If you ask Mike Kennedy, the 17-year head coach of the Elon University baseball team, one thing will write the script for the 2013 version of the Phoenix.
“Defense,” he said. “Catch the ball.”
The question is, how will that script end?
“I like our club, but defense last year is what I thought cost us,” Kennedy said. “We have to catch the ball. That’s been an emphasis with this group. If we do, we’re going to be pretty good.”
True to form
Consistent with the culture of the program, the Phoenix plays a tough schedule from the start in hopes of getting back to a place only this year’s nine seniors have been: the NCAA Tournament.
“We came here to go to the NCAA Tournament,” said junior pitcher David Whitehead. “This team had been there the previous couple years before I got here. This is the year we’re going to do it.”
Competing in a “mid-major” conference such as the Southern Conference, the Phoenix automatically faces a tougher road to the tournament. While the winner of the season’s end conference tournament gets an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, the rest of the teams in the conference wait on edge for their name to, most likely, not be called on selection day.
That’s where the importance of the tough schedule comes in.
“We don’t want to rely on one weekend in May to dictate the way our season ends,” Kennedy said. “It’s a typical schedule for Elon baseball. Our objective is pretty simple: We want to play great baseball and at the end of the year, provided we play well, we have a shot at an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.”
The Phoenix has missed the tournament two years in a row. Prior to the 2012 season, then-senior Garrett Koster revealed Elon was told it came up one win short.
“One more mid-week win and we were in,” he told The Pendulum last February.
The Phoenix struggled in mid-week games in 2012, posting a record of 6-10. To Kennedy, having more mid-week success is a big stepping stone to getting back to the postseason.
“We’ve been close both years,” Kennedy said. “If you look at the breakdown of our schedule and what we have done mid-week, we haven’t had as many big wins as we have in the past. Had we had one or two more of those, we probably would not be having this conversation. That’s just how close we’ve been.”
Leg up from the start
Heading into 2013, the Phoenix knows it has an advantage over years past because of the experience returning to the team. With only two seniors departed from last year’s team, Elon returns the core of a team that fell a game short of the regular season conference championship, including nearly every pitcher off last year’s staff. The only missing piece from last season’s pitching staff is Jim Stokes. He signed a contract with the Cleveland Indians after being selected by the team in the 22nd round of the MLB First-Year Player Draft.
“Not losing anybody on our pitching staff is big,” said senior right-hander Jordan Darnell. “We know what we can do, and we’ve got a lot of experience on the mound. We just have to play our game.”
Seeing as Elon couldn’t repeat as the conference regular season champion nor get to the NCAA Tournament, it could be easy to discount pitching staff because they couldn’t get it done last season. Kennedy doesn’t see it that way, though.
“It’s funny because you talk about getting guys back, that’s great and all,” he said. “But if you get them back and they’re not real good, well, that doesn’t help you a whole lot. But our guys are all capable and they’ve got good arms. They’ve got the time and experience and they’re working really hard and if they pitch for the right reasons, which is for Elon and for their teammates, then we’ll have success.”
Two pieces, two different returns
The Phoenix also gets two key pieces back in the lineup and in the field with the return of senior catcher Alex Swim and senior outfielder Niko Fraser. Both return to the Phoenix as recently named captains, but the two return in very different fashions.
After leading the Phoenix with a .357 batting average in 2012, Swim was selected in the 36th round of the MLB’s First-Year Player Draft. Instead of leaving school for the major league dream, the senior backstop elected to return to Elon for his final season and finish out his degree in sport and event management. It didn’t hurt that his family lives just 30 minutes down the road.
“The fourth year is always the biggest,” Swim said. “Plus I wanted to get my degree and stay close to my family. My family lives in Greensboro, so I get to stay close and finish out my fourth year here.”
While the fourth year on the field could drastically improve his draft status, Kennedy thinks Swim has already improved his status in the eyes of Major League scouts just by coming back for his final season.
“He’s intelligent, obviously, he has a great feel for the game and he continues to get stronger. He’s already improved his status,” Kennedy said. “But most importantly, he gets a degree. That’s the biggest thing. Outside of baseball, that degree is very, very important for him and his family and I think when he’s done, he’ll be very happy he did what he’s doing.”
Fraser, on the other hand, wasn’t worried about making a decision on the MLB or not.
On April 6, 2012, Fraser suffered a concussion in Elon’s 18-2 loss to Southern Conference rival Furman University. While he tried to return April 25 against the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, Fraser couldn’t finish the game, ending his season.
After 10 months away from game action, Fraser is set to return from an injury that has been known to play with the minds of some of the best baseball players in the country.
But Fraser isn’t worried about the potential ill effects. In fact, he thinks being away for so long might have been the best treatment.
“Being away might end up being the best thing for me because I’m rejuvenated,” Fraser said. “Now every day when I go out there, it’s like a child playing. It’s like riding a bike. I’m not worried.”
Molding the future
The two returning captains, as well as junior infielder Sebastian Gomez and senior pitcher Dylan Clark — the other two captains this season — have a responsibility of not only making sure the veteran Phoenix achieve their goals, but also grooming the incoming freshmen to take the place of the outgoing seniors down the road.
“We have a good group of new guys,” Kennedy said. “They’re hardnosed kids that work hard, which I’m excited about. They don’t always do things right, but that’s freshmen. We’ve got several guys that really have a chance to keep this program going in the right direction with all of the seniors that we are going to lose. It may not look as if they’re important this year because we are older, but they are. They’re going to keep pushing and keep getting better, and if our older guys teach them and that carries over, we don’t take a drop. That’s something we’ve been most proud of with our program.”
Both Swim and Fraser concur it means a lot to be a captain on the team, and both welcome the extended responsibility of preparing the younger players to fill voids when the upperclassmen move on.
“We have a good nucleus of guys,” Swim said. “Baseball is a grind. Obviously it’s a long season. We have a bunch of young guys, so just showing them the way and leading by example is going to be big.”
Surpassing the mind games
With a challenging schedule designed to get the Phoenix to the NCAA Tournament should they be successful from February to May, a veteran, experience-rich club that knows what it takes to win and a solid freshman class entering the mix, what can go wrong? Fraser knows.
“We could get cocky real quick,” he said. “We have a lot of potential, but potential is just unused success. If we keep thinking about how good we could be, it could never come to fruition if we get cocky.”
He also said, aside from defense, there’s something else that could hold the Phoenix back. It’s not an in-game flaw, though. It’s a pregame mental block Elon must get by.
“The big thing for us is when we go play a tournament and a team like Kentucky or Coastal [Carolina], we have to stop looking at the name on the front of the jersey,” he said. “We have to treat them the same way we would as if it were a UNCG or a Davidson. It sounds cliche but it’s really true. We have to prepare for every game the exact same way and not let the jersey beat us.”
Kennedy knows what can derail his Phoenix, too.
“We need to catch the ball,” Kennedy said. “Sometimes we can get too quick and too fast. That’s a good thing in some ways, but we have to make sure we play under control defensively. If we play under control in the field, we’ll be pretty good. We’ll see, but hopefully there’s a taste of hunger for these guys to get it done this year.”