It's a Brand-New Day for Cougar Baseball
The sun was bright and high Friday afternoon. The temperature warm. The breeze slight. It was one of those absolutely beautiful days that make one happy to be alive. It was, quite fittingly, the first practice under a new coach for the baseball squad at the University of Houston. And it was, that new coach admitted, the practice for which he's been waiting his entire career.
John Royal Codey Morehouse throws a pitch during Friday's practice
Todd Whitting is that coach who had been waiting his entire career for this practice, and he's the man who has been brought in to revitalize a Houston baseball program that had fallen on hard times under former coach Rayner Noble. The team is coming off back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since 1974 and 1975, and looked to have quit and given up at times during last season.
The players have already spotted a difference with Whitting at the helm of the team. And those out there watching the team's practice on Friday noticed something that was missing all too often last season: smiles and laughter.
"Our attitude, from the coaching staff down to every player, is positive now," first baseman/closer Matt Creel said. "A lot more positive. They preach mental toughness, and we've been working real hard on that. Playing hard. [Coach Whitting] would rather us make a mistake playing hard than play careful."
The hiring of Whitting, one of the top assistant college coaches in the country, was a major coup for the Cougars. But though he's a Cougar graduate, a former Cougar player and a former assistant coach under Noble, this isn't a job that he would have taken just for the joys of returning to his former school. He's a man on a mission, and he thinks he and the players can pull off this mission.
"I wouldn't have taken this job if I felt like we couldn't get to Omaha [host of the College World Series]," Whitting said. "That is my ultimate goal as a coach, to play in Omaha every summer. If we work hard and take care of our business, that's something that's a result of hard work."
But no matter how much hard work the team puts into this season, getting to Omaha is going to be a difficult if not near impossible task. The pitching staff was down to eight players last fall after the departure of Michael Goodnight to the pros and the departure of several others. Jared Ray is still out and will possibly miss this season, and Ty Stuckey and Eric Brooks are also suffering from injuries that could keep them out for the season. And a team without pitching is a team that can't advance very far.
"The pitching staff is interesting," Whitting said. "We do have depth issues there. We started fall practice just with eight pitchers. Now playing a 56-game schedule with just eight pitchers is going to be difficult."
But difficulties aside, his mind-set is that those difficulties open up the door for others to step in and get the job done. And Creel is not bothered by the lack of pitching depth.
"Numbers-wise, we don't have a whole lot of pitchers, or not as many as most people do," he said. "But if you look at the stats on most teams, they only use nine or ten pitchers throughout the year, so I think we have nine or ten quality guys. I know as a team, from everybody on our team, we're not worried about our pitching staff."
John Royal M.P. Cokinos hopes to be the main guy behind the plate
Whitting promises that the team will be exciting when it comes to the offensive end of things. With the new NCAA rules that have mandated the deadening of the aluminum bats, playing solely for the home run ball is going to be out of favor. While he still hopes to have some guys hit for power, he's going to adopt a chaos philosophy with guys being aggressive on the base paths and trying to force pitchers and fielders into mistakes.
Whitting says he's pretty confident in just about everybody he has available when it comes to playing in the infield and the outfield though, as of now, the only position that seems to be settled is shortstop, where sophomore transfer Chase Jensen appears to be the guy. And he can see all of his three catchers getting playing time, though M.P. Cokinos appears to be the number one guy at the moment.
The season starts in just under three weeks when the Cougars host Texas-Arlington for three games. There's a new coach, and a new attitude. But to Whitting, some things never change, no matter what.
"There is a lot of pride in this program," Whitting says. "That's one thing that I think a lot of people realize, that our administration realizes. There's a lot of tradition, a lot of pride, involved with the University of Houston baseball. It's expected to be very good, and it's expected to compete on a national level, and that's where we're working diligently for every single day."
It's too soon to know if the Cougars will be able to compete on a national level this season. But while they might not be able to compete, they should be a lot more fun to watch play.