Kevin Cooney is in 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.



March 16, 2004

Spring Break No Day at the Beach


How many baseball players have ever had a real spring break? You know the kind. Sunny beaches, lots of liquid refreshment and sun-splashed coeds are the daily schedule for most of America’s hard working college boys. Not if you are a baseball player.


If you attend a northern school, you scraped the ice off your windshield, caught the bus to the airport, or if you are an unlucky northern player, you simply caught the bus. Your next stop might be North Carolina, Florida, Texas, L.A., or somewhere warmer than your snowbound campus.


If you are lucky enough to play college baseball in the Sunbelt of America, you are shaking hands with sunburned guys after each game. Sometimes you never heard of the school you are playing. All you know is that the other team is running around, just happy to be outside.


My first spring break was as a sophomore at Montclair State College in New Jersey. We actually were the first college in New Jersey to take a southern trip to Florida each year. Our Director of Athletics was former baseball coach Bill Dioguardi, and he would accompany us on our trip. I think he was having trouble letting go as coach after moving into the big office.


Anyway, Dio would make all the arrangements, and Coach Clary Anderson learned to double check everything because Dio was a little shaky. We stayed in a converted barracks on the campus of Miami Dade North, one of the great baseball schools in JUCO history. The legendary Demi Maineri coached a lot of big leaguers during his tenure there.


The barracks housed all of us in bunk beds on the second floor. Down the hall was a set of classrooms, which sometimes made mornings interesting as we’d stumble out of bed to be greeted by girls en route to class. Dio and Clary slept with us which, helped keep things interesting. Those were some of the funniest nights I’ve spent in my life. Needless to say, there were a few comedians and wise guys among those Jersey boys.


One night – some years two – we were allowed to take the three vans and head to Fort Lauderdale. This was in 1970-72, and the strip was in its heyday. The Button was the best place in town and usually where we set up our base of operations. There are a number of current high school and college coaches, principals and teachers, out there with some great stories of those nights.


But for the most part, we were getting our butts kicked by North or South, but at least we were on the field. The worst part was coming home sunburned and then getting back in the gym because the snow returned or the fields weren’t ready at home.


So now, when I coach against teams on their spring trips, I think back to those days when my shoulder didn’t ache and I still had hair, and remember just how great spring break can be.


The Camels are here…


Campbell University has been in town all week. They beat FIU Tuesday and lost to Miami on Wednesday. This is our first conference weekend of the 2004 season. We gave our kids a day off Monday, had a light workout followed by a clinic on Tuesday, then an optional 4-Man session on Wednesday, and a normal Thursday practice.


I’d like to say that we are ready and rarin’ to go, but some things aren’t as rosy as the 16-1 record indicates. We got news Monday that Rob Orton needs his elbow scoped next week. The best-case scenario for Robbie is four to six weeks on the shelf. Greg Hughes has tweaked his elbow and may be out for two weeks. Rusty Brown is still a question mark. His ankle is healing slowly, and he’s still in pain when he tries to run. Third baseman Evan Brannon has missed five games because of a back problem that doesn’t show signs of progress. I don’t expect sympathy, but missing three senior starters and your setup guy is a challenge.


This weekend is the best and worst of baseball. Our conference, the Atlantic Sun, has opted to play a nine-inning game on Fridays and two seven-inning games on Saturdays. The good part is that if you sweep, you have won three games in 24 hours. But baseball was not meant to be played that way. It certainly was not meant to be played in a seven-inning format. Twice in the last five years our coaches and athletic directors voted to change the format to three nine-inning games over a three day period. The presidents of our schools rejected the proposal each time.


So we are relegated to this death march each weekend. It is grueling to play, and frustrating to coach. The stronger team is put at a disadvantage because there are four fewer innings to be played each weekend. That may not seem like much, but try trailing your opponent in the fifth inning realizing that instead of being only half over, the game is nearly finished.


But, this is the format we’re in so we need to make the most of it.


FAU 3 CU 2…


This wasn’t exactly a pretty win, but we’ll take it. The Campbell pitcher, Josh Blades, did a good job on us last night. He held us to four hits through 8.1 innings. Fortunately for us, one of them was Alex Fonseca’s two-run homer. Meanwhile, the Campbell hitters were scratching out nine hits against Randy Beam, probably four of which were bunts. Randy had struck out ten entering the ninth tied at two. He looked strong, so I sent him out to face the top of the order. Before you could blink, it was first and second and no one out. Campbell’s best hitter Tom Rispoli stepped in to face reliever Allen Knight.


As a coach, there are two ways to play this situation. The first is to bunt Rispoli and advance the runners to second and third. If they did that, we would counter by intentionally walking cleanup hitter Matt Byrd to load the bases. Coach Smith had replaced the fifth-hole hitter earlier with a pinch runner; so if they bunted, the third and fourth hitters don’t get to swing, and we take our chances with a sub and the sixth hitter. I liked those odds. I liked them enough that I didn’t order a bunt defense. I expected them to let Rispoli swing, which is the second option for Coach Smith.


Chip elected to bunt, bunt Rispoli fouled off the second pitch and we ran the count to 3-1. Now I was sure he’d swing. Rispoli lifted a fly ball to left-center and the runner on second tagged and headed for third. But Anthony Albano raced to his left, caught the ball and fired a strike to third base for a big double play! Knight struck out the next hitter and it was on to the bottom of the ninth.


Albano led off with a walk, and Fonseca followed with a sacrifice bunt. The Campbell third baseman elected to try for the force at second, but Albano beat the throw and we now had men on first and second with none out. (Déjà vu all over again)


Rob Orton walked to the plate as I mulled over the same options that Chip faced in the top half of the inning. But we were in the eighth spot in our order, and I wanted to avoid a double play, so Rob laid down a perfect bunt to third, and the runners moved to second and third.


Now Coach Chip Smith had to choose again. Pitch to Jarrod Lauth, batting ninth, with the infield drawn in, or intentionally walk Jarrod to set up a force and possible double play; if he goes after Jarrod and gets him out, he could walk leadoff hitter Derek Hutton and pitch to freshman Rob Widlansky to get the final out. If he loads the bases, do you keep the infield up or play back for the possible double play? No wonder neither coach has much hair left.


Campbell chose to walk Lauth and face Hutton.


It all ended without a bang as the Campbell relief pitcher threw a wild pitch allowing Albano to score. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.


Saturday…FAU 6 Campbell 1


Matt O’Brien continued his hot start. He had a complete-game shutout in hand until three bad hop singles got the Camels on the board.


We didn’t really hit well as Campbell pitchers continued to do a good job.


Game Two… Campbell 3 FAU 2


Spring Break came to a crashing close. Campbell’s starter Jordan Topal did a great job all day keeping our hitters off balance. Mike Crotta pitched real well for us until a leadoff double in the sixth got things started. The Camels beat out a bunt, and things were tight. We all thought the next hitter struck out on a 3-2 where he tried to check his swing. The ump ruled he did and the bases were loaded. CU went on to score three and we needed something in the bottom of the sixth. Do I need to repeat the seven-inning problem? Rob Horst hit a two-run shot, and things looked better. Tim Mascia was on second with two outs when pinch-hitter Rob Orton delivered a single to right. The throw from CU’s Jeff Randol was on the money and just got Mascia at the plate to end the inning. Tom Rispoli came in and closed it out and the Camels are on the bus as I write this. I guarantee it is a much happier bus ride than expected.


Their kids battled all weekend. I think we played flat. I guess that’s my fault. The intensity needs to be dictated from above. The thing that disappointed me is that we really did a poor job of making adjustments at the plate. As a result, some real good pitchers got very little support.


Time for me to go. Luke and Maggie were working on the field after the game – and are dirty enough to clog the drain tonight. I’m sure I’ll have to throw some BP before dinner.




Previous Entries

Baseball is Boring? What are They Smoking? (3/9/04)

Hanging with LaRussa was in the Cards (3/6/04)

Winds of Change (3/1/04)

Washington's Birthday (2/23/04)

Dugout Talks and Scouting Reports (2/21/04)

Not a Happy Valentine's Day (2/16/04)

Opening Weekend (2/9/04)

Almost FAMUs (2/2/04)

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


(photo courtesy of FAU Media Relations Office)