Winning a series off the baseball field has given Colton Neel bragging rights and he doesn’t let his opponent forget it.
When Neel, a 5-foot-9-inch, 190-pound left-handed pitcher and right fielder for The University of Memphis, roomed with Jonathan Bowlan, the Tigers’ 6-foot-6-inch, now 255-pound right-handed pitcher, in the freshman dorms they began an ongoing wrestling series that continues today with Neel on top.
“There’s quite a difference of size there,” said Neel, who uses Bowlan’s kind-hearted nature for a takedown.
“Jon is a huge teddy bear and doesn’t have a mean streak that I do,” said Neel. “So, not surprisingly I pinned him and I have been letting him know just about every day. I’m always ahead in the overall series. Everyone on the team knows about it so it’s really fun to remind Jon because it gets him fired up.”
Bowlan said, “He’s a very strong individual.”
Bowlan is strong on the mound.
A graduate of Bartlett High School, Bowlan has a 2.60 ERA this season with a 1-5 record and 65 strikeouts in 52 innings.
Memphis Head Baseball Coach Daron Schoenrock calls Bowlan a “big-time pro prospect.”
“Very seldom do you have a guy that is a big-time pro prospect like he is but is also as team-oriented as Jonathan is,” he said. “That comes from his upbringing and playing. I think it’s a very well-grounded family. They understand what is important in life and they have instilled that into Jonathan and he brings it to the field every day.
“He is such a kind, giving and caring person. He is one of the greatest kids I have ever coached at handling adversity and being a teammate and all the things that go in on the pedestal that he is and somebody who has elevated his play as much as he has the last three years,” said Schoenrock, calling his impact “tremendous.”
Schoenrock has told Bowlan, 21, that he has a gift from God: His 24-year old sister, Emily.
“He plays for Emily,” said Schoenrock. “Emily’s life is really important to him. To see how much love she has for him, you know that he has been a tremendous brother to her through her life.”
Emily was born deaf and with Down’s Syndrome.
“She is the reason why I’m here and she keeps me motivated to make it to the highest level,” said Bowlan, a junior.
With his parents Mark and Connie Bowlan, Emily attends each game whether Jonathan is pitching or not.
“She is always the loudest one there,” Jonathan noted. “No matter the outcome she is always the one smiling and there to hug me.”
As Bowlan grew up he included her with his friends. He tells them how she was born and what she was blessed with.
“She has done a lot more for me. She has introduced me to new friends that she is best friends with so it’s so awesome,” he said.
Emily was enrolled for a year in the University of Memphis’ TigerLIFE program.
The post secondary education 60-hour program culminates in an award in Career and Community Studies. Learning Independence, Fostering Employment and Education is the acronym for LIFE.
Emily is now involved in Friends of Faith Ministry in Bartlett, which provides activities for special needs young people 18 and older in a faith-based environment.
She plays basketball and bowls.
“I have learned it doesn’t matter what kind of setback, you have to just keep going. You enjoy what you have and take advantage of it,” said Jonathan. “You just do whatever you need to to be happy.”
He volunteers for Special Olympics.
“I love going out there and watching the kids play basketball or bowl,” said Bowlan, who also is in Best Buddies, a university-sponsored organization that creates one-on-one friendships with students and those with intellectual or developmental disabilities.
“Those are manly the things that really set my life the way it is. It allows me to realize what I am really blessed (with) and capable of,” said Bowlan.
Neel sees Emily at games supporting Jonathan and his teammates.
“Most importantly for Jon, Emily puts everything into perspective for him. No matter how he performs, seeing her in the stands or after the game, Jon is reminded that baseball is just a game and that there are more important things than baseball,” said Neel, 22.
Baseball has been a game that Bowlan has played since he was 6 in Arlington. It has provided his biggest thrill. He was a freshman and the starting shortstop when Arlington won the Class AAA state championship in 2012.
His father Mark Bowlan has his own biggest thrill.
On May 3, 1987, he pitched the only perfect game in the history of Memphis baseball. Bowlan threw 84 pitches in a 13-0 victory over Louisville.
“For me, it set a pedestal,” said Jonathan. “Many people don’t know the definition of a perfect game. It’s literally 27 batters up to the plate and 27 sat down. It is very hard. It motivates me to try to be perfect like he was.
“The funny thing is he never really talks about it unless somebody brings it up and he will actually discuss what happened in certain situations,” Jonathan continued. “He said you have to get ahead in the count and have to have all three pitches.”
Several years ago, Memphis honored Mark Bowlan with a laminated page of the score book of his perfect game.
“That was really neat for Mark,” said Schoenrock.
While he would like to follow in his father’s footsteps, it does not put pressure on him.
Jonathan has been close to a no-hitter but a missed pop up fly in the seventh inning thwarted that.
“That is how it goes sometimes and that is how the game is,” he said. “You have got to keep rolling and keep practicing and focusing on what you do.”
Bowlan was playing summer baseball between his sophomore and junior years in high school when Schoenrock first saw him pitch.
Former Memphis and Collierville High School head baseball coach Jeff Hopkins phoned Schoenrock.
“This is the son of Mark Bowlan. You need to go see him pitch,” Hopkins recalled.
Schoenrock said, “I fell in love with him the first time I saw him pitch. The projection of what I thought he could be and then we got to know Mark through the recruiting process and how humble Mark is.
“I got to watch Jonathan play three sports in high school,” Schoenrock added. “That is a big part of how he has blossomed as a pitcher. I got the enjoyment of watching him play basketball in high school.
“In big basketball games I saw how competitive he was in the paint. You would never know that watching him on the baseball field but he has got that gear when you push him to the edge of the cliff, he is going to come out swinging. That is what it takes to be successful.
“He was very good in basketball. He has been in so many competitive moments, so many guys we get now are pigeon-holed. They started playing just baseball early in their career. They have missed out on the values other sports give them. Jonathan has all three. I think that is what helps him be the athlete that he is and the competitor that he is.”
Bowlan was Bartlett Male Athlete of the Year in 2015, named by Journal West 10, and The Commercial Appeal’s Division 1 Male Athlete of the Year. As quarterback, he led Bartlett High School to a playoff berth and set 14 records on offense.
A forward on the basketball team, Bowlan was named All-State by the Tennessee Sports Writers Association. In baseball, he was All-Shelby Metro. He transferred from Arlington to Bartlett for his senior year.
Bowlan was a finalist for the 2014 Fellowship of Christian Athletes’ John “Bull” Bramlett award given to the prep football player who exhibits godliness, high character and integrity off the field and excellence on it.
One of his best prep experiences came when he was playing basketball for Arlington his junior year and helped lead the underdog Tigers to an upset of White Station in sub-state, earning a ticket to the 2014 state tournament.
“That was one of the best sporting moments of my life because of the surroundings and how we were able to come out on top,” said Bowlan, who worked hard to be ready for basketball that season after fracturing a growth plate in his hip while running a corner route during the 2013 football season.
When he went to catch a pass he cut up field and heard his hip pop. He missed the rest of the season.
“I was working my tail off because it goes football and then it’s time to get ready for basketball. In those sprints I was limping but I was doing everything I could to run normal and I was trying to become healthy so I was back for basketball,” he said.
It was an eventual season. Arlington finished 29-5.
Arlington defeated Siegel 86-80 in overtime before losing to Oak Ridge 57-56 in the state semifinals.
As Bowlan competes he takes his father’s advice to heart.
“My dad tells me to go out there and compete and be the best I can be on the mound, give it all you’ve got to win the games,” he noted. “That is what I have been doing. That is what my dad taught me.
“It doesn’t matter what level you are, it’s the same game,” he added. “You are reaching for the same goals and that is to win.”
His dad also told him to have fun.
“If you are not having fun then it’s probably not the thing for you. Do what you want to do with your life. Have fun with it and grow and you will be perfectly fine,” said Jonathan.
At Memphis, Bowlan has grown mentally and physically and developed pitches that have attracted pro scouts.
“I know how to pitch now, instead of just throwing the ball,” he said.
He has learned what pitch to throw on certain counts.
“I have got to get to the batter’s eyes up and down and all around to get them off balance and attack them and don’t be scared,” he said. “You have to throw strikes because my pitching coach (Russ McNickle) tells me 63 percent of the time if you throw a fast ball right down the middle the hitter is going to get themselves out. So, you have to compete and pound the zone.”
His fast ball has topped 96 mph and he consistently throws in the 92-94 mph range. Last year, he led the team with 78 strikeouts, which set the tone for this season.
“I started locked in and I have learned how to pitch more over the last year. I can tell a difference with my strikeouts now,” he said.
Schoenrock said, “His quality start streak is tremendous. I wish we could give him a little more run support and make a couple of more plays.”
Opponents are aware that he is a strike thrower who pounds the strike zone.
Batters attack him early, not waiting around.
“They come out swinging because they know if they get two strikes the percentages say that there is a good chance I will get them out,” said Bowlan.
Every pitcher’s goal is to get early strikes.
Bowlan will make a quality pitch and batters may get a “aluminum bat-type” hit said Schoenrock.
“Guys are in swing mode and he may cap a guy or may jam a guy that trickles through and finds a hole,” he said. “When you get into professional baseball swinging a wood bat, a lot of those (pitches) are going to (result in) broken bats and they are not going to be hit as hard. I think his stuff will play at the professional level even better than it plays at the college level.”
What has emerged is Bowlan’s slider, his favorite pitch.
With his large mound presence, Bowlan came to Memphis with height and stature but needed to put on strength and weight said Schoenrock.
Schoenrock did not send Bowlan to play in a 2017 summer league but wanted him to stay in Memphis and get in the weight room.
“He turned himself into the prospect that he is now with the good weight he put on last summer,” said Schoenrock. “That is what allows him to maintain his velocity. He wasn’t throwing in the mid-90s as a freshman. He has evolved into that. He was in the mid to upper 80s.
“Learning what a true slider is has been the biggest development. He threw a little curve ball in high school,” he continued. “We changed the action on the breaking ball that pro scouts are a lot more interested in.”
Neel, who played football and baseball at Memphis University School, called Jonathan a “big dude.”
“When you throw a ball from his stature at around 95 mph it’s hard to see, much less hit,” Neel said. “Trust me, I’ve tried it. It’s really difficult. To go along with that he’s got good command of three pitches. When you have that, calling pitches in a game for him becomes more like a video game.
“Jon is obviously a great pitcher,” he added. “This helps our team win baseball games but Jon is a starting pitcher. That means more games than not he is inactive for the game that day. His leadership and fire when he is not pitching is just as impacting. He is constantly picking our dugout up and encouraging guys on the field.”
The strength of Bowlan’s game is his attitude. He is always positive and learns from mistakes.
“I am always in a great mood. Even if I wake up and the day is not going as it is,” Jonathan said. “I break it down to one hour at a time and just go from there and live in the present and not worry too much about the future and things that happen in the past. You can’t do anything about that. You have to move on. You can look back and learn from mistakes or you can look back at the great memories you have made but still you have to move on and you can create those in your future with what you are doing in the present. I like to live a simple, happy life.”
With a 3.1 grade-point-average, he is a member of the Memphis Tiger 3.0 Club. He is majoring in physical education.
“My goal is to have a successful career wherever the Lord takes me and set the tone for kids growing up, to be an example,” said Bowlan.
His career could include the Major Leagues.
“I am hoping,” he said.
While he was told he could have been drafted in high school, he chose not to but wanted to attend Memphis to grow his game and get bigger.
Bowlan has not thought a lot about the draft he said. His father played in the St. Louis Cardinals’ organization and the Cardinals remain a family favorite team.
Jonathan wants to model his game after Noah Syndergaard, a right-handed pitcher for the New York Mets.
Scouts have told him that his game reminds them of Syndergaard’s.
“I can’t be exactly like him but I can still train and then watch videos and go from there,” said Bowlan.
As several highly successful high school prep quarterbacks in Memphis have done, Bowlan chose baseball over football.
“As you get to the next level in football it’s wild. They are so much bigger, so much stronger,” he said. “If you look at the statistics in football, long-term injury is higher. I felt like baseball was the best thing for me because I can go the farthest in this sport. I want to make it to the professional level and I felt like the most possible way for me to do that is through baseball.”
In his 14th season as Memphis head coach, Schoenrock relishes the opportunity to be around young people and coach them in a “very tough game” that is “tough” to coach and play.
“There are so many life lessons built into it and I have learned through the years and experiences, you are going to have some good years (the Tigers were 30-29 last season) and some years that are tough (Memphis was 13-25 through April 19).
“My role never changes regardless of how that season is going,” he noted. “That takes maturity as a coach to approach it that way and that is what we do.”
Schoenrock came to Memphis from Mississippi State where he was a pitching coach. He was also a pitching coach at Georgia for two years and has been on staff at Kentucky and Birmingham Southern.
“I had the privilege of working under some great men that I learned a lot about how to treat players,” he said. “Brian Shoop (head coach at the University of Alabama Birmingham) was one of my mentors. It was a very faith-based, a bigger mission than winning or losing games. I twas teaching kids about the challenges of facing life and ways to handle them.
“I was under Keith Madison, another tremendous godly man, at Kentucky for two years,” he continued. “(Madison has retired from coaching and was the Wildcats’ most winning baseball coach). I spent five years with Ron Polk at Mississippi State.”
Polk is an assistant coach at UAB and coached 31 seasons in the SEC, winning 1,218 games.
At Memphis, Schoenrock has had “some really good pitchers.”
His most successful are those who have “outstanding” preparation habits.
“Jonathan falls into that line. He is spot-on with his preparation. He is very committed,” said Schoenrock.
One of the things that Bowlan likes most about baseball is next-game preparation and challenges every day.
“I love getting out there and competing and doing whatever I need to do. It’s very fun,” he said.
He wants to continue to improve his game, keep going after hitters and being the best he can be.
“I know there is always room to grow and there is nothing to hold me back growing,” he said.
His faith is also growing. His goals including building a relationship “even closer to the Lord.”
“Honestly, I am not as close as I could be right now but I know that is going to change as the years go by because He has done so much for me and I can always learn more about Him,” said Bowlan, who wears a cross made out of baseball bats.
The cross was given to him as a graduation gift from Jessica Jones, the mother of former teammate Bentley Jones, who plays baseball at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, after playing at Dyersburg State.
“He was one of my best buddies that I played travel ball with,” said Bowlan, who has worn the cross since his senior year. It is always on him, on and off the field. He described it as one of his “biggest” gifts.
Jonathan’s parents are his role models.
“They raised me to be the way that I am and they have showed me how to have a great family and that is what I want to do with my family in the future. That helped me all throughout my life like parents always do,” he said. “It’s such a blessing to have them in my life because they have been together and have not had to go through the hard time of divorce.”
Along with Emily, he has sisters Lauren Whipple and Rachel Taylor.
Members of Bellevue Baptist Church, Mark and Connie led him to a personal relationship with Jesus when he was young.
“You wouldn’t be here if the Lord didn’t bless you with the ability you have,” he noted. “You need to thank Him every day for what He gave you. All you can do is go out there and trust in Him in His process that He has for your life. You have got to thank Him and live life and be happy.”
A turning point came in Jonathan’s life when his grandmother, Sylvia Hopper, of Bartlett died when he was 12.
“That really hit me hard,” he recalled. “At that time I was wondering why does God take these great people out of my life? Then as the years have gone by and I have looked to Him. It’s a life cycle and things are going to happen but you have to keep going and you have to keep believing in Him. He is going to be by your side. That is how I move through tough situations now, through Him. I know that He has my back and He has put me in these situations for some reasons.”
When he was younger he went on a ski trip with one of his friends and Jonathan learned something new about the Lord every day he said.
“It allowed me to see He really is there and He is the one that gets us through and puts us here,” he said.
His parents took him to Bellevue growing up.
“It’s one of the greatest things that has happened to me. I believe in the Lord’s Word,” he said. “I believe in everything that He has said for me and that He has taught me and what the Bible says.
Jonathan’s great uncle and aunt, Frank and Julie Smith, are also “real big into Bellevue” he said.
“They are real dedicated and that carries on to nieces and nephews. They have been by my side,” he said.
He also has “big inspiration” from his uncle and aunt Johnny and Sandy Looker and cousins Ben Looker and Becca Looker Harris, who are faithful members of New Hope Christian Church in Bartlett.
The toughest part about the season for Jonathan is not going to church.
“You feel like you are missing out on so much when you don’t go every Sunday because you are playing ball. So far that has really been the toughest thing being an athlete and a Christian but we go over a Bible verse every Sunday,” said Bowlan.
Each Sunday, the Tigers have a baseball chapel for those who want to attend.
“We listen to what the Lord has to say and that really brings out what it really means to be the Lord’s,” Jonathan said. “Every Sunday I am getting some type of (instruction) about the Lord and we also say a prayer before every game as a team huddled up. Those prayers are not just going through the motions. We actually pray.”
Schoenrock leads chapel on the road and a team chaplain (John Crosby) does them at home.
“I share a lot with our team about my faith. Jonathan is always locked in. I know his faith is very important to him because of what he has been through in his life. He has seen God working in Emily’s life,” said Schoenrock, who is a member of First Baptist Church in Collierville.
“We have a strong faith-based mission within this team. I don’t get involved internally. We have Bible studies. We have kids who share with other kids who lead kids to the Lord. What they do internally I let them do it. I don’t want to step in and have a Bible study and put pressure on them, ‘Hey, Coach Rock is running this Bible study.’ I want them to be there without my presence. I present the opportunity. I don’t beat them over the head with the Bible. I just tell them what is important in my life and let them make decisions.”
Bowlan makes his faith evident by his actions.
“They know I respect everybody in every way and that I am not stressed because I know the Lord has my back,” he said. “I am going out there and enjoy myself and have fun with the game that I am playing.”
A Christian, Neel said that while some players may not lead prayer or teach Bible studies, “you know that the Lord’s light shines through them. This is how I would describe Jon’s faith. He loves God and is a believer and I see this most through day-to-day interaction with him. He is like me in that he keeps his faith very personal and it’s not as much out in the open like some people.
“I’m very personal in my relationship with God. What helps me most is that I know no matter what, I’m blessed to have my faith with God. When baseball gets overwhelming or frustrating it’s great for me to just pray and talk to Him. It helps me from placing too much importance on baseball and I know there’s so much outside of baseball that’s bigger than baseball.”
Bowlan wears wrist bands daily.
One is for “StrikeOut Cancer,” a foundation started by MLB pitcher Jason Motte. It raises money for cancer research and each colored bracelet represents a different cancer.
Bowlan also wears a wrist band for Lou Gehrig’s Disease, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).
Teaming with East Carolina University this season, players on both teams grew mustaches to bring awareness to ALS and “that we can fight it” said Bowlan, whose blond mustache could barley be seen.
“These are just reminders that I am blessed with the way I am. So far no cancer and of course, no ALS,” he said.
His grandmother died of lung cancer he said.
“God’s purpose is to go out there and set an example for the ones who are younger than me and show them it doesn’t matter who you are, it doesn’t matter where you are from, God is always going to have your back and you have to be happy,” said Bowlan.
“At times it’s hard to be happy but you can always talk to Him and He is always there to support you and your family,” he continued. “If something happens to you and your family is not there, you can always look back at Him and build friendships and relationships with others and proceed through life because He has a route for you. Never give up.”
Said Schoenrock, “He has handled this stature of being a big time pro prospect like a champion.”
BILL SORRELL is a freelance writer for The Bartlett Express and other Journal West 10 Media LLC publications. Contact him at email@example.com.