The fall practice period in college baseball represents everything that is good about our national pastime. With eagerness rivaling those of MLB spring training in February (albeit to a slightly lesser extent), student-athletes, coaches, and support staffs assemble for what marks a new beginning for every program in the country.
Expectations may be heightened, however, for coaches like Tim Corbin, Greg Goff, Scott Stricklin and Tony Vittorio, who are currently in the midst in preparations for their own programs at Vanderbilt, Campbell, Kent State and Dayton, respectively. The quartet, who combined for three conference championships and three NCAA Regional bids in 2012, recently gave Inside Pitch an all-access pass to how they approach fall ball.
“At Vanderbilt, we try to build foundations of what a team is all about, and we teach those concepts more than anything else,” said Corbin. “I think the coaches’ role is trying to get the kids to be patient, to understand what’s in front of them. It’s important to be firm and understand that there’s a learning progression that takes place.”
“As a head coach, you spend a lot of time after the season is over thinking about next year's team and what your motto and philosophy is going to be heading into next year,” said Vittorio. “It helps everyone understand what we need to do as a team to win championships. Last year's motto was 'Why not us?' and after we won the Atlantic 10 and advanced to an NCAA Regional, this year's motto is 'We are, we will.”
“You have to have a lot of patience,” notes Stricklin. “There are a lot of new players coming in, and it takes time for them to learn how to do the things that you do. Our number one goal is to stay healthy – championship teams that make deep postseason runs are generally pretty healthy, and you have to be healthy to train and condition. We'll push our players as much as we can, but we want to get through it healthy.”
“We work to implement our system and lay the groundwork of our program,” added Goff. “We really try to get new guys acclimated to how we play, and we get after it with a lot of energy and passion. It gives our guys a chance to understand what the spring is really going to be like.”
Fall practice is certainly important for coaches, but the ability for student-athletes to make the transition often dictates a team’s success from the start. When asked what recommendations they would give to players, each coach provided some great counsel.
“You need to come in in the best shape you've ever been in,” Stricklin adds. There are a lot of kids that take time off after summer baseball and before the fall, but that doesn't mean that you stop working out. The worst thing you can do is show up out of shape. If you're not in great physical condition, you'll be in the training room pretty soon.”
“Use the two things on the side of your head rather than the one in the middle,” Corbin advises, “listen, listen, listen, and use your eyes to observe. There’s so much information that can be learned [in the fall].”
“We really emphasize time management – trying to learn and get your day planned,” Goff offers. “If you don’t do that, you can get overwhelmed. If you utilize every minute of the day, you have more time than you thought, and when you feel like you can get things done and get that under control, the other stuff comes easy.”
“We have mirrors in our players’ lockers that say ‘no excuses,’” Vittorio offered. “Our players have to be able to look into that mirror every day and become accountable for the decisions they make. A lot of times, work ethic and loyalty equate directly to playing time.”
Having a plan of attack as the fall season fades into winter is an important aspect for the majority of college baseball programs, if they choose to move inside when the temperature fades.
“We try to practice in it; we don’t like to practice inside,” Corbin said of the inclement weather. “The weather is completely out of your control- that’s God’s arena- so whatever He gives you that day, you work through it and become ‘numb’ to it. It should be 70 degrees and sunny in your mind at all times, because the conditions in your mind are the only things that prohibit you from working out to your potential.”
“When we have to go indoors, we make sure to have a plan and a structure and get as much out of it as we can,” said Goff. “At the end, we have a competition for our players to end on a good note and get them competing a little bit.”
“We're very blessed to have an unbelievable indoor facility,” Stricklin said. “When the bad weather hits, it allows us to be more consistent; we won't miss a day of practice in there. As a northern school you have to maximize your time outside, but you have to have an indoor facility too.”
“We have a lot of indoor developmental programs going on,” said Vittorio. “At Dayton, we emphasize defense as well and work on our baserunning along with pitching and hitting. You can’t get a lot better at some things during the season if you're not emphasizing them in the offseason. How can you hold players accountable for some things if you're not working on things in the offseason?”
With baseball being a game defined by its repetition and routine, these coaches made some noteworthy points about how they continue to build their programs off the field.
“We spend a lot of time in the community in the fall,” Goff added. “Every two weeks we try to get something planned outside of Campbell baseball and expose our guys to the real world.”
“We have about four or five different team events that have nothing to do with baseball,” added Corbin. “You can call it team building; there are skills outside of the game that can be learned by improvising and creating different activities that incorporate the team teaching and character traits that go hand in hand with winning.”
“I think our baserunning scheme is unique,” Vittorio said, “so the first 15 minutes of each team practice is spent on that. It's so important for us to get to second and third base in our program and with the new bats.”
“The '6 minute mile' has become legendary here [at Kent State],” said Stricklin. “It's not something our players look forward to necessarily, but it’s a test where we are. It's tough, but if you're in good shape and a good athlete, you should be able to do it.”
Tim Corbin helped Vanderbilt punch its sixth straight ticket to an NCAA Regional in his 11th year at the helm in 2012. Just one year removed from the Commodores' first trip to the College World Series, Corbin has tutored eight players that are now in the Major Leagues.
Tony Vittorio's 2012 University of Dayton baseball team played in their first-ever NCAA Regional after winning both the Atlantic 10 regular season and tournament championships. UD also led the nation in stolen bases.
In addition to a trip to the 2012 College World Series, Scott Stricklin has led Kent State has to five NCAA Regionals. He has won three Mid-American Conference Coach of the Year Awards and one ABCA Mideast Region Coach of the Year Award.
Greg Goff guided Campbell to a 41-18 record in 2012. It was the Fighting Camels' first 40-win season in their program history.