By David Fong
TROY — On a good day, Derek McDonagh is a lot of things.
The Troy High School senior says he is 5-foot-9 “on a good day.”
He also claims he’s 160 pounds “on a good day.”
Troy baseball coach Ty Welker said his staff ace is capable of throwing 85 miles per hour — you guessed it — “on a good day.”
There are no caveats needed when describing McDonagh’s actual play on the baseball diamond this spring or on the football field last fall, however. This year, he’s been proof positive that he’s as good as any player twice his size — which has led to the two-sport star having plenty of “good days.”
“I think a lot of people want to look at someone’s size and assume whether they are good or not based off of that,” said McDonagh, who, for the record, was officially listed at 5-foot-7 and 158 pounds in the football program last fall (it must have been a bad day). “It doesn’t really bother me that much. Honestly, it just motivates me.”
A motivated McDonagh has been a dangerous McDonagh for the opposition this spring. He was 2-1 with a 0.88 earned run average and 23 strikeouts in 16 innings pitched this season before picking up another win in relief Friday night. Last week against Sidney, he threw a perfect game, striking out eight and throwing just 64 pitches over six innings in a 10-0 run-rule contest. In the season opener against Greenville, he threw a one-hitter. Last year he went 3-1 with a one save, a 1.65 ERA and team-high 47 strike outs. He also threw a no-hitter against Xenia.
“He’s not the most intimidating guy around — until you actually see him pitch,” Welker said. “He has a drive and competitiveness you really aren’t going to see just by looking at him — but you are going see it in the way he plays, the way he hustles and the way he works hard. But just by looking at him, he’s not the most imposing guy around. He’s not going to overpower you with his fastball — he’s probably anywhere from 83 to 85 miles per hour on a good day — but he’s going to mix up his locations well. He’s going to throw strikes. He’s going to work the corners. For him, it’s all about location, location, location.”
The relatively diminutive McDonagh — who, with his baby face and relatively soft-spoken demeanor, could actually pass for someone much younger than a senior in high school — relies not only on his technique, but also his mental approach to the game. He simply refuses to be intimidated by bigger opponents.
“It’s kind of like a mentality that I have,” he said. “Even if I was 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds, I would still play with a chip on my shoulder. I’ve always had a killer’s mentality. I’m going to go after it.”
Which is all well and good and a non-contact sport, but it’s a fire he also carried with him onto the football field, where he started at cornerback for the Trojans the past two years. He was named first-team All-Greater Western Ohio Conference American North Division last fall and special mention North Division in 2016, often while taking on players with half-a-foot and more than 100 pounds on him.
“The thing I’ll always remember about Derek was my first year here, when he was a sophomore, he was playing DB on our scout team,” Troy football coach Matt Burgbacher said. “At that point, he was probably 5-foot-4 and maybe 120 pounds. Every day in practice he was on our scout team defense going up against Luke Robinson, who was 6-foot-2 or 6-foot-3. Never once did Derek back down.
“Derek was never going to be the biggest kid on the field. He was never going to be the strongest or the fastest or any of that stuff. But he ended up being the best guy we had at that position. He’s living proof that it’s not how big you are stature-wise, but how big your heart is on the inside. He’s the kind of kid I’m going to bring up for years to come whenever a parent tells me they think their kid is too small to play football.”
McDonagh was much more than simply a cover corner for the Trojans, too. He finished the season fifth on the team in tackles with 51, to go along with three interceptions (second on the team) and 14 pass break-ups (also second on the team). He was a fearless punt returner, fielding 19 kicks for 223 yards, an average of 11.7 yards per return. For comparison’s sake, Troy’s opponents averaged 6.8 yards per return.
“He wasn’t your typical corner who didn’t like to hit people,” Burgbacher said. “He never shied away from contact. I’m sure there were a lot of coaches who, when they watched film of us, looked at him as a kid they could go after because of his size, but probably had to change that philosophy at halftime when they actually played against him.”
One thing that never seemed to change no matter how well McDonagh played, however, was the trash talk he would hear from opposing receivers on a weekly basis.
“That definitely happened a lot on the football field,” he said. “They would always trash talk me about my height. Some of the taller receivers would tell me they couldn’t even see me, like I wasn’t even out there. That was fine, because I knew I was still going to be up in their grill on the very next play. If you knocked me down, I was going to get right back up for the next play. I never let any of that bother me. I knew I had earned my spot for a reason.”
That’s because McDonagh knew it was game day … which for him, is always a good day.
Contact David Fong at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter @thefong