As the boys of summer prepare for the first game of spring, Mason baseball head coach Bill Brown has no shortage of optimism about where his team stands. “Since I’ve been here, and it’s not an exaggeration, in 35 years, we probably have the most depth we’ve ever had.”
That’s impressive and encouraging, considering just two years ago, Mason’s 16-9 Atlantic 10 record had the team in Houston, battling for a spot in the College World Series against Rice University and Texas A&M. Mason’s NCAA tournament run ended there, but Brown expects his upperclassmen to be ready to be in that same spot again. “The people who were on that team in ’14 who are still here understand that it’s possible to have success at that level,” Brown said.
“To be able to have that experience, and pass on what it takes to get there — how to go through a regular season, how to approach a conference tournament, and ultimately how to go play in the NCAA tournament — its something they’ve done. It’s part of who they are right now, and hopefully we’ll get enough people on board that we can take a shot at doing that again,” Brown said.
Senior shortstop Brandon Gum was a sophomore on the upperclassmen-heavy 2014 team. Now that he’s in a leadership roll, he feels the obligation to share his experience with the new young players. “The experience does play a big part,” Gum said. “This year we’re going to have to win with a lot of freshmen, so we have be the one to show the experience.”
Mason could not repeat their 2014 success last season. The injury bug bit the team hard and they closed the year 12-12 in the A-10. “We scuffled a little bit with injuries,” Brown said. “We had some key guys, especially on the pitching side who weren’t healthy enough to perform at the level that they could.”
Gum added that Mason was unable to consistently play a full game. “Last year it felt like we never really played a complete game. We either pitched really well and didn’t hit or didn’t play defense, or we’d have great defense and wouldn’t hit, or when we hit, we didn’t pitch or play defense,” Gum said. “I think this year we’ll bring all three together, and we have a chance to be really good if we can do that. We have all the tools to do it.”
But last year is behind them. The team is healthy, ready to play with a deep pitching staff. “This year looks right now like we’re going to have more depth in pitching. Especially towards the bullpen. We’d get to midweek games and we really didn’t have much to come out. I think that’s a good strength for us this year,” senior outfielder Kent Blackstone said.
Mason is set to deploy one of the largest and deepest freshman crop of players the team has seen. Brown expects this year’s freshman class to not only provide exceptional depth for the team in seasons to come, but also to produce on the field from day one. “There’s a good portion of that class that we expect to contribute, and contribute right away,” Brown said.
Having a roster that’s nearly half freshman, no matter how deep, would be a concern for any team. “If we’re going to have success, our young kids are going to have to be a part of that success. Some of them have already developed some pretty important roles within the program. I expect as we move through the season, that more and more of that group will get on the field, will play and be productive for us,” Brown said.
The team’s success will depend not just on the new players’ abilities to perform, but also on the leadership of the upperclassmen and the duty they have in preparing the younger players to fulfill their new roles. “We have certain ways that we do things, and the easiest way for a young kid to figure that out is for an older guy to say ‘Okay, here’s how we do it — this is the way we practice, this is how we carry ourselves,’ whatever it might be, and they’ve already done a great job getting the young guys acclimated,” Brown said.
Blackstone is already actively engaged in helping the new players acclimate. “It’s just about making them feel as comfortable as possible. What we’ve been trying to do is integrate everyone. We have four seniors and a very young class, so we’re trying to show them the right way to do it, and what we think is the best way for us to win,” Blackstone said.
Top-to-bottom depth, as well as the ability to comfortably adjust the rotation and lineup based on need, is always a goal of Brown’s. It is a recipe for success and it also allows for players up and down the roster to contribute. “We have the ability to move some people around, we have a lot of versatility, and I think that will lead to a lot of guys being in the mix and getting opportunities to play and getting their chance to produce and help us win baseball games,” Brown said.
Senior pitcher Mark Maksimow agrees that in order for Mason to compete at a high standard, the freshmen need to be prepared to quickly fulfill their new roles. “There are a lot of them, there’s a lot of open places for them to play, so I think we are going to need them a lot,” Maksimow said.
The clock is ticking toward Mason’s first game of the season and Brown’s goals from now up until that first pitch are three-fold, starting with addressing last year’s biggest hurdle.
“First thing we want to make sure is that we are healthy enough, that we’ve got everybody on board health-wise. I’m excited where we are from a health standpoint,” Brown said.
Brown’s second goal is to make sure the pitching staff is where they need to be after its struggles last season. An intrasquad game earlier this week helped them get there. “That was incredibly helpful for us,” Brown said.
Lastly, Brown wants the team on the gas pedal from game one onward. “Third, be prepared,” Brown said. “Understand team-wise what we need to do … I want us to be ready to play right away. Not in the middle of March. I want us to be ready to go as a team both physically and mentally on February the nineteenth; I want us ready to go.”
Building the foundation for success does not just come from the practice field or coaching office; it has to stem from the entire athletics program. Brown praised Mason’s current athletic director Brad Edwards, now in his second year, for the philosophy of success he has installed at Mason.
“It’s exciting, because [Edwards’s philosophy] builds a climate within the department and within each program of ‘it’s important that we do it the right way. That we work hard, and that we truly become a player on a consistent basis, not just once every four or five years, on a consistent basis in the A-10.’ The attitude is just fantastic,” Edwards said.
The philosophy of success, and the success specifically of the baseball team, is huge for the program, and it’s huge for Coach Brown.
A huge indication of the program’s success are the several players that have transitioned to professional baseball. Former Mason outfielder Luke Willis and southpaw Jake Kalish were both drafted by the Kansas City Royals in last year’s MLB Draft and pitcher John Williams signed a free-agent contract with the Tampa Bay Rays last fall. “I think it’s great for the program. It shows that our program is going in the right direction,” Blackstone said.
Seeing his players transition to the next level means just as much to the program as it does to Brown at a personal level. “From a personal standpoint, it’s exciting to see kids fulfill dreams, and have the opportunity to go on and play at another level,” Brown said.
According to Brown, having players drafted and signed by major league teams has future implications as well. “I think recruits understand, ‘[Mason’s] a place where I can achieve my goals and I can achieve my dreams across the board both academically and athletically,’ and that’s a good thing.”