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Taking swings instead of running sweeps

09/19/2013, 9:02pm PDT
By John Maffei

Valley Center RB gives up thrill of Friday football to devote himself to baseball.

Austin Bernard, who has accepted a baseball scholarship to Pepperdine, swings away in his backyard batting cage.

— Nothing in sports, Austin Bernard says, compares to Friday Night Lights.

“Walking into a packed stadium for a big football game is unbelievable,” said Bernard, who rushed for 1,862 yards and 24 touchdowns as a junior at Valley Center High last season.

So why, if Bernard loves football so much, and he’s good at it, did he walk away from the game this season?

“I’ve played football all my life,” said the 5-foot-10, 180-pound Bernard. “So the decision not to play was tough, I mean really tough. But baseball is my future.”

Valley Center football coach Rob Gilster isn’t so sure.

“Honestly, I’ve never seen Austin play baseball,” said Gilster, who also helps with the track team in the spring. “So I really don’t know how good he is. But he’s one heck of a football player — tough, strong, fast.

“Austin is a good kid, comes from a good family.

“Obviously, we’ll miss him. But if he thinks concentrating on baseball is the best thing for him, we wish him the best.”

The fact the Bernard family has a history at Valley Center made Austin’s decision that much tougher.

Tyler Bernard quarterbacked the Jaguars to San Diego Section Division IV championships in 2007 and 2008. He’s now playing baseball at Cal State San Marcos.

Travis Bernard helped Valley Center to section runner-up finishes in 2009 and 2010, rushing for 2,834 yards and 39 TDs as a senior while being named Offensive Player of the Year. He signed to play at Northern Colorado.

At the start of summer, Austin Bernard told the coaches he was “90 percent sure” he was going to play football.

The summer baseball showcases, however, convinced him he needed to concentrate on one sport.

Bernard played for the San Diego Show in the 17U and 18U World Wood Bat Tournaments in Georgia on the same team with Alex Jackson (Rancho Bernardo) and Brady Aiken (Cathedral Catholic), both considered possible first-round picks in the pro baseball draft.

A shortstop for Valley Center, Bernard was asked to play second base when Gosuke Katoh (Rancho Bernardo), a second-round pick in June, signed with the Yankees.

Bernard played in the 17U Perfect Game World Series in Arizona as well as the Perfect Game Showcase.

He’s playing in a showcase at the spring training complex of the Indians and Reds in Arizona this weekend, and in the World Wood Bat Championships in Florida in October.

Plus, he’s playing winter ball for the Orioles and Blue Jays’ scout teams, making it hard to fit in football.

“When I saw the talent of the guys I was playing with and against, when I saw the number of college coaches watching those events, I knew I had to focus on baseball if I wanted to be the best,” Bernard said. “I realized the time I needed to devote to baseball.”

The time factor meant he’d miss tonight’s home game against No. 2-ranked Mission Hills and the Oct. 25 game against high-flying Mt. Carmel.

The Jaguars are 2-1 without Bernard as Brad Dozier has taken over as the feature back.

“In my mind, missing games just wasn’t fair to the team,” Bernard said. “You’re either part of the team or you’re not.”

His devotion to baseball has paid off. Bernard hit .344 with three homers, 10 doubles and 13 RBIs for Valley Center last season, drawing interest from pro scouts.

After a showcase in San Diego, an MLB scout said his notes on Bernard included “good college prospect. Has tools. Must follow.”

The summer circuit yielded an offer from Pepperdine, which was gladly accepted by Bernard, who didn’t have that offer when he told the football coaches in August of his decision not to play.

“I love the team aspect of football,” Bernard said. “I’ve wanted to play in the NFL since I was in eighth grade.

“The guys on the team have made this easier for me. They joke around, tell me I should be playing, but there isn’t any serious needling. Friends are friends no matter what.

“The coaches have been great. They wanted me to play, but they’ve respected my decision.

“I’m supporting the team as best I can, and it’s killing me not to be playing.

“Down deep, though, I know I made the right decision.”

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