matter how the rest of his career turns out, Stuckey continues to be thrilled that he chose to attend Southeast.
"Since I've been here, it's been nothing but positive," he said. "My friends and family have gotten to watch me, and it's been a great experience. I wouldn't trade it for anything."
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