Brian Buscher faces all the usual woes of a high school baseball coach: His Heathwood Hall players botch bunts, allow routine grounders under their gloves and forget to tag on long pop flies.
This problem is tougher to handle, though: He needs players. His varsity team has 12. His junior varsity squad has 10. Four of those 10 are sixth-graders who need special clearance to play against sophomores in games because of state rules. If a virus spreads or someone takes a vacation, he’s in trouble.
Before a recent practice at the school, one of his varsity players approached him with a medium-grade fever. Buscher quickly waved him away; contagious players are not welcome at Heathwood.
“I’m trying to find a few more kids, but you can only do with what you’ve got,” he said during a recent practice. “The kids I’ve got, I’ve got to make them work.”
Buscher — the former USC star and major league third baseman — took the reins at Heathwood this spring after finishing a volunteer coaching gig with USC’s baseball team last spring. He’ll also coach the Columbia’s Blowfish this summer.
Buscher wants to transform Heathwood, a team with a 12-15 record last year, into more of a SCISA contender. Buscher is the team’s third coach in five years.
He wants to develop a solid reservoir of players so he doesn’t have to recruit within the school every year. More players seem interested in basketball and lacrosse at the Columbia private school.
Most important, he wants to teach these players to understand — and love — a complicated but beautiful sport that has dominated his life.
But first the Highlanders must master the basics.
At Heathwood, the nexus of his coaching is fundamentals. Buscher uses simple terms and seldom raises his voice. The players learn how to turn a double play, swipe a clean tag and catch a fly ball. His frustration usually boils over only because of mental errors, the ones he deems easily avoidable.
He teaches like Ray Tanner, the coach he’s long admired. After a recent Carolina win, Tanner made the distinct differentiation between physical and mental errors as well.
“It’s hard not to coach kids like he does, he has two national championships — whatever he’s doing is right,” Buscher said. “He has a knack for getting the best out of his players.”
After a recent 13-2 loss to crosstown rival Hammond during which his team made 11 errors, he stayed calm and carried on. Most of the mistakes were physical.
“Coach Buscher understands when we mess up physically,” sophomore Will Detwiler said. “He’s just a normal guy and is relaxed and having fun.”
He cavorts with players in the batting cages and stretches a sore player across the first base line. The player grimaces in pain, but Buscher jokingly presses on and presses his knee down on the leg. A wider grimace ensues.
Buscher uses corny sayings — “high cheese” to describe one head-high pitch during a batting practice.
“This’ll be an easy out; he’s not ready to hit,” he playfully yells at another player.
He enjoys cutting the field’s grass and often rides into the sunset after practice. He doesn’t care for formality and pretense; he conducted a brief interview with a reporter while battling with a Bojangles’ clerk for his dirty rice.
Detwiler and Jackson Sisson, a senior, are two of the school’s most talented players. Sisson said the players’ relationships with one another are better this year.
“He’s a very friendly guy, an awesome coach to be around,” Sisson said. “He’s not extremely tough on us if we miss a play.”
Buscher eventually wants to coach at the college level like Tanner. But a wife and a 20-month old at home likely will keep him in the Columbia area for some time. But one thing seems certain: He will coach.
“I had a high school coach who loved it, loved every part of the game,” Buscher said. “ I’ve always loved it. Baseball has been pretty much my entire life.”