bleedCrimson.net Weekly Coach Ward Interview :: 06/03/10 :: Season Wrap Up Part I

bleedCrimson.net: Your thoughts on the season overall? A number that will get overlooked at least immediately because of the way the season ended was the fact that the 2010 team won 36 games which is the 5th most in program history.
Rocky Ward: Yeah. The one thing that was so unique about this season was it was really broken down into three parts. The first 21 games we were 10-11, below .500. We were struggling finding an identity. We gave up 30 runs twice in that stretch. That's hard to do. For a team as good as we were to give up 30 runs twice. We did it once against Georgia State who ended up leading the nation in runs scored per game. For all intents and purposes one of the best offenses in the country. But the other one was St. Joseph's who had a pretty good offense but I don't think they ended up in the top 20 [runs scored] I believe. Just the essence of that part of the season was we win a game 33-1, which was the biggest winning margin of the season against St. Joseph's but then turn around and lose a game 35-16, to the same team. That was the essence of where we were in that first part of the season. We're going, "Are we gonna be good or are we not?" We were really good or really bad and then all of the sudden, a couple things happened. We made some changes coaching-wise to try to shore up our defense, go to Santa Barbara and lose a game against a very good pitcher, one of the better pitchers in the Big West, then go on to win 12 in a row.

At one point we won 24 of 27 and one of them was the tie. So in the middle of the season we were the hottest team in the country and that's where our ranking came in and that's where we established ourself at the top of the league. We led the league a couple different times through the season. Then you lose 12-of-13 to finish. So the 12 game winning streak you kind of gave back with the stuff at the end.

In analysis of it all, the amazing part of the 24 of 27 was the fact that we lost Ben Harty after the Santa Barbara series. He was our four-hole hitter and at the time was hitting over .400 with 12 home runs and our number one catcher. To go through that stretch and then a couple weeks later we lose Mike Sodders who had 15 home runs and was hitting .370 or .380 and to have been able to handle losing your top two offensive players and to be able to put that stretch together is what made us feel like as coaches, players and fans that this was a pretty special team. To be able to overcome those types of losses. It was a pretty special team. This was a group of really good hard-working kids. The years that Wesley Starkes, Chace Perkins, Ryan Aguayo, Parker Hipp and Nate Shaver, those guys in particular, had. They were the heart and soul of the team. They took it upon themselves to kind of replace Sodders' and Harty's numbers. That's basically what they did. I leave Leo [Aguirre] out of that because he one of the top three hitters and he was the only one left. He basically continued to do what he did. What the other guys bring up their games, it's hard to say they were playing over their heads, but they really played up when the pressure was on. That's what put us through that run.

Then you have Fresno come in and they were a pretty significant upgrade in talent level. They really played well and we didn't play terribly well, poorly, at times. Two of the games they pretty much hammered us, the other two were pretty good games. We just couldn't get that key hit. I think for the very first time the ballclub felt the loss of Sodders and Harty, that we kind of needed their talent to take on the talent that Fresno had. The kids played hard through that series. We get swept and you lose four and there was a lot of mojo lost in that series. A lot of disappointment because going into that series had we won three out of four, if we continued to do what we were doing the previous month and a half, we had the chance to win the league championship by winning three out of four that weekend.

Then we went to Hawai'i kind of licking our wounds a little bit and took their number one pitcher and blew him up. Eight runs in the first two or three innings, then we let them back in. We lost momentum in the game and lost that game in extra innings 11-10. That was really a tough one to deal with. Then we lose the doubleheader the next day where we lose another extra inning game with a walk-off home run, one of the three that we had during that stretch.

I think the continual pressure on some of those kids I mentioned to continue to play perfect baseball kind of wore on them a little bit and when we lost a little momentum on the season, we really kind of struggled with it. You go through stretches in the season where things aren't going your way that well, that's just the way it is. I thought we had that and the guys fought through it and we were able to come back and win the last game in Hawai'i. I thought it was pretty important to us. Then we go lose two real real close games at USC. Now USC finished last in the Pac 10 but clearly the Pac 10 was the premiere league in the country this year. Eight teams going to a Regional and the number one RPI rated conference in the nation, losing to SC at SC wasn't devastating. They were a good baseball team playing at home and you also have the disadvantages of travel. I don't think many people understand the difficulties of changing time zones and how your body attempts the whole time to stay on your local time but once you get to Hawai'i, after a couple days you kind of get on their time and you come back to the coast. Hawai'i historically has been known as a great home team and a terrible road team. Mike Trapasso and his teams have been pretty decent road teams but people just kind of make the statement without understanding that their players have to do this time change all the time when they come to play conference games on the mainland. It's a pretty good disadvantage. When they go from where they are to go play at La. Tech, they're five hours different.

I think that impacted us some. I thought we played pretty well. That was the second walk-off home run against us that season where we'd played pretty good. So then we go to the conference tournament and we felt pretty good. We felt good about stuff and I think it was more about the fact that Hawai'i was clearly hot. They were a good team. They were reaching the potential they had expected to reach in the middle of the season. They had played pretty good in the early part of the year, beaten some good teams, then they started off the conference season terrible. They got swept at Sacramento. That was just amazing that that happened. But they got it going and we happened to catch the hottest team in the tournament in the first round and we didn't play real well but if it weren't for the six-run inning… The one mistake we made, we had traded some runs back and forth and it was still pretty close, but then we had first and second with one out and Jared Jordan has the ball go off his glove for a passed ball and moved runners to second and third, the ball is hit up the middle and they score two runs. Then when the dust clears after two or three infield hits, the field was really hard an choppers off the plate we didn't have any plays on. Dan Reid didn't do anything wrong, he made good pitches. It was one of those deals where one mistake on a passed ball cost us six runs and cost us the game. The bottom line is if we don't have that passed ball, the next ball is hit right into the double-play positioning. The ball was hit right where Aguayo would have been. But with second and third, you expand and cover the hole more and that ball goes through the infield. That's kind of the way things had been going.

We played a really quality clean game against Nevada. We've got a freshman left-hander going against the Pitcher of the Year. We won that game through eight innings. We got him out of the game, our kid had done his job and we've got a 4-2 lead. They get a double to lead off the inning, a ball hit off the end of the bat to second. A chopper in the infield where on a normal field would have been a double play but because it was chopped we couldn't get the double play and then a kid goes out and guesses on a pitch, gets it and hits it out.

That's kind of the synopsis of the season. We were a .500 team to start the season, we were a top notch team in the middle of the season and we were a bad team at the end if you want to just look at the numbers and the way it came out.

But the one thing that I know that from a coaches standpoint, some of the judgements that people will have, I remember right after that game, 20 minutes after the last game in the coaches locker room, sitting there pretty dejected and upset, sitting next to my father. He said, "You know Rock, it was a hell of a year. It'll be looked at as a colossal choke job by most people but these kids gave us more than we could have expected them to give us." He's right. The perception will be that our kids choked. What I know for a fact is that they didn't They played their tails off every single day and maybe the fact that Harty and Sodders were out for those periods of time put too much pressure on other players to carry the load. I don't know. You never know. But I do know that we didn't lose because we were afraid to win. That's the one thing that you worry about as a coach.

You talk about these things with our players all the time. There are two major fears in playing the game of baseball. One is the fear as a hitter of getting hit by a pitch. It's the fear of pain. Pitchers use that against hitters all the time. The second is the fear of failure. It's more than anything with kids this age, the fear of being embarrassed. If you strike out, it's embarrassing. Fear of failure is what the general public would call choking. What I know is that these guys didn't choke. That's all that really matters to me and to my players and people that are close to the program.

We've got a real good quality group of kids returning that have something to prove and that'll be a real good motivating factor for the rest of the year.

bc.net: Looking back at the last two seasons, when the team hit 35 wins this season I went and looked at how many other teams had 35+ victories at that point and your win total put you in the top 10 percent for wins in the country. Your 80 combined wins in the past two seasons puts you in some pretty elite company. Just how difficult is it to put together those types of seasons? Example being San Jose State who almost matched your accomplishments last season but this season didn't have a very good record.
RW: The one thing in college that is talked about some but overlooked a lot is when you have a baseball team on the field you have a big variance of experience within a four year window. We only get these kids for a maximum of four years. In college baseball there's a turnover. We're getting ready to undergo that. We lost 12 seniors off this team, 12 of the 26 man travel squad. Not quite half but a lot and we lost eight or nine pretty key players last year. That's part of the reason why it's difficult. There are two factors involved. You only have 11.7 scholarships in college baseball and so it's really hard to develop younger players. You pretty much have to go with what you have. If we go back to Robin Ventura at Oklahoma State, dad had no chance to recruit a good young freshman third baseman while Robin was a junior. Who would want to come sit on the bench behind an All-American, eventual first round draft pick, eventual Gold Glove winner, eventual All-Star? So that's one of the things that happens. So you only have 11.7 and 11.7 is barely enough to field a current team, let alone field a team that you're developing for the next two or three years. You try to do that the best you can. You have to be very frugal, you have to find different ways to convince kids to come to your school. You become a master, for good students out there, at finding academic scholarships that they can get some support.

It's hard to put all those things together, especially at a mid-major conference. If you're at Arizona State, Texas, Stanford, Oregon State, Florida, Florida State, all those guys that have historically every year have come in and put up big numbers, they obviously have big advantages when it comes down to facilities. They have big advantages in that they have highly recognized universities, BCS conferences, they generally are able to get young players to come play for them for less than what other schools might cost. So their 11.7 scholarships go a bit further and they can maintain a little bit more continuity in the program.

We think that over the last three years, when we were 28-33 three years ago, that was a really plus year considering we played Fresno State the eventual National Champion, nine times out of that and we played Hawai'i, who was a very good team that year, another eight games. So 17 of our games, almost a third of our schedule, came against the very best in the league. The one thing that I take out of this year is that we've established ourselves as a team that is going to compete head-to-head with Fresno and Hawai'i. Fresno has been the guy. They're the ones with the national championship, they're the ones with the beautiful stadium, they're the ones with everything they need. They also sit right in the middle of about 10,000 Division I level baseball players in the part of the country they're in. Over the last three years we've established ourselves at New Mexico State as a top tier, top three team in the WAC. That is big. To win 80 in those two years, you're right, it's hard to do. We lost a lot of players from that team three years ago that were good players but we had a good recruiting class which just happens to be this class that's going out now. The one thing that I feel pretty good about is that the base of what I have returning is pretty good again. We've done a pretty good job of maintaining a pretty good mix of players. San Jose lost almost everybody a year ago. There are some coaches that work on a cycle. They have one big recruiting cycle and they work through those kids all the way through and when they're juniors and seniors they expect them to play up but then you have a couple down years while you're developing your team. I don't want to do it that way. I want to try to win every year. I think because of our philosophy, we're trying to keep a nice mix of younger and older players together and the way we've recruited and brought players in, I think that's served us pretty well. The program is in good shape. We've got a good talent base, we've got some of the things in place that we need and out in the recruiting world, we're getting good players that know that they can come here and when they leave here they know they're going to be better. There are kids that five years ago that wouldn't have even talked to us. I think that part bodes well for the future of the program.

bc.net: We talked after the end of the 2008 season about how you felt like that season had established your program as at top half team in the league and clearly the past two seasons your team has established themselves as title contenders in the league.
RW: There are a lot of things involved. We had established ourselves in the Sun Belt as one of the top tier guys, it's hard to do. It's developing tradition. It's the way opponents look at you, the respect they provide to you. Those type of things lead to an advantage when you play them. When we changed leagues, all of the sudden you lose all of what you'd gained. It was a bad time for us because we were in kind of a transitionary year where we had a lot of guys going out. That very first year in the WAC we had a ridiculous number of injuries, 19 guys injured, 17 for at least two weeks of playing time lost and six were lost for the season. It was crazy. We finished last. In that year it felt like we'd lost a lot of what we'd gained in the Sun Belt and then we came back the next year and played okay baseball but we still weren't good enough and finished, again, last in the league. So the first two years we don't get in the tournament and then the 28-33 year (2008), we get ourselves a four or five seed but we get into the tournament and so you kind of feel like you've got momentum and then you go in as the four seed last year and go to the championship game and you go in the two seed this year. In any company that you're building or any athletic program that you're trying to build you're looking for consistency but you're also looking for growth. Over the last three years we've gained both consistency in the program and growth in the program. Consistency is maybe the most important thing you can develop in any business or any sports team, or what I refer to as the base.

You feel like traditionally that you're going to be able to finish in the middle of the league and if you finish third or fourth you'll feel like you're going to be disappointed but you've still got a shot at playing well late in the conference tournament, very much like what Hawai'i did. They had a good enough base that as bad as they played in the beginning of league, that tradition kind of drove them and kept them going and got them to the tournament. Once they got to the tournament, they were one of the hotter teams and kind of rode that to a championship.

We feel like the base of the program has been established and again it'll be interesting to see what happens this summer, if any of these conference realignments that have been rumored start going. There are a lot of scenarios that are being talked about there in the media, in the coffee shops and in the blogs about what the Big 10 is going to do and how it might impact this league or that league and there are a whole bunch of scenarios that could include the WAC and also the Mountain West. One team may leave one league and go to another and it might be like a house of cards and fall apart and reshuffle. It'll be interesting to see if anything happens. There are lots of rumors and it could happen tomorrow, it could happen in a month, it could not happen at all but there have been a lot of discussions about how it might impact our league.

I do know that we feel good with who we are in the league. I think that we've gained respect. We always had respect coach to coach in this league but it's more about overall attitudes, New Mexico State has been a legitimate contender in this league for three years now. We've played ourselves to the top of the league. What'll happen next year? I don't know. I've said it every year. This league has a tremendous amount of parity and it proved itself out again this year. We were on the front end of it, the tradition of what's come in the past kind of brought the league back together. Because we didn't play well late everybody kind of got brought back to the middle and Fresno played pretty well late and won the league by a game and a half over us and Nevada and if you look at where Hawai'i and San Jose were, they weren't that far back.

bc.net: Your guys have played yourselves into a lot of national exposure the past two seasons. What kind of impact has that had on the program?
RW: I think the good thing about it over the past couple years is the people out there that have watched us over the past couple years, when you get ranking and you get votes in the polls, we were still getting votes after we lost seven of eight. But it's a respect that you earn on a national basis. It just means more than anything that the people that are watching the game whether they're media or coaches or fans are paying attention to the fact that some pretty special things are happening here. Good sports fans are always looking for who the next guy that's going to jump into the pot. There's always that same group that has established themselves at the top when you think about LSU, Stanford, Arizona State and Texas. Think back about four or five years ago when Oregon State was the team that kind of threw themselves in to the mix. Oregon State was just another team and all of the sudden they start getting some votes and all of the sudden you look up and they've got a couple national titles.

I think that's kind of the important thing, on a national basis the people that are watching our game are giving us credit for what we've done and that has a lot of benefit.

Kids coming through now can get a lot of information [from the Internet] and they can see these polls and they're able to watch a game on the Internet or Live Stats, they can stay up with your team. They're much more knowledgeable with what's really happening in today's sport than ever before. Twenty years ago back before the Internet became a big deal a lot of decisions were made based on what the recruiters told them. You had to really work hard to do your research on what a specific team was doing recently. Now you can pull up any of a dozen websites and find out what a team has done, who they have leaving, who they have coming back. You can do that in a matter of 20 minutes. National ranking is one of those things that's a logical thing. Most baseball recruits, most baseball players, that are interested in playing college baseball, you could look in their favorites and find a lot of the same websites. A lot of those are national polls, following the teams that are doing well, a lot of them are tied to conference rankings. Within national polls, they're just more accessible than ever before.

bc.net: What has this outgoing senior class meant to this program?
RW: This is a group of kids that has gotten us back over the top. We had established ourselves in the Sun Belt and really struggled in the WAC and so when these guys came in, they didn't have a whole lot of tradition. The two teams prior to them hadn't had much success in this league and so they had to do it again. They had to do something nobody else had done and this particular group of guys was a pretty special group. When I talk to teams each year I explain to them, and they look at me like I'm nuts, but I say, "Listen, tradition is not something you can hold, it's not something you can touch. It's just something that exists. All you need to understand is that every player that has come before you in this program, you're standing on their shoulders and what they've done and what they've accomplished will make it easier for you to accomplish things. But you have a responsibility as a player to leave the program in a better condition than when you came into it." This group took that to heart and they have left this program in much better shape than what they inherited. If you continue to do that year to year and continue to have seniors like this that take their responsibility… This is a baseball program that when I first came here 14 years ago, really didn't care much about school. They really didn't care much about doing the right thing socially. They weren't a bunch of bad kids but they went out and did whatever they wanted to do. There wasn't any discipline in the program. There was random interest in school. In other words, the good students were good students and the bad students were bad students.

What we've worked hard with over the years is to develop an understanding and I talk to recruits about this a lot. We're looking for triple threat people. That means I want kids that take their school and academics seriously. If a kid's talent level, his mental abilities, are in a level where all he can do is make a 2.5, then I expect him to make a 2.5. If he makes a 2.4, I'll get after him. If he makes a 2.6, I'll praise him. Sometimes you praise the 2.6 student more than you praise the 4.0 student because it's a matter of ability. This particular group of people, not only were they really outstanding in what they did in their careers as baseball players but they were outstanding academically.

This group of seniors that have gone out, their GPA is well over 3.0. Several of those kids have already graduated in just a four year span which is hard to do in today's world. The average student doesn't graduate in four years anymore. It's pretty much a five year type thing. So they have helped me establish a responsibility among Aggie baseball players to get back to the triple threat person and that is a quality student, a quality citizen and a quality player. Clearly they were successful at a very high level in all three tiers. I think that this last semester will have been the eighth consecutive semester that New Mexico State baseball's team GPA was 3.0 or better. That's saying something considering what happened three years ago when they shortened the season. My kids have had to miss a lot of class and yet these kids continue to perform and do a good job.

From a standpoint of the social part, it's not just that these kids didn't get in trouble, it's about these kids took their responsibility to community service things. I had several kids who went to elementary schools and read to kids. That's a big deal for a kid who may not be terribly interested in school, to have an athlete come over and read to them, that can reenergize a second, third or fourth grader to work harder and do better. These kids have done a lot in all aspects of the program. I couldn't be prouder of each and every one of them and what they do. In every single case, whether they've graduated or not, they will all clearly graduate. The kids that haven't graduated are all within a semester. I think I have one of the 12 players who has two semesters to go and that was because he made a change in his degree program that put him behind a little bit.

These guys led by example in the three important areas of life and I'm proud of them.