Coming into 2011, the balance of power in the Southeastern Conference seemed titled toward the Eastern Division, where Florida, Vanderbilt and South Carolina all had the look of national title contenders. The West was fairly wide open, with only No. 22 Louisiana State earning a preseason ranking.
Through two weeks of conference play, the Commodores, Gamecocks and Gators are all ranked in the nation’s top four, and the West looks wide open, as expected. LSU is still ranked 17th thanks in large part to a sweep of Cal State Fullerton, but the Tigers have the worst conference record in the SEC (1-5). Alabama, meanwhile, has been a bit of a surprise, taking two of three at Mississippi and sweeping Kentucky to get off to a 5-1 start, good enough for first place. Upstart Mississippi State (4-2), Ole Miss (3-3), Arkansas and Auburn (2-4) have all shown flashes of promise this year, and it still isn’t close to being clear which is the team to beat in the West.
But Alabama is the team everyone else is chasing, and Arkansas can ill afford to open SEC competition with three straight series losses. So there is a sense of urgency surrounding the Razorbacks’ trip to Tuscaloosa this weekend.
“We’ve got to win some games and get back in this thing,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. “Alabama has been really hot. They struggled there for a while early, but now they’ve been getting timely hits and pitching. We’ve got to find a way to play better and get a couple of wins. Hopefully these guys will keep developing, and toward end of the season we could be a pretty good club.”
|Top 25 Schedule
|(1) Vanderbilt at Auburn
(2) Virginia at Virginia Tech
Kentucky at (3) South Carolina
Tennessee at (4) Florida
Oregon at (5) Arizona State
(6) Texas A&M at Kansas State
(7) Florida State at Maryland
Missouri at (8) Texas
San Francisco at (9) Fresno State
Texas Tech at (10) Oklahoma
(11) Stanford at Washington State
(12) Cal State Fullerton at UC Davis
Southern California at (13) California
(14) Georgia Tech at Duke
Air Force at (15) Texas Christian
Clemson at (16) North Carolina
Mississippi at (17) Louisiana State
(23) Oregon State at (18) Arizona
(19) Baylor at Kansas
(20) Stetson at South Carolina-Upstate
(21) Troy at Arkansas State
(22) Southern Mississippi at Central Florida
Washington at (24) UCLA
Arkansas at (25) Alabama
Arkansas is one of the more dangerous offensive teams in the SEC, and pitching is Alabama’s strength, so that will be the matchup to watch. Newcomers Dominic Ficociello (.348/.365/.494) and Kyle Robinson (.344/.402/.567 with four homers and 25 RBIs) have led the way for the Hogs, who are still waiting for key veteran Collin Kuhn (.216/.344/.351) and Tim Carver (.190/.316/.206) to get going offensively. Kuhn was hampered by a hand injury early, but Van Horn said it’s getting better, and the Razorbacks need him to re-emerge as an offensive force. Carver is just 1-for-13 in conference play, and he might find himself on the bench at times this weekend as Van Horn shakes things up a bit.
The Crimson Tide arms are not going to give the Hogs anything. Alabama’s weekend starters, Nathan Kilcrease (3-1, 1.79), Adam Morgan (3-1, 4.54) and Tucker Hawley (5-1, 2.89) are all competitive strike-throwers, and they have issued just 19 walks combined in 111 innings. The diminutive Kilcrease has always thrived on his command and tenacity, and he has shown outstanding command of his 88-92 fastball, quality breaking ball and excellent changeup. Morgan has the best arm on the staff, with a fastball that reaches 93 mph from the left side, to go along with a good slider and a changeup. He has also learned to throw his curveball for strikes, and Alabama coach Mitch Gaspard said his command has been much better this year than in the past. Hawley has the best command of them all—he issued just two walks in 40 innings last year and has four walks in 37 innings this year.
“What I like about those guys is they throw a bunch of strikes, and they command the strike zone with two to three pitches,” Gaspard said. “That’s the key. You can’t hurt yourselves right now; you’ve got to attack the zone, and all three of those guys have been able to.”
Alabama has also gotten strong work from its bullpen, led by the team’s biggest surprise, senior lefthander Jonathan Smart (1-0, 1.57 with five saves). The soft-tossing lefty started the season in a midweek starter role, but the Tide called upon him in a tough situation at Mississippi and he thrived, so he has quickly become entrenched as the team’s closer.
“He’s a command lefty—he’ll be 80-85, but he has a really good breaking ball and a plus changeup,” Gaspard said. “He has great nerves on the mound and is very comfortable in pressure-type situations. He’s the guy that, when you bring him in the game, the game seems to calm down and we play well behind him.”
Gaspard said Alabama’s top concern coming into the year was replacing its entire infield, which comprised the core of last year’s super regional team. But the infield defense has remained strong, thanks in large part to the work of junior-college transfer Jared Reaves (.983 fielding percentage) at shortstop.
Replacing the lost offense has proved more challenging, but freshman first baseman Austen Smith (.276/.354/.425 with two homers and 20 RBIs) looks like a future star in the middle of the lineup, and outfielder Andrew Miller (.338/.424/.419) has made a significant jump forward as a sophomore. Junior center fielder Taylor Dugas (.358/.479/.579), senior catcher Brock Bennett (.376/.436/.412) and Reaves (.371/.448/.515) make the offense go out of the top three spots in the lineup, in addition to providing stability up the middle defensively.
“It’s an offense that, we really have to grind out at-bats,” Gaspard said. “Obviously you have a tremendous leadoff hitter with Taylor Dugas that I think is as good as anyone. The key is we’re getting some production in the middle with Smith, (Josh) Rosecrans and Miller. As we’ve started getting that, we’ve started scoring some runs. So we’ve had decent pressure in the top six spots of our lineup, but we need to get the bottom guys going. It’s certainly not a real physical lineup throughout—it’s one that has a couple of guys with the ability to hit for some average, but we have to execute and hit-and-run and bunt. We have average team speed, but we have to be a bunch of grinders—we can’t take a night off.”
Arkansas counters with a solid pitching staff that has produced a 3.30 ERA, but the Hogs are still figuring out roles. Sophomore lefthander Cade Lynch (2-0, 2.40) has settled into the Friday starter spot thanks to his ability to move his fastball around and mix in his breaking ball and changeup. He lacks the power stuff of sophomore righty D.J. Baxendale (5-0, 1.65), who started the year as the Friday starter. But when key reliever Geoffrey Davenport was lost to Tommy John surgery, Van Horn moved Baxendale into a flex role. If the Hogs need to use him out of the bullpen to win a game Friday, they’ll do it, then decide whether or not to give him Saturday off and start him on Sunday, or keep him in the pen all weekend. Right now, the Hogs have sophomore lefty Randall Fant (1-2, 2.49) penciled into the Sunday spot. Van Horn said Fant is pitching with much more confidence, and he’s excited to get the chance to start on the weekend.
As for Arkansas’ two key freshman righthanders, Nolan Sanburn (1-1, 1.98 with two saves) has thrived in the bullpen, showing a fastball that reaches 95 and a power breaking ball. But Ryne Stanek (1-0, 4.88) is still finding his way. He lost some strength when he was sick early in the year (though not with mononucleosis as the Razorbacks once feared), but he’s getting it back now, and Van Horn said it’s time for him to pick it up a notch.
“He was the one that was most highly touted coming in, but he has struggled the most,” Van Horn said. “I feel like it’s in there, but he needs to relax a little bit, learn how to pitch a little more, and he’s working at it. He didn’t pitch all weekend; we almost feel like we’re still trying to develop him. Maybe a couple starts in he’ll get it going, but we haven’t seen that velocity we hoped to see with control, like 92 with control. He’s scattered it a little bit. Who knows what will happen with our rotation, but we would like for him to be in it.”
As Van Horn said, his young team has a chance to be dangerous later in the season, if it can stay above water until then. But the Hogs have their work cut out for them this weekend against an Alabama team that is 16-1 at home and playing with confidence. Gaspard knows this is an important weekend for his team, too.
“I think for everyone, your home series are just critical,” Gaspard said. “Looking down the road, we have Vanderbilt and Florida both on the road, you know that’s going to be tough tasks, so you’ve got to take care of your home field. Obviously Arkansas is going to come in here and play well. It’s an opportunity for us, because you’ve been able to get off to a good start, you can give yourselves a little bit of a cushion, knowing you have some tough games ahead of you.”
UC Riverside and Cal Poly both entered 2011 with NCAA tournament aspirations. As Big West Conference play opens this weekend, the Highlanders are 10-9, and the Mustangs are 8-12, so it is crucial for both teams to get off to a good start in conference. That begins on Friday, when Andriese and Radeke square off.
Andriese, a 6-foot-3, 205-pound junior righthander, is one of the league’s top prospects, and with the exception of a seven-run second inning against Air Force (which skews his ERA), he has pitched well this season, albeit without much run support. Andriese is 0-2, 3.56 with 33 strikeouts and seven walks in 30 innings.
“I think he’s a legitimate guy,” UCR coach Doug Smith said. “Other than that one bad inning, he’s just been outstanding. He goes anywhere from 89-93 mph, with a good hard breaking ball and a good changeup. It’s been a legitimate three-pitch mix, he’s commanded the strike zone, and it’s kind of been the same every outing. We’re very pleased with what he’s done.”
|INSIDE THE NUMBERS
Smith said a turning point for Andriese was when Cotuit coach Mike Roberts gave him the chance to pitch in the Cape Cod League championship game.
“I think that was a real boost for him,” Smith said. “I think before that there was always a big . . . question. He knew the stuff was good, but did he have that extra stuff?”
Cal Poly is just glad to have its top two pitchers healthy again. Righthander Stephen Fischback missed all of last season while rehabbing from shoulder surgery, and Radeke was limited to 24 innings by an elbow injury. The Mustangs posted a 6.75 team ERA a year ago en route to a disappointing 23-32 season. The staff ERA is down to 4.18 this year, and Fischback is back and pitching on Saturdays—though his velocity has not returned to its former 91-92 mph, sitting instead around 86-87. And Radeke is back to 100 percent and pitching well on Fridays. The junior righthander is 2-1, 3.06 with 40 strikeouts and 11 walks in 35 innings.
“For the most part, Mason’s had a number of good outings,” Cal Poly coach Larry Lee said. “He really pitches. He’s most effective when he spots his fastball down in the zone and utilizes his offspeed pitches at any time in the count. He’s very in control and is able to throw any pitch at any time in the count. He is not afraid. His fastball is probably 88-90, and he’s got a slider, curveball, changeup. He’s usually not a high strikeout guy, but he can freeze hitters.”
Neither pitching staff faces the challenge of a particularly potent offense this weekend. Cal Poly has been without three of its best hitters for about three weeks, as cleanup man Matt Jensen is out with a hand injury, leading hitter and starting shortstop Mike Miller (.457) has been sidelined with a wrist injury, and talented freshman Tim Wise has nursed a pulled hamstring. Miller and Wise have a chance to play this weekend but won’t be 100 percent, and Jensen will not play.
The Highlanders are healthy, but they have struggled to score runs.
“We’ve been so inconsistent from an offensive standpoint,” Smith said. “We’ve swung the bats very, very poorly. I think we’ve scored close to 60 runs in three games, and the rest of it we haven’t done anything. I would attribute some of it to the bat, but the rest I would attribute to us. We’re just not doing a very good job situational hitting. We’ve really pitched well all year long, and our infield defense has been really good all year long. We’re 10-9, and if we’d have situationally hit at all we’d be 13-6ish, and all of a sudden you’re feeling OK about yourself. But we’re in a position where we’re going to have to make a little run.”
In Wednesday’s college mailbag, we wrote about Stony Brook, whose pitchers recently threw two no-hitters in a five-game span. Here’s another no-hit feat: Pashuck, a freshman lefthander at Harford (Md.) CC, threw no-hitters in back-to-back starts in a recent 13-day span.
Both no-hitters were shortened by the run rule, as Harford beat Massachusetts Bay 11-0 in five innings on March 13, then topped Montgomery CC-Rockville 11-1 in five innings on March 26. All told, Pashuck threw 10 consecutive innings of no-hit ball. He struck out eight without issuing a walk in the first no-hitter—which was also his first career win—and fanned seven while walking four in the second. It’s one thing to be in the zone one day and throw a no-hitter. It’s something else to be in that zone in consecutive starts, even if they were shortened starts.
“It’s amazing,” Harford coach Tom Eller said. “At first you don’t really realize it until about the third or the fourth inning. Then you start seeing the dugout get antsy a little bit. You see the players start to cheer on the rest of the players as they’re making big-time plays to kind of save the no-hitter. It’s fun to have that as part of your program because it gets everybody into it. It’s just something special—it’s hard to describe.”
Pashuck, a 6-foot-5, 240-pound lefthander from Kirkwood, Pa., drew some interest from Western Carolina, but Eller said he chose Harford because it was a better financial and academic fit. Pashuck made an immediate impression on Harford’s pitching coach—former big leaguer Jay Witasick.
“When we brought him in for his first recruiting visit, Jay was like, ‘We’ve got to get this kid,’ ” Eller recalled. “He was a huge project—he’s a big kid, one of the strongest kids by far on our team. He wears a size 17 or 18 shoe. His velocity kind of goes up and down, anywhere from 82-87, but he’s got monster upside. So Jay has definitely worked with him in the fall as far as establishing pitches, having a presence on the mound. I think that’s the biggest thing is just having a presence, and knowing how to go about sequences, all that kind of stuff.”
Pashuck started the season as a lefthanded specialist for Harford (22-6 in NJCAA Division I play this spring), but he has been nearly unhittable in all six of his appearances this season. In 14 innings, Pashuck is 2-0, 0.00 with 20 strikeouts, six walks and just one hit allowed. He forced his way into a starting role with his ability to get big outs—even without overpowering velocity, at this stage.
“I think it’s just because he’s so big and the ball gets on you so quick,” Eller said. “He’s got a lot of two-seam movement on his ball; it runs arm-side. He’s got a filthy changeup with a lot of arm-side movement, too. He throws a slider that’s tough for righthanded hitters on their back foot. You see that changeup running away from you, then you see that slider coming at your back foot.
“He’s a huge kid, so he has a huge intimidation factor when he steps on the mound. But he’s one of the most good-hearted kids on our team. He’s just a great all-around kid.”
Like Dustin Ackley before him, Moran was not exactly a big-name recruit, but like Ackley, Moran has emerged as a key player for North Carolina as a freshman. Through 27 games, Moran is hitting .362/.492/.660 with five homers and 35 RBIs, leading the Tar Heels in each of those categories. He carried UNC to five wins last week, hitting four home runs and driving in 13. His solo homer in the sixth inning Saturday against Duke proved the game-winner, and he blasted a game-tying three-run homer in the ninth inning Sunday to force extra innings, where the Tar Heels completed their sweep. On the week, Moran hit .529 (9-for-17) and slugged 1.471.
“With the weekend he had and the week he had, and how well he’s played at third for us, I wouldn’t call him a pleasant surprise, but you never know how these freshmen are going to perform,” North Carolina coach Mike Fox said. “He’s just a baseball player—he’s got those genes in him, you can just tell. He just plays unbelievably hard.”
Those genes have treated North Carolina well over the years. Moran’s older brother, Brian, was a star lefthanded reliever for three UNC College World Series teams (2007-09). Their uncle, B.J. Surhoff, was one of the best players in UNC history before going on to play 19 years in the big leagues.
If Surhoff wasn’t the best player in school history, it’s because Ackley was. The former UNC first baseman posted a 1.039 OPS in 2007, when he won BA Freshman of the Year honors. It’s early yet—this season is still just six weeks old—but Colin Moran currently has a 1.152 OPS as a freshman, and he’s doing it with a considerably less potent bat.
“I look at some of these other teams, some of the numbers, the home runs are down everywhere. I’m looking at this freshman we’ve got and thinking, ‘OK, what the heck is going on?’ ” Fox said. “No. 1, Colin really looks at the ball. That’s a trait he had when he got here, we could tell right out of the gate. His pitch recognition—he’s not just going up there wailing away at the ball like a lot of freshmen do. He doesn’t get himself out like a lot of freshmen do. The biggest key is he works himself into good counts—and he takes a hack at it, now, he doesn’t get cheated. He lets the bat go every round in (batting practice). It reminds us a lot of (former UNC outfielder) Tim Fedroff: He just doesn’t give any at-bats away, he’s just locked in. He’s got a great deal of pride in the way he performs, you can tell that. He’s very quiet, very mild-mannered, and I think he understands the game well beyond a freshman.”
Moran’s emergence is a big reason North Carolina is 23-4 heading into this weekend’s series against Clemson. After his team scored six runs over its first two games of the season against Cal Poly and Cal State Fullerton, Fox had said his team was going to have to scrap to score runs all season long. So he’s as surprised as anyone that UNC is averaging eight runs per game (10th-most in the nation) and has hit 21 home runs (safely inside the top 25 nationally).
“I don’t know what’s going on—I’ve been shocked too, I really have,” Fox said. “The whole fall we spent most of our time working on bunting and baserunning, because that’s what everybody was saying, ‘With these bats, nobody will hit any home runs or have any big offensive innings.’ Then all of a sudden you hit a home run here or there, you’re thinking, ‘OK, maybe these bats aren’t quite as dead as everybody’s saying.’ I know one thing: We can’t be dependent on it. I know the pitching’s going to continue to be better and better as we go through our season. If our guys get lulled into thinking we’re going to get these big innings with a big home run, we’ll be in trouble.
“We’ve been doing OK, we’ve been playing pretty well and pitching pretty well. But obviously we’ve got Clemson rolling in, and it’s going to be a great challenge. We’ll see if we have been playing over our heads or playing up to our capability.”
San Diego, the preseason favorite and perennial power in the West Coast Conference, rides a nine-game losing streak into this weekend’s series against New Orleans. The Toreros are just 4-19 overall—but you’d never know it from talking with relentlessly upbeat coach Rich Hill.
“When you’re a college coach, an educator, you have the opportunity to bring energy every day,” Hill said. “Somebody said the other day, ‘I embrace adversity.’ I said, ‘I don’t. I don’t want to hug it. I want to charge it!’
“There are eight reasons why we are where we are—it’s a perfect storm situation that has happened. They’re all excuses. We’re looking forward; the past is just a prelude, and the best has yet to come.”
The Toreros lost six everyday players and five key pitchers to pro ball from a team that went 19-2 in WCC play last year, the best conference record in WCC history. They have had to rely heavily on young players, and they’ve battled some injuries—most notably to unsigned first-round pick Dylan Covey, who has been sidelined with shoulder stiffness. Hill said MRIs were negative, and Covey started throwing with no pain this past weekend. He won’t be available this weekend, but the Toreros hope to have him back for the WCC-opening Gonzaga series next weekend.
Though fellow heralded freshman Kris Bryant has given the Toreros some thump, hitting six of the team’s seven home runs, the rest of the lineup is largely punchless. USD is hitting .236 as a team and slugging .312. To some degree, those numbers are a product of the pitching the Toreros have faced. Their schedule has been a meat-grinder, with 16 of their 21 games coming against Vanderbilt, Oklahoma, California, Connecticut, Coastal Carolina, Oregon and Fresno State.
“We schedule to the RPI every year,” Hill said. “We’ve always done it that way—always been very bold, very cavalier. All of our losses have come to NCAA regional teams, and a couple or three of them will be in Omaha. We have to use all of this adversity and seeing all this great pitching to our advantage once conference starts, and get on a roll. It’s going to be a great story.”
This weekend affords San Diego its first chance to catch its breath, as New Orleans is just 1-23 with a 22-game losing streak in its final season in Division I before moving down to D-III. The Toreros had no midweek games this week, so they returned to the drawing board in practice, spending the week focusing almost exclusively on hitting.
“The basic premise is if you hit the ball in the air with these bats, you’re out,” Hill said. “It’s been a big adjustment for our guys. It’s a mindset, and we’re using this week to really go back to driving that ball hard through the infield, concentrating on the low line drive.”
Hill said he’s seen glimmers of hope on the mound, particularly in USD’s 22-inning loss to Fresno State last Saturday, when its pitchers racked up 28 strikeouts. Junior righthanders Calvin Drummond (1-4, 4.68) and Chris Jensen (0-3, 4.60) have great arms, with fastballs that can reach 94 mph, but they have struggled with their location this spring. Hill said both have done much better lately at using their secondary stuff and throwing strikes.
The Toreros need Drummond, Jensen and Covey to perform well in conference play if they are going to make another run at regionals. The at-large door is now closed to them, but every team has a 0-0 record in the WCC standings. Hill thinks his team is capable of bouncing back from its rough first six weeks.
“It’s a very resilient group. Nobody’s been down, there’s no sense of panic, nobody’s pressing,” Hill said. “A basic philosophy of our program is really staying in the moment. There’s always a lesson, too. As an educator, it’s my job to teach in times of adversity and show these guys how to act and be resilient. That’s the beautiful thing about college baseball: We have a chance to have an impact on young adults. You find yourself in the middle of the ocean in a rowboat with no oars, what are you going to do? You’d better stick your arms in the ocean and start paddling. And sooner or later, that shore starts to look bigger and bigger.”
Strikeouts for Stetson junior catcher Nick Rickle in 94 at-bats over 25 games this spring. No other Division I player with at least 40 at-bats has fewer than two strikeouts.
Rickles is hitting .351/.411/.585 with three homers and 26 RBIs for No. 20 Stetson, which climbed into the Top 25 this week for the first time since 2003.
Rickles had 21 strikeouts in 230 at-bats as a freshman and 23 strikeouts in 225 at-bats as a sophomore. Those were good contact rates, but Rickles did not hit the ball with much authority either year, slugging .422 in 2009 and .400 last year. He has already matched last season’s home run total, and he’s halfway to last year’s doubles total (18), yet he is not striking out at all.
“One thing that he had to do—he didn’t pull the ball last year,” Stetson coach Pete Dunn said earlier this season. “Sometimes that’s not all bad, but he made too many weak outs to the right side, pulled his hands in, had a little loop in his bat, hit too many lazy fly balls to the right side. He’s a strong kid, and we said, ‘You have to pull the ball that’s pullable, and if you have to go the other way, go the other way.’ He was getting beat inside on some balls. (Hitting coach) Mark Leavitt made some adjustments with him; he’s using the entire field now, not getting beat with velocity inside. He’s getting to his back side earlier, getting extended on the good inside fastball.”
Rickles and the Hatters travel to South Carolina-Upstate this weekend.
We asked an area scout based in the heart of Big Ten country to name the best college team in his area. His answer: Michigan State—”by a decent margin.” At 15-6, the Spartans have the best record in the Big Ten heading into their first conference series this weekend at Iowa. Michigan State is hitting .325 as a team, led by seniors Brandon Eckerle (.451/.510/.505 with 10 stolen bases) and Jeff Holm (.405/.484/.582 with two homers and 21 RBIs), plus sophomore outfielder Torsten Boss (.380/.435/.582). The pitching staff has been even better, posting a 2.69 ERA. Veteran righthanders Kurt Wunderlich (4-1, 2.33), Tony Bucciferro (4-1, 2.75) form a reliable duo atop the weekend rotation, and freshman righty David Garner (3-2, 2.00) is quickly emerging. The scout offered a breakdown of the Spartans.
“The Friday guy, Wunderlich, is a senior you can draft, he’s a gutsy kid. He’ll win against a lot of Friday guys in the Big Ten. He’s a senior that might get it up to 90 on a given day. He’s got a pretty good slider and enough fastball to get you out. The next guy, Bucciferro, is the same thing—87-88, he’s got a little curveball and a changeup, he’ll pitch a pretty good game. He’s not really a prospect for this year’s draft, but maybe as a senior.
“They’ve got a young freshman kid named Garner that’s come along. He was drafted by the Reds (in the 33rd round last year), but not a lot of people knew about him. That guy’s going to be a guy. He’s got a good arm, a good-looking body; he’s come along faster than I thought he would. He was 89-91, he could spin his breaking ball OK, a decent slider. He’s a guy that eventually will wind up in the Cape (Cod League).
“The first baseman, Holm, is a really good hitter, probably one of the best hitters I’ve seen this year. This guy hits every kind of pitching, line drives to all fields. He just has a knack to hit. When you watch him, he finds the barrel every time, he finds a gap, he finds a hole, he finds a ground ball between first and second, it’s like every ball he hits finds its way into a gap. It’s amazing. If he’s not a top candidate for player of the year in the Big Ten, I’d be surprised. He’s playing first base for them, but I think he’s athletic enough to play the outfield.
“Overall they’ve got a little speed. Boss likes to run—he is a guy for next year. He’s an athletic kid. Eckerle guy can really run—I mean really run, like top shelf. They can do some things on the bases. They catch the ball defensively. Their bullpen seems to come in and they’ve got a couple of guys that are reliable. I would say the consensus among the scouts up here is that Michigan State’s the best team in our area.”
It’s safe to assume Koch is the only player in college baseball who doubles as the mayor of his hometown. The senior middle infielder is a captain for Division II power St. Cloud State, which carries a 12-2 record into this weekend’s series at Minnesota State. He is one of three St. Cloud players who has hit a home run this year, and he is tied for third on the team with 10 RBIs in 14 games (nine starts). Every other Tuesday, Koch heads back to Loretto, Minn., to preside over council meetings. He was elected mayor of Loretto (population 650) last November.
When and why did you decide to run for mayor?
It had been something I had been thinking about for a few years, just kind of kicking it around in the back of my head. The timing of everything worked out where I only have three credits left here at St. Cloud State. I’m planning on moving back home after I graduate in May to save some money up, and I’m looking at jobs in Minneapolis and St. Paul, a short 20-minute commute (from Loretto). I just decided to go for it. The talk around town was no one really had an interest in being the mayor, so I just decided to put my name in the hat and take a chance. Turned out I was the only one who filed for it, so I ran unopposed. A week before the election, a write-in candidate came out in the local newspapers—he’d had an under-the-table campaign for the last couple months, but I had just heard about it. That made it interesting, but I ended up winning pretty comfortably, by 80 votes.
What were the major campaign issues you ran on?
There wasn’t a huge amount of issues going on in the town. One of the main things was there was a compost site in the town that got shut down a few years ago. We’re looking at different ways to have a compost site—a petition was going around town. That’s kind of what we’re looking at right now, trying to look at ways to pull it off, if not re-open the old compost site. Otherwise, if we have to go to a neighboring community and use theirs. We’re just trying to figure out the best way to do it and cater to the citizens.
Have you enjoyed being mayor so far, or have there been some headaches cropping up for you to deal with?
Most of it so far has been enjoyable. There’s a few headaches here or there; different issues come up, you’ve just got to figure out the best way to handle it. You work with so many different people. There are four other members of my council, and I’m probably 15-20 years younger than the next-youngest guy. With the age gap, I knew I’d have to gain some respect from them, being the chairman of the board. That’s been going good, they’ve all been supportive. I think from a community standpoint, people were really impressed that I was willing to step up to the plate and take on this challenge. So far the meetings have all run real smoothly. We haven’t had any major issues I’ve had to lose any sleep over. I’m sure at some time or another, something big will come up, we’ll have to take care of it as it comes up. So far it’s been pretty smooth sailing.
With a name like Koch, were you born to be mayor? Is it pronounced like former New York City mayor Ed Koch’s name, or is it pronounced, “Cook”?
It’s actually pronounced, “Cook.” So I don’t really have any political ties or anything. There is a state rep in Minnesota who pronounces it the same, Michelle Koch, but no relation there.
Has it been a challenge to juggle the responsibilities of school and baseball with being a mayor?
I haven’t ran into too many issues. The biggest part about it, with the Metrodome collapsing and us having to travel all over the place, I did have to miss one meeting. But there was an acting mayor appointed, it’s not the end of the world if I do have to miss. I’ve seen been able to set up staff meetings and go to meetings on the side, make public appearances, do pretty much everything the job entails, and still been able to enjoy my senior year in college, working toward my career in finance, been able to play baseball.
Do you want to make a career in politics after you graduate?
I really don’t have any aspirations right now farther than the city level. I think just having a lot of background information, living in the city my whole life, I felt like I was qualified for the position. I really don’t have any political aspirations at the state level or anything like that. I’ll try this two-year term and see how it goes. It depends if I do find a job to see if I’ll run for re-election in two years.
You also have a leadership role on your baseball team, right?
Yep, team captain. I’ve always been a team captain in sports throughout high school—I’ve always taken on a leadership role, even if I didn’t have the title on my name. Teammates would come to me for advice on or off the field. This year, being the captain hasn’t really changed that much, but it’s more the title distinction now.
What have your teammates said about you being the mayor?
They’ve been enjoying it. I get the mayor shots here and there. When it first hit, after the election, I hadn’t really told all that many people. My roommates knew and people from the town obviously, but just a few people up in St. Cloud. When it hit, some of the guys didn’t know if it was a joke, or if it was actually me or if I had an uncle named Kent too. They’ve been real supportive. The first couple weeks after the election, I was doing a bunch of radio and TV interviews, crews were coming to practice, but no one was complaining or saying it was a distraction.
Speaking of distractions, how tough has the Metrodome collapse been on you guys?
We’ve really noticed this year how much the Metrodome really impacts college baseball in Minnesota. We’re not the only team in this situation, but the travel expenses have gone up. We ran down to Arkansas, ran down to Oklahoma this weekend. Fortunately we’ve been able to play well on the road and the travel schedule hasn’t affected us too bad.