The road to Major League Baseball rarely runs through D-III, and hardly ever through the NESCAC. Despite this, NESCAC Pitcher of the Week Oliver Van Zant ’13 might just find a way. 

His demolition of several Bowdoin records has kept him on the radar despite going to a school that stays out of the national spotlight. His 256 career strikeouts puts him comfortably ahead of the closest Bowdoin pitcher on the list, Bernard Johnson, who tallied 187 in 1961. Van Zant also holds the record for most strikeouts in a season (95), and if the 2013 season ended today, his ERA (1.29) would be the second best in Polar Bear history. 

Van Zant started where most aspiring baseball players do, in little league as a six-year-old. He started soccer from an early age as well and excelled at both sports. But as each grew more and more time consuming, Van Zant’s parents encouraged him to make a single commitment. He chose baseball.

The commitment to baseball intensified when he turned 13 and joined the Connecticut Bombers, an Amatuer Athletic Union team, where played for the next five years.
“I think that marked the official commitment,” Van Zant said, “when I was driving 45 minutes to an hour for practice every day.”

As he began looking for colleges, colleges began looking for him. Van Zant verbally committed to Yale early on, captivated by the reputation of the institution. However, a miscommunication with admissions lost him the opportunity and additional D-I offers. 

As such a highly touted prospect, Van Zant remembers receiving interest from 12 to 15 different D-III schools. Bowdoin’s head coach, Mike Connolly, called as often as NCAA recruiting rules permitted. 

But even with Bowdoin’s demand for his services, it occurred to Van Zant that he could just as easily take the year off, continue to play, and begin the process again the next year. Scouts do not often watch D-III games, and access to highly coveted positions in summer leagues relies on connections. Yet eventually, Connolly was able to sell him on Bowdoin with the promise, “you play well, I’ll find you opportunities.”

Van Zant held up his end of the deal, becoming the NESCAC Rookie and Pitcher of the Year his first season, and Connolly has come through with his end. Van Zant has spent his summers in the Futures League against many of the best players in the northeast that still have college eligibility. The highlight of his summer ball experience came during a Cape Cod League tryout.

“It’s basically the best opportunity for college players,” Van Zant said. “Ninety percent of the kids get drafted. I also had the best velocity I had ever thrown—I got a two-week contract.”

Come draft time, Van Zant is aware of five professional teams that have expressed interest in him—despite his age, relatively small size and college. According to Van Zant, Connolly is the reason for their interest.

“Coach Connolly made sure I had the exposure I needed to make sure I’d have a shot,” he said.

Should he get drafted, he will likely find himself in a minor league team affiliated with one of the major league clubs. From there, in Van Zant’s words, “it’s on you to perform. You play well, you get promoted.”

But the questions surrounding his post-collegiate career have not made him forget about his senior season as a Polar Bear. 

“His goal, like all our goals, is a NESCAC championship,” captain Luke Regan ’13 said. “He puts us in a position to win every time he plays.”

The Polar Bears are eager for a NESCAC championship after falling short by one win in each of the last three years. This year might be their best chance, with Van Zant in his prime. 

Van Zant practices and trains mercilessly. His brother Henry pitches for Bowdoin and doubles as his workout partner.  

“I think my biggest improvement has been my physical strength over the past two years,” Oliver Van Zant said. “A huge part of it is having my brother up here as someone you can rely on everyday. You know he’s not going to leave you searching for a partner at the last minute.”

“Most of the work for the past three years has been done in the weight room,” Regan said. “Some of the workouts you see them doing, they’re intimidating.”

And the workouts have yielded intimidating results, if records are believed to be any indication of success.   

“I won’t lie, I like the records,” Van Zant said, “They’re fun. But I don’t keep count trying to get to the next number.”

After four years on the mound, there are hardly any left for him to count. 

The sports editor of the Orient chooses the Athlete of the Week based on exemplary performance.