No quitter, no-hitter: Gowens astounds coaches, teammates after two-year injury rehab
May 4, 2021
In May 2018, Riley Gowens was just weeks away from wrapping up his Libertyville High School baseball career and heading down to Champaign to play for Dan Hartleb and the Illinois baseball team. The No. 5 right-handed pitching prospect in the state wasn’t highly recruited in high school, but he was ready to compete for a prominent role next to Illini studs Garrett Acton, Ty Weber and Andy Fisher.
But in one of Gowens’ final high school games, he partially tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. A partial tear didn’t always need surgery, however, so Gowens opted to try and throw through the injury and compete for the Illini as a freshman.
When Gowens got down to Champaign and started to practice, he felt a “sharp pain every time (he) threw.” To preserve his collegiate career and lifelong MLB dreams, Gowens underwent Tommy John surgery on Feb. 5, 2019, eliminating him from the 2019 season and forcing him into a 10-14 month rehabilitation process.
The surgery was a success and Gowens was back with his teammates in Champaign just four days later, but he faced an incredibly long and grueling road ahead.
“Once you hit that point where you know getting surgery and realizing there is at least 12 months ‘til I throw a baseball again, like that’s like complete rock bottom for a baseball player,” Gowens said. “And it’s like being at rock bottom, kind of realizing you can’t get that bad again, like that helps to get through it.”
Rock bottom wasn’t the place a 20-year-old college athlete wanted to be. Amid the typical stressors young adults face, Gowens felt isolated and alone, as he would have to stay behind when the team traveled during his freshman season.
Almost all of Gowens’ close friends in Champaign were baseball players, so away series weekends were the most bitter moments of the recovery process. From Thursday to Saturday, Gowens would report to the indoor training facility or Illinois Field — depending on the weather — and abide by his rehab schedule, whether that be lifting or working through his throwing program with a bullpen catcher.
Through the whole 2019 season, Gowens had just one other teammate going through the rehab process with him — pitcher Ryan Kutt, who had Tommy John surgery about six months prior to Gowens. While the pair didn’t spend too much time together outside of baseball, those away weekends where the two would work through rehab together were essential to Gowens’ mental health.
“Having him let me know how he felt at certain times in the rehab process definitely helped me mentally,” Gowens said. “We’d have to go on the field at the same time every day, and we do our rehab and stuff in the training room. But there’s so many times where it’s just like, ‘Oh my God, my elbow still kills,’ or like ‘Why can’t I bend it today; it hurts to throw.’ Having someone to talk to and that said, ‘Yeah, like that’s just part of the process; it’s just gonna be like that for a while.’ Like it’s definitely reassuring.”
Gowens’ freshman year was by far his lowest point in life, but as his rehab progressed and he got closer to being on the field again, his outlook on the game began to change. He threw a baseball for the first time post-surgery in July of 2019 and slowly progressed from throwing 30 feet, to 45 feet then finally back to 60 feet in January of 2020.
With the rehab process going smoothly, Gowens was anticipated to return to the bullpen lineup in late April 2020 after going through some in-house scrimmages in the weeks leading up to it.
But even with Gowens’ arm making progress, Illinois pitching coach Mark Allen wasn’t convinced the then-sophomore was anywhere close to making his collegiate debut. Allen, who took the job at Illinois in the fall of 2019, met Gowens when he was mid-recovery and admittedly had some concerns.
“When I got here, the first thing I wondered about Riley during the rehab process was, ‘How good of shape is this guy in?’” Allen said. “Because he wasn’t in great shape. We would do just little drills, and when he got done, it looked like he just walked out of the shower with his clothes on. So I’m thinking to myself, ‘Man, we got a long way to go as far as conditioning with this guy,’ and he was a little heavier. And a lot of times when guys go through that 12-month to 16-month process, they get out of shape, just straight up get out of shape, because so much focus is on the arm.”
Gowens knew he wasn’t in the best shape of his life from 2018 to early 2020, but all of his focus was on rehabbing his arm and getting back on the mound, so his overall health was pushed to the side.
But then, when Gowens could practically feel the Illinois Field mound beneath his cleats, COVID-19 plagued the world and shut down the remainder of the 2020 collegiate baseball season. Everything Gowens had been working for the last 13 months would have to wait another entire year.
Instead of dwelling on the disappointment of lost opportunity, Gowens approached quarantine as a time to transform his body and mentality.
“Quarantine was actually the biggest thing for me,” Gowens said. “Like in terms of recovery, I had already rehabbed my arm, so that was relatively healthy. Right now I weigh like 210-215 pounds. And that is my prime weight. That is the exact place I wanted to be. Back then, I wasn’t totally out of shape, but I was like 235, and I went home and I told myself, like, ‘You’re going to change your body, and you’re going to come back a beast.’
“And so I dropped 20 pounds, put a lot of velocity on my arm. And just kind of got my whole body and mental game into shape.”
After talking with Allen and Illinois baseball strength and conditioning coach Justin Houng, Gowens developed a rigid workout routine he could follow through the summer. So Gowens got to work right at the end of March.
Every day he would attend virtual class from 9 a.m. to around noon, then work out in his basement, where he had a decent-size home gym with a squat rack, bench press and a couple different cardio machines. Houng had a workout plan for the athletes on Monday, Wednesday and Friday with different strength exercises. Then, on Tuesday and Thursday, Gowens would do his own 45-minute cardio session, usually on the stair stepper or the treadmill following a core circuit.
Once quarantine guidelines loosened in the summer, Gowens began to train and work out at Slammers in Lake Forest, the same gym he went to in high school. By establishing a strict routine in the spring, Gowens was able to stay motivated through the summer to keep losing weight and building muscle.
Gowens and Allen kept in constant communication throughout the summer, as Gowens would often send his coach pictures or videos of his progress. Allen, who originally spoke with Gowens about getting in better shape in the spring, didn’t anticipate the intense change his pitcher made.
“It took him to make that decision because he could have come back and been a big freakin’ hot steaming mess,” Allen said. “And when he came back, his body was totally different; he completely transitioned and changed his body. And I knew right then and there that he was taking this stuff very, very seriously. And again, with every kid, they’re the ones who had to flip the switch.
“As a coach, you can tell them exactly what you think they need to do. But if you get a poor student, and you have a good teacher, no learning is going to take place. If you have a good student and a crappy teacher, no learning is going to take place. But if you got a willing student, and you have a willing and decent teacher that gives a crap about them and their development, a lot of things can happen.”
After dropping 20 pounds over quarantine, Gowens returned to Champaign with a whole new body and mentality, ready to finally make an impact on the Illini. But Gowens was technically a freshman on the field, as he had yet to throw one pitch in a collegiate game.
But after 876 days at rock bottom, working from no arm movement to throwing with a bullpen catcher, Gowens could finally pitch to a real hitter as the Illini held their first intrasquad fall scrimmage in October.
While Gowens was confident in himself and his abilities, there was still a nervous excitement surrounding his first semi-competitive outing, especially since none of his teammates had seen him throw before.
“I wouldn’t say I’m the guy who goes out there and gets nervous about an outcome,” Gowens said. “I’ve hit rock bottom in the baseball world, like an outcome isn’t going to be anything worse than what I went through with Tommy John. No one had seen me pitch here, even the freshman class like that I came in with, the 2022s, like none of them would even see me pitch in high school.
“So I just kind of came in, and no one really had an idea of who I was. I wasn’t highly recruited or anything, so throwing for the first time after three years in front of people who have never seen the pitch and then doing really well was obviously a great feeling.”
Allen knew right that moment during the first scrimmage that Gowens was going to be a starter. While Illinois has some of the best hitters in the conference, Allen said Gowens had his way with the offense.
Considering it had been over two years since Gowens pitched to a hitter, Allen was impressed by his ability to throw strikes and liked how Gowens was a “hypercompetitive kind of guy.” Gowens also embodied all the qualities Allen wanted in a starter: discipline, consistency, work ethic and routines.
“The very first time I saw him throwing the ball, it wasn’t the spring: It was the fall,” Allen said. “So I made my decision pretty quick with Riley because I knew he had put the work in. I know he works hard. He’s durable. He’s a competitive kid. He’s pretty, he’s pretty stinking tough. He’ll fight you if you want to fight. He’ll throw down with you 100%. He’s not scared.”
With Gowens only making improvements throughout the fall and winter, Allen stuck to his initial reaction and named Gowens the Saturday starter in Illinois’ opening weekend against Ohio State in March.
As anticipated, Gowens struggled in his collegiate debut. It was the first time Gowens had pitched to an opposing hitter since his high school days. He pitched just 3.1 innings, giving up six hits and three runs in Illinois’ opening-day loss to Ohio State.
Gowens continued to start the next few weeks, but he had the same result; he would throw about 25-30 pitches in the first and second innings and give up a couple runs, resulting in the bullpen being called upon early. But after sitting out the Northwestern weekend at the end of March due to a little forearm blowup, Gowens recalibrated and slowly began to establish his command early on in starts.
All of Gowens’ hard work came to light last weekend against Purdue in West Lafayette. After pitching five innings against the Boilermakers the weekend prior, Gowens had a good feel for his opponent and came out with a different confidence.
Through seven innings, Gowens had pitched a no-hitter, but with his pitch count nearing 100, Allen and Hartleb pulled him, letting Ryan O’Hara then Cole Kirschsieper finish out the game. With the score tied 0-0 after the seventh inning, the two relief pitches kept Gowens’ momentum going and the three combined for the program’s first no-hitter since 1985.
“You see a maturity,” Hartleb said after the no-hitter. “Early in the year, he was having trouble getting through the first inning, and it just amounted to the fact that he had an excitement and energy built up to go compete. A lot of that is probably the fact that he hasn’t pitched in a couple years. He’s tamed that the past three weeks and has really taken a step forward.”
While the no-hitter was the first time most collegiate baseball followers heard of Gowens, he doesn’t plan on it being the last. With hopes of reaching the MLB after building more success at Illinois, Gowens has adapted his mindset as a pitcher.
“(The injury) kind of taught me to appreciate the game a lot more,” Gowens said. “When I initially tore my elbow, there was no build-up. It was just one pitch, and all of a sudden it snapped, like I felt so good up until the one pitch that it snapped on. So who’s to say it can’t happen again. Like you just kind of have to play thinking all this could be the last time I play. Not in a bad way, but just kind of in an optimistic way, like why would I do this in a scared way? Why would I play scared, or why would I play with any fear? It just kind of got to play fearless, because it could be the very last day.
“And that’s cliché, but being at rock bottom for 876 days before throwing to a no-hitter kind of shows you that.”