Former Johns Hopkins University pitcher Alex Ross got a call he knew might be coming -- but one he still didn't necessarily expect -- as a high school senior in January 2014. A call that seemed so negative at the time may have turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to him.
Ross, a left-handed pitcher from San Ramon, Calif., committed to Brown University during the fall of 2013. Brown's coach informed him there was a slight chance his spot on the team could be eliminated after a department Title IX review later in the year. The January call he received confirmed that had happened.
"The coach told me I could still come and try to walk on, but nothing was guaranteed," Ross said. "It was really tough for me. I just didn't expect it."
Ross told his De La Salle (Calif.) High School coach that he had applied to several colleges in California and one small Division III university in Maryland -- Johns Hopkins.
"He told me he knew the coach at Hopkins and asked if I wanted him to talk to him for me about possibly getting a spot on the team," Ross said. "I said, 'Yeah, sure. Why not?'
"It was in the middle of practice in March  that [John Hopkins head coach Bob Babb] contacted me and said he had heard a lot of interesting things about me. He told me that Hopkins was a great institution and that he had a great opportunity and they would endorse my application if I wanted to go there. I went back to practice and told everybody that I had just committed to play baseball at Johns Hopkins."
Ross didn't have a lot of information to fall back on in making his decision. He knew that Hopkins had a tremendous academic reputation, but had no idea what to expect on the baseball field considering there weren't many Division III schools in California. Likewise, Babb had never seen him pitch, but knew he was a left-handed starter on one of the top high school teams in California and the nation.
Both parties took the leap of faith, and the decision turned out to be a true win-win.
Ross concluded his career this spring as a two-time first-team All-Centennial Conference selection and finished seventh on the Blue Jays' all-time strikeout list with 196. He was a third-team all-region selection as a junior and earned second-team honors as a senior. Ross allowed batters to hit just .184 against him his senior year and posted a 1.97 ERA.
"It was just an exciting place to play and also to have the opportunity to attend such a well-known and respected university," Ross said. "It did bother me a little bit that I hadn't seen the campus or walked around before making my decision to come here. I was nervous, so the summer before my freshman year I took the trip out, and the campus was beautiful and I just loved everything about it."
Upon arriving as a freshman, Ross was surprised by seeing a "pitching rotation full of 6-[foot]-4 guys throwing really hard" and dealt with the transition to attending one of the nation's most prestigious academic institutions while also competing in a sport. He initially didn't expect Division III baseball to be very challenging and admittedly came to Baltimore out of shape, but Ross figured out how to work his way up the pitching depth chart each year.
"I really wasn't sure what to expect in terms of the level of play," he said. "When I got here, I was a little intimidated by what I saw. The way the program was set up, even if you are a recruited as a freshman, you don't have a guaranteed spot on the team until after the fall ball process. So, as a freshman it was a little more stressful in the fall. That, in combination with traveling across the country to go to college at such a challenging academic school, made things difficult."
Ross is the first to admit that in the midst of that huge life transition, he "didn't put much into baseball" during his freshman year. He appeared in just five games and there were whispers that his spot on the team might be in jeopardy.
Understanding that most of the starting pitching staff would return, Ross decided the following summer that his goal was to become a contributor out of the bullpen. He worked on his conditioning, honed his slider and earned a regular spot out of the pen. He appeared in 17 games and led the team with four saves as a sophomore.
Ross cranked up the hard work even more the following summer, knowing that several spots in the starting rotation would be up for grabs. Knowing he'd need to lose weight to go deeper into games, Ross returned to campus 30-35 pounds lighter and claimed a spot in the rotation. He started a team-best 12 games that year, going 3-2 and striking out 83 batters during 65 innings.
"From that point on, I wanted to be the best guy on the team, a top guy in the conference and in the conversation as one of the top guys in the region," Ross said.
As a senior, Ross became the Blue Jays' ace and was called upon for his team's most important situations, like when he struck out 13 batters on three days' rest in a must-win Centennial Conference Tournament game against Swarthmore May 6. Although the result of that game was a heartbreaking loss, it didn't change Ross' feelings about his career.
"Knowing that I was able to come to Hopkins and make such large strides as both a baseball player and a person, looking back, it was such a positive experience," Ross said. "I'm really happy with the way it all worked out. It showed me that if I give my all to something in the future that I should be able to accomplish it."
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Johns Hopkins Athletics