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Sports >  High school sports

Senior stories: Gonzaga Prep’s Ryan Voelker makes big switch to stay on the diamond

UPDATED: Sun., May 3, 2020

Ryan Voelker was looking forward to his senior baseball season at Gonzaga Prep. Like, really looking forward to it.

After earning all-Greater Spokane League honors as a sophomore, Voelker missed much of his junior season due to an unfortunate, avoidable injury. But what he had overcome before all that made losing his senior season even more heartbreaking.

Voelker was diagnosed with a degenerative issue in his right elbow in elementary school. Doctors told him that regardless of surgery he’d always experience pain throwing, and they recommended he stop playing baseball.

“In the sixth grade I started having pains and found out I couldn’t rotate my arm all the way,” Voelker said. “I went to the doctor … and she just said it was tennis elbow, which was just like muscle pain and stuff. So then I went on throwing for like two more months. And then out of the blue one day, it just like felt like it snapped kind of in a way. So I went to the doctor and got an MRI, and it showed pieces of cartilage chunks just floating around in my elbow.”

He had surgery to remove the fragments, but doctors couldn’t undo the damage.

Undaunted, he was determined to stay in the game.

“After the surgery, my dad bought me a left-handed glove for my birthday, so I started throwing lefty.”

It wasn’t easy.

“I would always get down on myself because it was so awkward to just try and focus with the other arm,” Voelker admitted. “It looks so funky and felt so weird. It was just very difficult.”

Originally a pitcher, Voelker had to get over the mental hurdle before the physical.

“The mental aspect, knowing how good you were right-handed, and then having to go from throwing pretty hard in sixth grade to maybe throwing 30 miles per hour, can’t throw 90 feet, was like, it was just so hard to know that whatever I had going for me right-handed, it’s not there anymore and I had to start over.”

Things clicked for Voelker when a coach suggested a switch to first base.

“That really started it, throwing left-handed and everything and then eventually it just started becoming like more natural, I guess. By freshman year I was able to function properly to make my throws and what I needed to.”

Gonzaga Prep baseball coach Brian Munhall didn’t know the story about Voelker’s arm problems until he turned out freshman year.

“I said, ‘Gosh, It looks like he’s throwing with the wrong arm.’ ” Munhall said. “But over time – I mean, shoot, I can’t even eat left-handed – so over time he got good enough so that he was more than functional, and he actually played a pretty good first base.”

After a sophomore campaign when he hit .347 with a .475 on-base percentage, he found out he’d been selected first-team all-GSL.

“It was probably one of the coolest moments I’ve had in my life,” he said. “I was just sitting on the couch and got a text from Munhall saying that I was on first team as a sophomore. It was just wonderful.”

Getting ready for his junior year, though, Voelker started having pain in this left elbow.

“I kind of knew the pain from what it was before,” he said.

“I asked him what he was going to do,” Munhall said. “And he said, ‘Well, I’m going to put two first baseman gloves in my bag. Now I’m a lefty, but if my left arm is sore, then I’ll try to play right-handed today.”

Voelker was managing his discomfort, but an off-the-field accident cut his junior season short.

“It was my own fault,” he said.

Voelker was participating in a Spirit Week Frisbee game. A misunderstanding led to his ejection from the game and he took his frustrations out on a door, resulting in a broken hand.

“It was the stupidest thing I think I’ve ever done.”

He lost three-quarters of his junior season to the injury. And now, his entire senior campaign to the pandemic.

“Our whole team has been putting in the work for a long time,” Voelker said. “We were gonna be very special.

“Within the first couple weeks (of spring practice) we saw a team that was ready to compete and everything. It was it was gonna be a fun year.”

Dominance cut short: The G-Prep boys golf team has dominated the past three seasons, led by six players in the class of 2020 who have won every invite they have participated in except one during their careers.

In that time the Pups have won three GSL titles and finished second at state as freshman, first as sophomores, and second last year as juniors – just three strokes behind state champion Kamiak.

G-Prep’s Nate Plaster shared second place that day and would have been considered a strong bet to capture the individual trophy this season.

Plaster and fellow seniors Matt McGann, Will Reeves, Hayden Gamache, Bailey Collins and Max Scelfo all have college golf aspirations, with Plaster headed to the Palouse for Pac-10 play for the Cougars.

Gonzaga Prep senior roll call

Baseball: Jake Simpson, Declan Sklut, Austin Reed, Jackson Day, Tommy Burnett, Rigee Olavides, Ryun Cross, Nick Swenson, Alex Grimes, Karter Sayler, Tyan Voelker.

Softball: DJ Finger, Paige Scholin, Alex Best, Nicholina Piccolo, Julia Wright, Jaydn Raley-Jones, Callie Babin.

Boys soccer: Mason Brock, Dominic Maucione, Artem Yushkevich, Christian Campagna.

Boys golf: Bailey Collins, Hayden Gamache, Matt McGann, Nate Plaster, Will Reeves, Max Scelfo.

Girls golf: Dallas Young, Johnna Manfred, Meg Tiffany.

Boys tennis: Anders Mark, Jake Dominiak, Grant Lidquist.

Girls tennis: Elizabeth Meyer, Mia Puzzo.

Boys track and field: Sam Anderson, Matthew Auble, Jonas Bears, Ryan Blevins, Ryland Bodey, Liam Hurley, Xzandre Jean-Francois, Connor Kiepe, Ashton Kopczick, Gabe Mack, Zane Melzer, Trevor Riordan, Jack Schmidt, Jacob Wilson.

Girls track and field: Leah Carney, Meghan Christopher, Reagan Crain, Lakin Gardner, Kathleen Horn, Halle Kuhar-Pitters, Lucy Nester, Bailee Ojogho, Katerina Pyankova, Emily Spiering, Victoria Stefoglo, Maria Strasser, Eva Ulrichsen.

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