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From hard work at home to hitting home runs as a Hoosier: The journey of Indiana catcher Matthew Ellis

“Do everything to the best of your ability, no matter what.”

Growing up in Kentucky, Matthew Ellis was raised into a family where hard work was the name of the game, and his father's words reflected that. His father, Mike, left the house every day at six in the morning to go to work, and Matthew says Mike “is the hardest worker I’ve ever met in my entire life. I couldn’t have asked for a better dad.”

Matthew quickly adapted to his father’s way of life, even if that meant living with a competitive father who wouldn’t take it easy on his son.

“He would always make it hard on me when we were competing. Whether it was basketball, ping pong, he would never let me win, and I would get so mad,” Ellis said. “But I think that fueled me as I got older, especially when you’re competing against someone else.”

Ellis joked that he could finally start beating his dad in pong pong by the end of high school because he was getting older and his hand-eye coordination wasn’t as good. 

Ellis began his collegiate baseball career with the University of Tennessee after graduating from Shelby County High School. But, after just one season with the Volunteers, Ellis redshirted and transferred to Walters State Community College, moving northeast from Knoxville to Morristown.

Matthew Ellis pictured at Walters State Community College. (Photo courtesy of Walters State Community College)

“It was a pretty easy transition for me,” Ellis said. “I made some great relationships [at Tennessee], but I just felt like it was not the right place at the right time. [Walters State] was close and convenient for me.”

It was particularly easy because Ellis was already familiar with the head coach of the Senators, David Shelton.

“We had recruited Matthew out of high school before he committed to Tennessee,” Shelton said. “I thought we were really close to getting him.”

After Ellis realized Tennessee wasn’t going to work out for him, he reached out to Shelton, who said, “we welcomed him with open arms. We were in need of catching, and he fits into what we’re known for: recruiting big, strong, physical power hitters. He fit our mold tremendously.”

Walters State has always been known as an offensive powerhouse, so it made sense that Ellis transitioned from the bigger SEC school to the smaller community college. The biggest issue with Ellis, however, was with his defense. Scouts said was a bit “rough around the edges” defensively after one year with the Volunteers.

But Ellis was determined to improve the defensive side of his game, as blocking balls was the big issue for the 6-foot-4, 240-pound backstop. Ellis was set up with all the right tools, and it paid off. Ellis “improved leaps and bounds defensively,” Shelton said about Ellis in his two years with the Senators. 

“It was nothing we did, it was a testament to his hard work,” Shelton said. “We just gave him a setting to allow him to improve those things and he did that. He was always one of the hardest workers on the team, both defensively and offensively.”

Ellis says he has a lot of great memories and stories as a Senator, but the best one in his mind was, as he says, “winning the state tournament when we should have been eliminated.” He finished with a solid .332 average, .470 on base percentage, and a .649 slugging percentage with 21 home runs in 87 games played.

Matthew Ellis (35) celebrates with teammates during Indiana's home opener on March 1. (HN photo/Ryan Lo)

Ellis then made the jump back to a Power 5 team when he committed to Indiana in the offseason. It was the second transition of schools for Ellis in three years, as the now redshirt junior found a third home, but with that came some challenges.

“At first it was a bigger jump than I was thinking,” Ellis said. “The speed of the game at first was hard for me to take defensively and then as time went on it was a lot easier.”

Thirty-one games into the season, Ellis has not only turned into the team’s everyday catcher, but has blossomed into one of the best baseball players in Bloomington. Entering this weekend’s series against Rutgers, Ellis sits on top of the Big Ten with 12 round-trippers this season, and also leads the team with 36 runs batted in. Clearly, the transition hasn’t been too difficult for the Indiana catcher, who's been a mainstay in the Indiana lineup this season, which ranks in the top half of Big Ten in most offensive categories.

Ellis’ ultimate goal this season: win the Big Ten title.

Three schools in four years. Countless memories made. Hundreds of hours honing his skill. For Matthew Ellis, all the hard work has paid off.

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