Under the dry heat of the Northern California sun, beside former San Francisco Giants pitcher Bill Laskey, 18-year-old Connor Bruce stood front and center in Monte Vista High School’s Al Gentile Theater.
The Mustang baseball team’s senior catcher was at the forefront of the collective attention of 200 of his closest campus confidants during a ceremony Wednesday afternoon honoring him as Sports Illustrated’s High School Athlete of the Month.
Through the first 19 games of the 2016 season, Bruce boasts an enviable .411 batting average and .484 on-base percentage. His contributions have been instrumental in leading Monte Vista to the No. 2 ranking in the tough East Bay Athletic League, a league in which the Mustangs earned a share of the regular-season title a year ago.
Bruce was not just being honored for his play, however.
It is his work with special-needs youth athletes, as well as his role as pillar of the community in and around the Monte Vista campus that garnered him this national recognition.
For Bruce, the honor of being selected as SI’s feature prep athlete for the month of April was an “awesome” experience:
“It’s an honor — it’s amazing — I didn’t think I was going to be picked, and I (was). It’s just been unreal, everything that has happened.”
Bruce was an applicant due to his role as a pitcher-coach with the Danville Little League Challenger Division — a division of little league baseball created in 1989 to grant playing opportunity to boys and girls with mental and physical disabilities.
For SI’s High School Athlete of the Month series editor Ali Fenwick, Bruce was the clear choice over all other applicants. Not just for his work with the challenger division, but within his school and community as well.
“We picked Connor because of what he is doing off the field, in such a genuine way, he’s so involved with special-needs kids… It’s important to him. He’s not just a kid doing good things to check off boxes.”
The Blackhawk native has been involved with the challenger division since his grandfather introduced him to it during his freshman year. His work with special-needs youths goes back to seventh grade, however. That was the year he volunteered with his first program.
Today, after five years of commitment, he doesn’t rule out the possibility of that work being his future life work:
“I’m going to see where college takes me. It is something that I’m definitely interested in, and want to stay involved with. We’ll see if it takes me in the direction of a career.”
That feeling-out process will play out at North Carolina State University, where Bruce will begin his higher learning in the fall. He does not plan to play baseball for the Wolf Pack. For now, at least.
The Mustang backstop, who once dreamed of taking the big-league diamond, did not find the “right opportunity” to further his playing career. Should that opportunity present itself, he said, he would be more than interested in the possibility.
The teen’s mother Kim Bruce, who said her son’s spice of life has taken the pair skydiving and bungee jumping, said that Connor’s choice of NC State comes in search of a shake-up, in scenery as well as people. She added that, as a teen making such a difficult choice, her son should be lauded for his courage to uproot in search of new beginnings.
Baseball was one of those things that wasn’t included into his plans for the near future:
“He looks at it as, maybe that is just no the half-life that is supposed to be for him. He’s one of those kids that doesn’t look at the negative stuff… He loves baseball, and he’s having an amazing season. But if it ends at that, then it ends at that. He’s OK with that.”
A relaxed demeanor, along with that courage, is something that Laskey, who spent parts of six seasons as a major leaguer, said he recognized immediately upon meeting Connor. He also recognized both the playing talent and awe-inspiring off-field passion.
In addressing a crowd of approximately 200, the former Giant urged that the community take a moment and allow the significance of the designation resonate:
“You don’t understand how many kids are across the United States, and you have the player of the month of April in Sports Illustrated.”
A sentiment that was dead on. Not only is Connor one of just 17, out of thousands of prep athlete applicants, to have received the honor he is the first baseball player, according to Fenwick.
As the award is presented in partnership with the United States Marine Corps, their Danville office also had a presence at event. And it was Staff Sergeant Robert Wancea who perhaps summed up the soon-to-be Monte Vista grad’s actions most succinctly:
“It is clear that Connor has made a tremendous impact both on and off the field. Connor has done a terrific job of representing the Marine Corps values of honor, courage and commitment.”