Standing on the precipice of a high school state championship run and a college baseball career at the University of Texas, Oliver Service walks into every game with a definitive mindset: Bet on yourself.
“If you don’t have confidence in yourself, then you won’t get anything,” the University Liggett starting catcher said. “But if you go into something with confidence thinking to yourself that you’re already gonna win it or get it, you’re most likely going to come out on top because you had that self-confidence.
“You’ve gotta have that dog mentality.”
Service, a standout three-sport varsity athlete in baseball, football and hockey, is using his bulldog attitude and versatility to help lead Liggett baseball behind the plate this season to a 16-11 record in the Catholic High School League’s Central division, arguably the toughest in the league.
At the No. 2 spot, Service is hitting .373 and leads the team with an OBP of .490, five home runs and 29 runs. He’s compiled 28 hits, six doubles, one triple and 23 RBIs. He also has the lowest strikeout percentage on the team at 12.5 percent.
But despite his flashy offensive statistics, Service’s defense has become his storyline in 2023.
His head coach, Dan Cimini, who has known Service since kindergarten, has nothing but praise for his catcher’s performance.
“He has no errors on the year. Teams won’t run on him,” he said. “Our pitchers hold the runners really well. And when we do that, there’s no way they’re going on him, because they’ll gun him. He’s really solidified the running game and our defense. And he controls the pitching staff phenomenally.”
Though he began playing baseball at age 3 through the Eagle Sports program on Detroit’s east side and later with Grosse Pointe Woods-Shores Little League, Service did not begin catching until halfway through his sophomore year, when one of the team’s catchers went down with an injury.
“I had tried it before, but I never really liked it. … But my coach liked me behind the plate. I thought I could help out the team, so I did it.”
“I love it. Just being able to have such an impact in the game, like on every single pitch,” he said. “And being able to lead the defense and make the pitcher look good.”
He credits his defensive improvement this season largely on his participation in the invitation-only 2023 MLB DREAM series Jan. 13 to 16, in Tempe, Ariz. As one of only 50 players in the country selected to attend the camp, Service trained with current and former MLB coaches and players.
“That camp alone has helped so much in my catching ability and I’ve improved a lot,” he said. “And that’s been the main thing people have been talking about is how much better my defense has gotten.
“I have really started to pride myself on it too. That DREAM series was huge from the defensive aspect of the game.”
Service got important exposure from that experience because the 17-year-old is officially an MLB draft prospect. Jonathan Mayo from MLB.com wrote last January that Service “was part of a vastly improved catching core at the DREAM Series. He’s very athletic and instructors loved his swing and how the ball jumped off his bat.”
But for now, Service is concentrating on finishing his high school career. He said he has had many “Mt. Rushmore moments” on a baseball diamond, including reaching the 2018 Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa., alongside future Liggett teammates Reggie Sharpe Jr., Jarren Purify and Preston Barr, and winning a state championship with Liggett in 2021.
But he added another moment May 3 of this year, when the Knights beat rival St. Mary’s Prep in Game 1 of a double header, 4-3, which ended the Eaglet’s historic 84-game win streak.
In the two games combined, Service had three hits, a walk and two RBIs, helping Liggett also take Game 2, and redeeming two losses against St. Mary’s to open the season in April.
“It was just amazing to watch all the guys come together and put up two very solid games against a very good team,” he said.
Service said the team’s ability to have fun in high-intensity environments is a game-changer.
“When you mix the competitiveness and having fun, you’ve got a scary team.”
Service, who will play baseball starting this fall at the University of Texas while majoring in kinesiology, has used his time in high school to become as versatile a player as possible. It’s part of the reason he played three sports all four years.
“I have seen a lot of people get burned out from playing one sport too much,” he explained. “… I feel like that three-sport aspect in high school is good because I get to see sports from different perspectives and get to try different things instead of just dead-on baseball, but now I’m ready to put all my focus on baseball.”
True to his vast athletic skill set, Service said he’s open to playing any position as a Longhorn.
“I’m open to anything (at UT),” he said. “If they need me to catch, I’ll catch, or if they need me to play outfield, I’ll play outfield. To me it’s not really a set thing. It’s whatever they need me to play.”
He models his versatility after his MLB idol, Mookie Betts, of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“He plays like four different positions, like one game will be at shortstop, one game will be at second, one game will be in the outfield, so it’s really cool to see someone like that who’s doing the same kind of things that I want to do,” he said.
Service credits a few influential coaches for helping him reach the collegiate level, including the team’s assistant coach, Reginald Sharpe Sr., and his head coach.
“For me, I love the winning culture that Coach Cimini has created here,” he said. “… He built (Liggett) into being one of the best programs in the state. That winning attitude, that winning program, that winning feeling kind of gives you a sense of confidence when you are going out there every day.”
He said he particularly admires Cimini’s baseball acumen and willingness to take risks with in-game decisions.
“(Cimini) knowing so much about the game of baseball is just such an advantage,” Service said. “I swear he has called things where I’m like, ‘What is he calling?’ and the next thing you know, it works to perfection.”
One example of Service trusting Cimini’s gambling ways came against University of Detroit-Jesuit earlier this month when he gave Service, one of the team’s best hitters, the bunt sign on a suicide squeeze to win the game.
“I was like, uh, I’ll do it, and it worked,” Service laughed, though he admitted to initially wondering if Cimini made a mistake. “I knew the (bunt) sign, but thought maybe he gave me the wrong sign or something, but it worked to perfection.
“With coach being a risk taker, it translates into making us 10 times better because it’s like, well, if he says it, he’s probably going to be right, so let’s just do it,” he added. “And that gives us a little confidence because we know what he calls is gonna work so we’re not really worried about that.”
With the state playoffs on the horizon, Service and Cimini are setting the team’s sights on winning a state championship in June. Cimini said when that last game ends, Service will be irreplaceable.
“What he’s given to Liggett, we could never get from anyone else,” he said. “He’s given us everything, three sports, he’s given us his heart and soul for all these years.
“I’m gonna miss him tremendously, but hopefully we can come back and look at it and say he won a couple of state championships, including this year.”
Service is in lockstep with that goal.
“I just want one thing and that’s to win my last game,” he said. “A lot of teams don’t get to do that, so I want to be able to just go out on a bang, win the last game and hoist the state championship. Then I will accomplish everything I ever wanted.”
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