USC catcher Kyle Enders can receive no higher honor than the one bestowed on him this season by coach Ray Tanner:
Enders is getting the opportunity to call pitches.
College baseball coaches are notoriously particular about controlling that aspect of the game, a point Tanner concedes. Ask him how many catchers he has allowed to call their own games and the answer is simple.
"Very few," he said.
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He compares Enders' savvy to that of Landon Powell, who starred for the Gamecocks from 2001-04 and currently catches for the Oakland A's.
"I'd say my confidence in Kyle behind the plate and his ability to call the game is similar to Landon when he was here," Tanner said. "It comes down to years of experience and intelligence."
Enders, a fifth-year player from Riverside High in Greer, understands that's a big compliment.
"It's a great feeling that coach Tanner has the confidence in me to call pitches and put that responsibility in my hands," Enders said.
The intelligence Tanner references extends to off the field as well. Enders earned his accounting degree in December and started his graduate work for a master's in accounting this semester. He takes that studious attitude into his game-planning sessions with pitching coach Mark Calvi as they figure out how they want to get opposing hitters out.
So far, so good.
"It went well (opening) weekend," Enders said. "We were all on the same page. Hopefully, it will stay that way all season."
The Gamecocks (4-2) have a 3.08 ERA with 61 strikeouts and 17 walks in 52 2/3 innings. Tanner sees another huge benefit to the arrangement.
"We like to have our pitchers work as fast as possible. It's a momentum thing," he said. "Having a catcher like Kyle enables them to work a little more quickly."
That Enders returned for his fifth season speaks to his perseverance. He redshirted his first year and then got 12 at-bats in 2007. He broke into the starting lineup as a sophomore, when he batted .260 with five home runs and 25 RBIs in 52 games. But he lost his starting job last season when Tanner brought in junior-college transfer Justin Dalles, who hit .325 with 15 homers and 47 RBIs before being drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in the sixth round.
Some incumbents would have been upset over the loss of a starting position to a newcomer. But Enders, who had three homers and nine RBIs in 69 at-bats, resolved to make the most of the situation.
"Justin deserved the job, and I just had to do whatever I could off the bench to make the team better. It's not only about yourself," he said.
Tanner called Enders' team-first attitude a big part of what makes him a leader, a fact reflected by his teammates voting him one of this season's co-captains.
"He handled (the arrival of Dalles) with tremendous class and dignity. He's never been a player in his entire career that you question what he'll do," Tanner said. "I don't think there's any question about it. Kyle is more concerned about how the team does than he does. He'd sacrifice his playing time for the team to be successful."
As he prepares for his final go-around, Enders admits there is nothing he wants more than to finish this season at the College World Series. He remains optimistic the program can return for the first time since 2004.
"Omaha is definitely realistic for this team," Enders said. "Coming here, it was one of my dreams to get there. I've been here four years, and we haven't been able to get there yet, but this team has the best chance of any I've been on of making that run."
Enders calls this season's USC pitching staff the deepest he has seen.
"We've got multiple guys who can get the job done," he said.
He also has done his share at the plate while starting all six games. He is hitting a team-high .450 (9-for-20) with three doubles and two RBIs. Tanner appreciates Enders' commitment to put the ball in play by avoiding strikeouts.
"He's a good enough hitter to help us win games with his bat," Tanner said.
Enders came out early in two routs of Duquesne to give senior backup Brady Thomas some game experience, something Tanner wants to do when he can so that the 5-foot-10, 190-pound Enders remains strong through the season.
Enders is not one to look over his shoulder; he believes Thomas helps give the Gamecocks the depth they will need to be successful over the long haul. His personal approach is similar.
"To be honest, I take it one game at a time, one at-bat at a time. When you get caught up in thinking that you've got to hit well to stay on the field, you can't play. You can't worry about statistics," he said. "My mentality is to work hard and do the best I can, and everything will fall into place."
Just like it has in his career.
"I didn't want to redshirt, but looking back now, it's the best thing to happen to me," he said. "I couldn't have planned it any better."