Harding, known for his ability to battle out of almost any count when on the mound, did so off of it as well. He got better, built his strength, and returned to the roster.
This spring, he was offered an athletic scholarship at the University of Missouri. He accepted, but first he, and his Chipola teammates, had unfinished business to handle: winning the national championship. That too, proved to be a tough road.
After an opening-round win in the NJCAA tournament on May 27, Chipola fell, 13-8, to San Jacinto.
Dropping into the loss bracket of the double-elimination event, Chipola battled through three straight winor-go-home games to earn a spot in the championship — again, facing Chipola.
The Indians won that matchup on June 2, 7-1, to force a second, winner-takeall contest. Chipola won that as well, Harding — just as he did in May, 2013, when C-SD routed Allegany, 15-0, for the state high school title — celebrating from his spot on the mound.
“It was pretty surreal coming into the game,” Harding said by text in an interview Wednesday. “I knew at some point I was going [to] have to come in. Honestly it was one of those things I replayed in my head a million times when I was at home last year during the period I was terribly ill.
“The first inning I was perfectly fine as far as getting outs,” Harding texted. “But the crown started to become one of the best things I’ve been a part of. I was honestly so wound up that my arm started to speed up. I remember getting bases loaded and that’s when I said, ‘All right, look, I can’t get on top of my breaking ball [because] my arm is moving so fast, so I’m going to challenge these next guys with everything I have.’
“The hitters knew a fastball was coming, the crowd knew it, and let alone me,” Harding added. “But the biggest thing that got me through was throwing my fastball with conviction and intent that I was not going to let [anyone] beat me. [On the last batter] I got the count full and this guy is just battling. But that very last pitch, I let this pitch go with everything I had. And then he ended up popping it up.
“Everything came full circle when that happened. I body slammed the catcher and remembered the journey it took to get back here,” Harding said. “That moment is one that I’ll never forget.”
More good news followed Wednesday, when Harding was picked in the 17th round by Cincinnati, as the 497th overall pick, of the 2017 Major League Baseball amateur draft. Harding has 30 days to sign and is heading for shortseason Class A minor league ball in Montana, with the Billings Mustangs.
The Mustangs, an affiliate of the Reds, begin their summer campaign as part of the Pioneer League on June 19. Harding will head to Missouri for the fall semester if pro ball doesn’t take him elsewhere.
“I’m going to sign, and I have two years of college baseball left,” Harding said. “But going to sign even though I have a full scholarship with Mizzou.”
Harding is the son of Jeff (Sr.) and Renee Harding of Cambridge. He’s one of an impressive 10 Chipola players chosen by major league teams in the amateur draft as of press time Wednesday.