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Breakout season helps Zellner emerge as Bearcats Ace

The Cincinnati Bearcats baseball team has proved many wrong this year by contending for a conference title. The unbelievable turnaround has been led by junior right-hander Andrew Zellner, who has helped put the Bearcats make a run at their first winning season since 2011.

UC Athletics

If anyone told Andrew Zellner when he was a sophomore in high school that he would become an ace on a Division 1 baseball team someday, he probably would have told that person they were highly optimistic, and a little crazy at the same time.

Zellner was coming off Tommy John surgery, seemingly destined to play a role as a position player for most of his future baseball career. Fast forward five years to present day, and now he sees himself in the middle of having the best pitching season of his life for the Cincinnati Bearcats.

With just two weekend series to go in the 2016 regular season, Zellner leads the Bearcats in most major pitching categories, and has played a key role in Cincinnati swimming at the top the AAC standings for most of the season since conference play started. Zellner currently sits among the AAC leaders with six wins, a 2.15 ERA and 55 strikeouts. He also leads the conference with three complete games.

Back in his high school days at Valley View High School in Ohio, Zellner played most of his time in the outfield rather than on the mound. Former Bearcat head coach, Brian Cleary, originally recruited Zellner as he transitioned into a full-time pitcher.

Growing pains were expected as the Bearcats leaned on Zellner in his freshman year. Cincinnati baseball was in the middle of a rough decade with just one winning season, while firing Cleary before Zellner even stepped foot on campus officially as a freshman. When Zellner came to campus, so did current head coach Ty Neal as the Bearcat program began laying a foundation for future success.

Getting an athlete with the workhorse mentality that Zellner has was a good start in trying to build a competitive ball club. Zellner compiled a 4-4 record his freshman season at Cincinnati along with a rather high 6.44 ERA. He improved vastly last season as a sophomore, lowering his ERA to 3.63 mostly in a bullpen role.

Neal switched Zellner to the bullpen after he began that season as a starter. Despite the switch, Zellner excelled in the role, picking up four saves while keeping his ERA at a more respectable level.

Enter the 2016 season. Expectations were low for the Bearcats, who were picked to finish last in a very competitive AAC conference. The Bearcats silenced those critics by leading the conference up until this past weekend when they dropped two in Orlando against UCF.

Everything that has made this breakout season possible starts and ends with Zellner. The 6'3 190 right-hander has been the backbone of the Bearcats with his dominant pitching. Zellner gets the ball on Friday, the first game of a normal weekend series, meaning he is the one that can set the tone for the weekend right off the bat.

Recently, Zellner tossed a complete-game shutout against Memphis which helped the Bearcats take two out of three from the Tigers. More impressively, Zellner baffled an East Carolina team that the Bearcats have been trying to hold off all season on the road with seven shutout innings. Last week, Zellner was not at his best against UCF, but pitched well enough to win before the bullpen gave the game away.

Zellner will not blow anyone away with his speed. His fastball sits in the low 90's, but he uses ground balls to compile successful starts. He features both a four and two-seam fastball, along with a slider and change-up. An unlikely turnaround has put Zellner in position to possibly hear his name called at some point during next month's MLB draft.

Now in third place entering a major three-game weekend series at home against Houston, Zellner will take the ball on Friday night in the friendly confines of Marge Schott Stadium. Another dominant start from Zellner could lead to the Bearcats back into first place in the AAC while silencing any doubters.