By Justin Sokeland
BISMARCK, N.D. – Drew Hensley had sat long enough. When the phone rang with an unexpected invitation, his answer was quick and his response was 36 hours from phone click to plane ticket.
After a redshirt season on the sideline at IU Southeast, Hensley returned to the baseball field for a final summer fling, answering a call to join former Bedford North Lawrence and current IUSE teammate Brody Tanksley with the Bismarck Larks in the prestigious Northwoods League.
The amazing part of this dugout-to-dirt story is the fact former IUSE coach and current Bismarck manager Sean Repay asked Hensley to join the Larks in the elite college league as a pitcher. Hensley, since graduating from BNL in 2017, had pitched a grand total of 6 innings with the Grenadiers. He’s normally an infielder by trade.
But the Larks were running out of arms as the season staggered to its Aug. 11 close. Hensley has been – pun intended – a shot in the arm for the staff, going 1-1 with a sparkling 1.22 ERA in five appearances.
“It’s amazing,” Hensley said. “Playing this competition, after sitting out a year of baseball, I was really ready to come out and play. The competition is crazy. I’ve pitched against kids from Oregon, Oregon State, Texas. It’s crazy a small kid from IU Southeast is going against some of the top colleges in the nation.”
Hensley was a stud with the Stars, going 7-1 with a 1.87 ERA in 10 games as a senior, helping BNL win the sectional title. He also hit .411 with 12 doubles and 22 RBIs. As a freshman with the Grenadiers, he hit .386 with 26 RBIs.
He spent his sophomore campaign, both fall and spring seasons, on the sideline. That perspective gave him a different outlook on the game he has loved since barely big enough to drag a bat to home plate.
“It was really hard but kind of a blessing,” Hensley said. “I was getting bigger, faster, stronger, and you really learn a lot watching every game from the stands or press box – what pitches to threw in what counts, what to expect defensively.”
The Northwoods League features 22 teams and a 72-game schedule from May 28-Aug. 11, a condensed classroom against elite competition. Hensley got a late start, but his close friend and teammate (Tanksley has raised his batting average to .260 after a rough beginning) helped him make the rapid adjustment.
“Brody and I have a lot of history, and he’s helped me through it,” Hensley said. “It’s good to have a familiar face behind the plate, he knows what to throw, and he helped me out a lot.”
Bismarck, North Dakota’s state capital, is 1,135 miles from home, a 17-hour drive just to play baseball. Yet it’s not as far away as one might think.
“It reminds me a lot of Bedford,” Hensley said. “The people are very laid back, very respectful and looking out for others. It’s crazy how my host family will take in a kid and treat them like their own.”
As his summer “vacation” winds to a close, Hensley’s success might spark a move to the mound when he returns to IUSE.
“I talked with my coach, and with my numbers, I might do more pitching,” Hensley said. “I would miss hitting, but it doesn’t matter. It’s whatever is best for the team.”