Ron Morris

Morris: Coker sounds like a winner

rmorris@ thestate.comMay 9, 2013 

Coker coach

COURTESY OF COKER COLLEGE

HARTSVILLE TRADITIONS BE darned. One ring of the Coker College campus bell tower, which long ago began signaling a victory by one of its athletic teams, was not enough.

So when the Coker baseball team arrived late Monday with a Conference Carolinas championship trophy in tow, an assault on the bell tower began some 500 yards away at the entrance to campus. The players bounded off the bus, briefly hoisted coach Dave Schmotzer to their shoulders, then sprinted across campus and took turns clanging the bell.

Schmotzer said he felt like a rock star, fully prepared to unveil his Bruce Springsteen impersonation of “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.”

“To see the genuine love for one another, it’s something you can only get through sports,” Schmotzer said. “You can’t get this in an art class or a history class. You can only get this through sport. To be able to see the glee and the accomplishment ... It brought me to my knees.”

Most of the faculty and a sizable number of students joined in the celebration of the championship game victory over King (Tenn.) College and the qualification for the May 16-19 NCAA regional tournament. The site will be determined late Sunday, with the regional winner advancing to the NCAA Division II College World Series.

The baseball success this season is another sign of a revitalization of the Coker athletics program, sparked by the arrival four years ago of school president Robert Wyatt. He said he was hired primarily to raise the national visibility of the private school with 1,200 students. His belief is that the school’s reputation is determined primarily by its teacher education program and by athletics.

“If every time you’re picking up the morning paper and you’re seeing loss, loss, loss, that forms an image, right or wrong,” Wyatt said. “In addition to what it does out there, internally, on a small campus, the momentum and enthusiasm with winning is contagious.”

Upon arriving from Drury (Mo.) University, Wyatt immediately immersed himself in the athletics culture. He challenged Schmotzer to a game of bowling. A Wyatt win meant exemption for the entire baseball team from the annual preseason two-mile run. A Schmotzer win would earn the program a $1,000 personal check from Wyatt toward its travel budget.

With the entire team cheering him on, Wyatt emerged the inaugural winner. The two have split the past two challenges. That Schmotzer would engage in such activities is no surprise to his team.

If nothing else, team members appreciate his honesty. Both catcher Frank Suarez and second baseman Keith Wolf said they landed at Coker because Schmotzer was upfront with them in recruiting. Suarez, a .316 hitter this season from Miami via Lawson State (Ala.) Community College, and Wolf, a .327 hitter from outside St. Louis via Southwestern Illinois College, said Schmotzer told them the program was down — an overall losing record since 2005 — but on the way up.

Schmotzer is the only coach in the program’s history, arriving in 1993 and guiding the Cobras to the NAIA World Series a year later. Coker has won 584 games, captured seven conference championships and will appear in its third regional tournament. The previous two regionals were when Coker competed in the NAIA.

Schmotzer does it with an easygoing demeanor and a concentration on teaching the fundamentals of the game, from situational hitting to groundball defense to base running. Players are required to sprint on and off the field — 10 seconds getting off, 15 seconds getting on, and hitters must be standing on second base after every pop out or fly out. A single to the outfield calls for a “Pete Rose turn” around first base.

Schmotzer’s one-liners are intended to be as much about life lessons as they are about the proper way to play the game, from shouts of “be cerebral,” and “don’t be a neophyte,” to “critique your effort.”

This season was particularly challenging for Schmotzer. Coker was picked in the preseason to finish eighth in the nine-team Conference Carolinas. Schmotzer returned 15 seniors, many of whom were destined to the bench with a wave of younger players taking their place in the starting lineup.

“To say we were the eighth pick was a slap in our face because we eat the same applesauce that everybody else does,” Schmotzer said. “We get after it. The kids are great. They work at it.”

Despite the many veterans on the squad, three of the nine regulars in the lineup are seniors and two of the six pitchers with significant innings are seniors. Schmotzer said his stomach was in knots when he filled out lineup cards without writing many of the seniors’ names.

Yet the way in which the seniors believed in the team played a big role in Coker finishing second in the conference regular-season race, posting a 34-14 record and winning the league tournament.

The stars included junior Fico Kondla, who moved from third base to first base this season and led the conference with a .409 batting average and 23 steals, and junior relief pitcher Zach Loraine, who ranks second nationally with 14 saves and is likely to be the first Coker player to go in the Major League Draft since John “The Smoker from Coker” Crowther in 1994.

That was the same season Coker last appeared in a College World Series, albeit at the NAIA level. This time, should the Cobras win the upcoming regional and reach the Division II World Series, Wyatt and Schmotzer will be more than happy to extend the length of time the campus celebrates at the bell tower.

The ringing of the bell could go on all night and into the morning.

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