Kevin Cooney is entering his 17th season as head coach at Florida Atlantic University and 21st overall. Each week, he’ll share some of the highs and lows of running a college baseball program - one that continues to grow as a national power. Cooney, who starred as a pitcher before taking Montclair State to a Division III national title, has guided the Blue Wave to a 226-89 record and four NCAA Regionals the past five years. His 1999 squad won 34 straight games, tying the NCAA mark set by Texas in 1977.



Feb. 9, 2004

Opening Weekend


Tuesday, February 3… Today we had an easy practice to try to freshen up everyone’s arms and legs. A lot of our guys are banged up a bit as we prepare for FAMU on Friday. Rusty Brown is out until at least next weekend with a fracture in his ankle, Rob Orton has a little tendonitis in his elbow (not a good thing for your starting catcher), Jeff Fiorentino is nursing a quad pull, backup catcher Justin Martin took a foul ball off his throwing hand yesterday, Jarrod Lauth (another catcher) has a jammed finger on his glove hand and Jordan Hafer, who is slated to replace Brown at first base, fouled a ball off his shin yesterday and can barely get a sock over the bump!


So we had what former player Zach Roper used to call a “JUCO” practice. Basically, all we did was take BP. Truth be told, a great deal can be accomplished with this sort of practice. It’s the best way for outfielders to get some work done and your baserunners can work on reads and jumps; a lot actually goes unnoticed by the untrained eye. Of course, we always crank up the music to make the time pass easier. The age of Internet downloading makes the choices greater. We tend to lean towards country, alternative and classic rock. That isn’t to say that there isn’t a call for rap or hip hop, but I have pulled rank and eliminated those categories. It’s getting harder and harder to find versions of those songs that are appropriate for public listening. It was interesting to read that Bill Belichek used rock music to simulate crowd noise at practice prior to the Super Bowl. He and his staff picked the artists played. I guess it’s a generational thing, but U2 and Springsteen were the most requested. I guess baby boomers still rule.


Tonight was the annual Rookie Show. Everyone new to the program has to put on a skit, sing a song, or anything they choose. It’s an opportunity for the new guys to poke fun at upperclassmen, fellow rookies, trainers, strength coaches - and the coaching staff. When I became head coach at Montclair State in 1984, I inherited some great players from departing coach Fred Hill (now at Rutgers), and the tradition of the Rookie Show. We held it poolside at the Bel-Aire Hotel on Collins Ave., in Miami Beach. I remember little 4-year-old Jim Cooney running around the pool in his Superman pajamas. I also remember his dad getting thrown in the pool by his new players. That was a long time ago.


Lately, most of the fun-poking is at the expense of John McCormack and the other staff members. The highlight of a less than stellar show was Jason Costello’s reading of a letter he allegedly found in Jeff Fiorentino’s locker. Let’s just say that it is evident now that Jeff’s time in the training room is due primarily to a crush on our trainer Elaine. Jason also “found” a poem written by Coach McCormack to Fiorentino about how much Jeff means to him; pretty funny stuff.


February 4 and 5… More of the same on the practice schedule. We included some work on all basic defensive fundamentals and our bunt defenses on Wednesday, but Thursday was straight JUCO.


February 6… Opening Day…Where’s the bunting? When Coach Mac met me, he thought bunting was only something to advance runners. But he’s learned by watching the red, white and blue flag-like banners being hung each opening day. It’s kind of an obsession of mine. I seem to relax if I spend part of the day in the sun hanging the bunting from the grandstand. Luckily for me, Mac and assistant George Roig spent most of the preceding days taking care of all the other details around the ballpark, so all that was left was the bunting.


Well, actually there still remained the decision of who was to catch. Orton was pleading his case, but I really felt he needed another week’s rest. Fiorentino said that his quad was ready, and he was anxious to catch. Freshman Justin Martin was good to go, but he was a freshman, and we already would have two others in the lineup. Justin struggled the first two weeks of spring practice, but after a talk from me and another from his dad, Justin had been catching well and hitting much better than expected.


All American Randy Beam was scheduled to pitch, so we felt our offensive production from the catcher shouldn’t be as critical. Martin was the best choice, all things considered.


One of the great things about any sport is that just when you think you have things figured out, everything works out the opposite.


Beam started strong, but wasn’t his usual self, and we quickly fell behind Florida A&M 1-0. Guess who tied things up with a single in his first college at-bat? Right, Justin Martin. Before you know it, we are behind again and need a big hit…who else… Justin Martin, of course. The rookie gets his first college home run, and we are back in it. Three RBI and a flawless defensive game is a nice way to start and a big lift to your team.


We entered the bottom of the eighth down 6-5 but had the top of the order due to bat. Quicker than you could say two outs…there were two outs. Fiorentino stepped in the box. It was lefty vs. lefty as I noticed their first baseman playing real deep. If Jeff drag-bunted, he’d have an easy hit. But, all those scouts and cross checkers leaning over the third-base fence didn’t come to see Fiorentino bunt. He lined the second pitch like a laser around the foul pole and into the tennis courts. Tie game… who was thinking about bunting?


Rob Horst is from Nebraska. Last season, he had a decent year with nine home runs, but I know he wasn’t satisfied. He had applied for a sixth-year waiver from the NCAA, and we were all surprised and happy to see it granted. Now the “old man” had another chance for the type of season he had expected last year.


We thought of pinch-running for Horst in the seventh, but I thought he might get another at-bat. Once again, the best moves are the ones you don’t make. Rob unloaded on the first pitch and sent a bomb deep into the Boca night. As he pumped his fist and ran the bases faster than I’ve ever seen him, I was happy for us and especially for Rob. FAU up by one, time to get Chris Saxton into the game. The Ice Man gets it done and Opening Day No.  30 is in the books with a W.


February 8… FAU 12 FAMU 4… Not as much drama last night as we jumped out to an early 6-0 lead. We played Alex Fonseca at shortstop, and he responded with a 4-for-6 night, batting behind Derek Hutton, who had three RBI and three hits, including his first career triple. That’s pretty good production from the two middle infielders at the top of the order. Rob Horst had another big home run to get us to 6-0. It looks like a good start for the old guy.


Matt O’Brien is a senior who has toiled in the shadow of some good pitchers during his first three years at FAU. Now it’s his turn, and OB looked up to the task last night. His fastball was in the 90s, and his split was nasty early in the game. He needs to trust that pitch a little more, but it was a good five innings with six Ks and only one run surrendered.


Coaching…just as the game looked to be no sweat, pitching coach George Roig asked how I wanted to use the bullpen for the rest of the game. Should we just try to get everyone an inning, or be concerned about a Rattler comeback and use just the main guys?


Can you say jinx?


Suddenly FAMU starts a rally and scores three in the sixth. Why does that always happen? Fortunately, we weren’t done scoring, and the bullpen did a good job.


It was a night of firsts as a bunch of guys got their first college hits, appearances, triples, etc. It was a good night for FAU, but a worrisome one for the coaches. Everything came so easily that the concern is how our guys will come out today for the final game of the series. I told everyone that anything less than a sweep at this point would result in a lost weekend. There will be no way to spin a defeat into anything else. We’ll see.


Sunday night…The pre-game speech emphasized the need to win the first three innings of this game. Naturally, we fell behind 1-0.


Fortunately, after FAMU scratched its right-handed starting pitcher and warmed up a lefty, we kept Tim Mascia in the lineup despite being a left-handed hitter. Timmy was probably not happy he sat out last night after going 2 for 4 Friday night, and today in the third, he stated his case by banging a shot off the scoreboard to tie the game. To further drive home the point, Timmy then blasted a grand slam in the fourth to put us up 5-1.


So much for platooning players.


Mike Crotta had a good debut. He struggled a little in the fifth, and FAMU was within one as we batted in the fifth. But Jeff Fiorentino decided to take some of the pressure off Mascia by drilling a two-run shot to right for his second home run of the season, and we never looked back.


So Opening Weekend ’04 is in the books along with 30 others. Not a bad start by the boys.


Next up is a trip to Daytona and a Tuesday afternoon match-up with Bethune-Cookman. The Wildcats are always tough, especially at Jackie Robinson.


Time to get home to Maggie and Luke. They’re probably waiting out front for me to throw some BP.




Previous Entries

Almost FAMUs (2/2/04)

FAU Living in Land of Hope and Dreams (1/28/04)


(photo courtesy of FAU Media Relations Office)