On a warm day last summer, the familiar sound of a baseball colliding with a beaten leather glove echoed repeatedly through a Rock Falls neighborhood.
Pop, pop. Back and forth.
Austin Donoho was standing in the middle of a street with his older brother, Cody, near their Rock Falls home. Donoho, then a junior, was doing what he loved most – playing catch and talking sports with his brothers.
Cody, the family's middle child, and Josh, the oldest, make up a family of competitive athletes who have never shied away from competition in whatever sport the other has issued a challenge in. Whether it's who can sink more bags in the backyard on their bags set, or intense 1-on-1 basketball games, or even on the golf course.
It's how Donoho learned to play and compete and be successful, against older kids, by following his older brothers to pickup games against their friends.
But on this particular day, the two were simply having fun. The youngest of the three, Donoho, remembers the two were gripping the ball in different ways, and watching to see how it moved through the air as it traveled to the other's glove.
"We were just messing around throwing and holding the ball different ways," Donoho said, "and one of mine came out as a slider."
Donoho remembered how his fingers were positioned on the ball, worked on it with his brothers in the backyard and on the street, and brought his newly perfected pitch to the Rock Falls pitching rubber this spring for his senior season.
With that added slider to his repertoire, he had good command of four pitches. What followed was a dominant season for the humble kid, both on the mound and at the plate.
"I grew up always willing to accept new challenges," Donoho said. "I try to get better every day, every year."
For his success this season, Donoho is Sauk Valley Media's baseball Player of the Year.
"I don't think there was a better pitcher around," Rockets head coach Donnie Chappell said. "That slider he developed last year made him great.
"There aren't many high school pitchers that can throw four pitches, or have command of four pitches," Chappell continued. "He was able to throw strikes with all of them."
Donoho used a combination of a heavy fastball, a smooth, sinking changeup, a tight curveball, and a where-did-that-pitch-go slider.
He finished the season with a 3-4 record, but had an impressive ERA of 1.22 in 51 1/3 innings of work. He also sent 55 opposing batters back to the dugout with a "K" attached to their stat sheet.
With a bat in his hand, he led the Rockets in doubles with 10, was tied for the team lead in home runs (4) with junior teammate Cayden Erickson, and scored an area-high 30 runs. He also had a .326 batting average and a .439 on-base percentage.
"I actually felt bad for him, because whenever he pitched, we seemed to make a lot of errors in the field, and he would lose games," Chappell said.
The coach was especially upset because he knew how much work Donoho had put in to help his team win.
"He was the perfect kid that any coach would love to have," Chappell said.
Donoho played every position except first base and catcher for the Rockets this season, and batted in every spot in the lineup. And did so without a fuss.
"That's just how he is," Chappell said. "He really didn't care about what his individual stats are, because for him, it's all about the team.
"If I told him we are better off when you are batting third, last, first, or anywhere else, he wouldn't ever complain and say, 'Come on, coach.' It was never that."
His teammates enjoyed the selfless attitude of their ace pitcher, and enjoyed the days Donoho was slated as the game's starting pitcher, because he always put them in a position to win. But few enjoyed those days more than battery mate Jacob Mammosser.
Mammosser, a junior catcher, enjoyed catching for Donoho, because it made his job easy. He would look forward to games while sitting in class, knowing that the Rockets, who finished the season 19-12, had as good of a chance as any to pull out a win and make a day full of classes and homework bearable.
"When he was throwing well, he was untouchable," Mammosser said. "I didn't have to do too much work. He was a fast worker and had a quick delivery, so I just put a sign down and went with it."
Mammosser recalled times when Donoho's stuff was so good, that opposing batters had a helpless look on their face. Mammosser said there were times when he couldn't help but smile when a batter's cleats would corkscrew into the soft dirt, after chasing one of Donoho's devastating sliders.
Or sometimes a hitter would turn his shoulder away from a curveball, only for the pitch to be a called third strike.
"I would laugh sometimes under my mask, because he made so many people swing and miss," Mammosser said. "He was so good everywhere."
He also brought a fun atmosphere to the game.
"If you were having a bad game or in the middle of a slump, he wouldn't let you worry about it, because he would keep it light and joke with you," Mammosser said.
Donoho will be attending St. Ambrose in Davenport in the fall, where he will be a wide receiver on the football team. The football team has sent him workouts to do before he reports for camp in early August.
After living in Rock Falls for his entire life, he is excited about the change of scenery, and hopes to stay in sports as a coach in the future.
"He would be a great coach," Chappell said. "His willingness to work hard and put in the time is incredible. He does all of the things that people don't get credit for, and coaching and helping people is right up his alley.
"He is just a great kid, and the type of kid that will definitely be successful."
Hometown: Rock Falls
College plans: St. Ambrose in Davenport, Iowa. Will play wide receiver on football team. Hope to be a coach after graduating.
FYI: Was a three-sport athlete and played football, basketball and baseball. ... Threw a 1-hitter with 8 Ks against rival Sterling on April 26.