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Watertown’s Belch signs to play baseball at New Mexico St.

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All those nights working to perfect his swing in the batting cage inside his garage have paid huge dividends for Josh Belch.

The Watertown High School senior catcher has developed into a Division I athlete with a solid work ethic and impressive offensive and defensive tools. And now Belch has been rewarded for his efforts, accepting a scholarship offer from New Mexico State University.

Belch made it official Wednesday morning in the WHS gym, signing his letter of intent before family, coaches and friends. It’s the culmination of a long process that began at the midget league level and has continued throughout a stellar high school career for the Cyclones.

For Belch, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime.

“To be the first Watertown player to sign for Division I in 25 years is truly an honor,’’ Belch said. “To be able to fulfill my dream of playing major college baseball has taken a lot of sacrifice, for me and my family. But today it’s all worth it.’’

Belch is believed to be the first WHS Division I baseball signee since Peter Salmon in the late 1980s with Stanford.

Belch has started the last two years for WHS head coach Matt Covey. He led the team in hitting as a junior, batting .492 with 22 RBIs, a .754 slugging percentage and a .670 on-base percentage.

He has a career batting average of .479, was a Times All-North first-team pick last season and earned a berth on the all-state sixth team in Class AA.

Even more impressive, Belch threw out 18 of 24 would-be base stealers because of a strong arm and a quick release.

Covey said Belch’s physical attributes are extensive. Especially the fact that he is a switch hitter. But his attitude and knowledge of the game may be even more important.

“Josh is a real student of the game,’’ Covey said. “He knows how the game should be played correctly, and is willing to work to perfect his game. He certainly will put the time in that’s needed to become a better player.’’

Along with hundreds of hours in his home batting cage, Belch has traveled the country the past few years competing at the highest levels of amateur baseball.

In addition to attending numerous showcases, he’s played on a travelling team out of Syracuse, and one from Richmond, Va., which is coached by his uncle, former Watertown Pirates pitcher Randy Tomlin.

“I’ve learned so much playing on those teams, from the great coaches and just watching great players,’’ Belch said. “I feel like I’m ready for the next level.’’

Belch said his main goal this season is to “work on how to control a game from behind the plate. College is a lot different than high school, so that’s something I can improve.’’

Covey said Belch’s strength as a hitter is “he knows how to make contact and take the ball the other way.’’

He first came in contact with New Mexico State two years ago when he attended a baseball camp. Coach Rocky Ward has stayed in touch with Belch and his family, and Belch is the only catcher he’s offered a scholarship to for the Class of 2013.

Ward is the son of longtime Oklahoma State coach Gary Ward, who works with his son as a volunteer assistant coach. Belch said talking with Gary Ward “is like listening to baseball history because all he’s seen and done.’’

New Mexico State, based in Las Cruces, N.M., is a member of the Western Athletic Conference. The Aggies captured their initial WAC regular-season title last year, finished 35-24 and made it to the NCAA Division I Tournament for only the third time in school history.

Belch said the facilities at New Mexico State are “first-rate, their staff is very well-respected and they have one or two kids drafted every year.’’

Belch also considered Division I programs at Niagara and St. John’s. But in the end, the opportunity to play year-round in warmer weather made Belch feel New Mexico State was the place for him.

Belch was also a standout football player for WHS, but decided to take this season off to work exclusively on baseball.

“It was a tough decision because I really love football and my teammates,’’ Belch said. “But I knew that I needed to concentrate on baseball this fall. I’m glad I did.’’

“He can be as good as he wants to be,’’ Covey said.

Belch, a standout student who carries a 3.5 grade-point average, said he will probably major in some type of business program at New Mexico State.

“Athletically and academically, it’s all I could have asked for,’’ Belch said. “The support of my parents, my coaches and my friends and teammates was so important to my success. I can’t thank them enough for helping me take this next step.’’

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