As an assistant coach at Florida in 2002 and 2003 and now as the head coach at Kentucky since 2004, John Cohen has coached at the northern- and southern-most schools in the Southeastern Conference.
"The weather affects it a little bit," Cohen said. "But I hate to use that as an excuse. Do we have more challenges? Yes. You have to be more careful in who you recruit to make sure you get a tough kid to play in that environment."
Yet Kentucky's geography within the SEC can also work to its advantage.
"It was a challenge in Florida because there's such a prominent baseball cloud that hangs over you," Cohen said. "It's so scouted from a pro standpoint that every time you sign a player, if he's really a good player you have to worry about the draft. It's a factor at Kentucky, but I felt like it was a bigger factor at the University of Florida. It's just more difficult there to sign a player, get him through the draft and get him on campus."
In addition to being able to recruit players who might be more likely to attend school, Cohen said Kentucky's geography also works to its advantage in recruiting in the Midwest.
"There are real advantages," he said. "We're the gateway to the Midwest for the SEC. If you're in the upper Midwest, they can go to Kentucky and the kid can play in the best league in America. There are lots of good leagues in the country, but competing in the SEC is a real honor. The biggest thing is I have two assistants who can just flat-out recruit."
Emphasis On Development
Keith Madison, who coached the Wildcats from 1979-2003, also saw Lexington's climate as a double-edged sword. While the players from Northern states were not as advanced as their Southern counterparts were, that sometimes was an advantage with pitchers, who were less likely to have been overworked.
To combat a climate that afforded his team fewer opportunities to play and practice, Madison placed a greater emphasis on instruction and player development, an approach that helped alumni like Brandon Webb and Joe Blanton.
"With hitters, you can do a lot of work in the batting cages indoors and get a lot of reps, but you don't get a lot of chances against live pitching," Madison said. "On the other hand, I always felt like we did a lot of quality individual instruction because you are inside the cages and you're doing bullpen work. You can really concentrate on mechanics or working on a hitter's stroke.
"I always think of (Indians righthander) Paul Byrd when I think about the weather because he's a guy who grew up in Louisville and used to come to my camps, but he actually went to (Louisiana State) because of the weather. One of the assistant coaches there kept sending him weather reports on what the temperature was in Baton Rouge and what it was in Lexington, and it just finally wore him down."
Regardless of a climate that's beyond his control, Cohen has led a remarkable turnaround at Kentucky. In 2006, Kentucky finished 44-17 overall to set a school record for single-season victories. The Wildcats won their first SEC championship in school history with a 20-10 record in conference play, the program's first winning record in SEC play since 1996. The Wildcats finished 34-19-1 in 2007 and should again be a force in the SEC after having with one of the best offenses in the country last year and with a pitching staff that returns its key arms.
Pieces In Place
Kentucky led the nation in on-base percentage last year at .437 thanks to a .320 team batting average and 5.9 walks per game, the most in the country. Not surprisingly, the Wildcats also ranked fourth in the country with 8.5 runs per game. Since Cohen's arrival, the Wildcats have steadily improved their national ranking in both walks and on-base percentage, ranking among the nation's best in those categories the last two seasons.
Despite losing catcher Sean Coughlin (.344/.431/.620 in 2007) and outfielder Mike Brown (.369/.486/.523), the team returns several key offensive weapons and will get a boost from the return of junior outfielder Collin Cowgill, who missed all of last season following surgery to repair a broken hamate bone in his left wrist. Cowgill hit .298/.426/.587 in 225 at-bats in 2006, showing a combination of power and patience at the plate to go along with a strong arm in the outfield. He showed evidence that he will again be a strong contributor after returning to the field in the Cape Cod League this past summer, when he hit .290/.388/.420 in 138 at-bats.
"He's the total student-athlete, a 4.0 student," Cohen said. "He's a tremendous leader with a really exceptional baseball IQ."
Senior Brian Spear, a switch-hitting first baseman, returns after a .358/.527/.534 season in which he set a school record with 53 walks and compiled the second-best OBP in school history. Senior Sawyer Carroll (.350/.449/.519) will move from first base to the outfield, where his strong arm will be an asset.
On the mound, righthander Scott Green returns after turning down an $800,000 bonus from the Red Sox as a 15th-round pick as a draft-eligible sophomore after an impressive performance in the Cape Cod League—where he ranked as the league's No. 6 prospect—that he hopes could possibly propel him as high as the first round this year. After missing all of 2006 following Tommy John surgery, Green made all nine of his appearances in relief last year for Kentucky, posting a 3.06 ERA in 18 innings, then had a 1.56 ERA in 40 innings in the Cape.
"He can create sink, he's got a very good slider and had a lot of success in the Cape," Cohen said. "We've just got to keep him healthy.
"The key to the pitching staff is not the guy you expect to do well; it's about having the guys who you don't expect it from to make that jump."