Photo credit: Joseph Trent Dees
First year Cougar baseball coach Todd Whitting sat down with SBNation Houston's Dustin Rensink recently. Here's what he had to say.
SBNation Houston: It's your first year as a head coach, you're taking over a program that's had back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since the '70s, so what would you say your expectations for the team are in year one?
Todd Whitting: The expectations for our team - as always - will be to put ourselves in position to be an at-large team in the NCAA tournament. That's the ultimate goal. However, we're working daily, and the last two years, I haven't even talked to the team about it. I haven't even really talked to the team about the great tradition of this program - all the Super Regionals, all the guys in the big leagues, the Team USA players, all the championships - that's not something we discuss. All we're doing is looking at the next practice. That's our main thing. The next practice gets us closer to the next game, and then once the game starts, it's pitch-by-pitch. It's a mindset that our team has taken well to. We have a saying in our program: "The Next 200 Feet." And the analogy is the headlights on your car, you can only see 200 feet in front of you. You can't see left, you can't see right, you can't see behind you. You just concentrate on what's right ahead of you, and that's what we do day to day.
SBNation Houston: You talked about the mindset, and with the team coming off those back-to-back losing seasons, and a lot of the players have been through that, especially the way the last season ended, with a couple of bad losses in the conference tournament, so was there a mentality that you had to replace when you got here, a bad mentality from all of the losing that's been going on the last couple of years?
Todd Whitting: Like I told the team on Day One, these guys are all my players now. They're my players, and our coaching staff's players. And I'm not holding them hostage to anything that went on last year. To be honest with you, I haven't looked at many of the stats from last year. Everything that's going to happen, the line-up that's going to be written on Day One, is going to be based on what's happening in practice. Players write the line-up out by the way they perform in practice, not how they performed last year. And I think the kids are appreciative of that. They have a lot of pride. Any time you're dealing with athletes, you're talking about prideful people, and they want to win. There's a process to winning, I think our coaches have done a tremendous job of preparing this team for the first game. And we do have our issues with depth, which is a concern, and it is reality, you have to face it. But it's something that we're tackling head-on, and we're looking forward to the first game.
SBNation Houston: So it is a team that, like you said, depth may be an issue. You have a lot of unproven players, and you've got a very ambitious schedule in front of you this year, with TCU, Ole Miss, the Houston College Classic, and even some teams like Texas State and Kent State that are expected to win their conferences. Would you say that's going to be the M.O. of the coaching staff in the years to come, to put together a real competitive, tough schedule like that every year?
Todd Whitting: We'll always play a competitive schedule. Like I said, we're trying to put ourselves in position to be an at-large team in the NCAA tournament. If we don't win the Conference USA tournament title, which is the automatic berth, we want to be in position to be an at-large team. So you have to play a great schedule. But to me, there's no game on our schedule that's bigger than the one we're playing that day. I don't circle games on the schedule, and say, "Hey, this game's a big game, that game's a big game." In college baseball, they're all big. You have 56 games, you gotta try to pile up as many wins as you can. The actual game itself, the mentality we try to put on our team is there's no difference between an inter-squad on a Thursday afternoon in the fall than there is in playing a Super Regional, or in Omaha. The game is the same. There's no change in the game. The only thing that changes is the environment around it. And what we have to learn to handle is the environment around the game.
SBNation Houston: In terms of recruiting, it seems like you've really hit the ground running, you've got 14 players signed already for next year's class, and you haven't even coached a game yet. So, as far as being at UH again, what would you say is the biggest asset the school has to offer in terms of what you can pitch to a kid when you're recruiting him, and what is the biggest challenge in recruiting to UH?
Todd Whitting: Well, Trip Couch has led our recruiting efforts, and done a tremendous job. And that's why he was my A, #1 choice for recruiting coordinator. He should get a lot of the praise for the foundation that was built here back in the mid- and late-nineties. He was the recruiting coordinator at that time, he's been a scout with the Diamondbacks for the last few years. At the University of Houston, there really are no challenges to recruiting here. Because if you're a recruit - they're all looking for the same thing. They're looking for commitment to the program, and Dr. Khator, Mack Rhoades, and our entire athletics department staff are committed to winning here. They're looking for the opportunity to earn a great degree. University of Houston is now a Tier One university. You can get a great degree at the University of Houston. We play in a warm weather part of the country. It's not cold here. We live in a recruiting base where there's tremendous players in the Houston area. So all the things that a player would look for, you can find them all here at the University of Houston. And all kids want to know that you are committed, and that you are putting their best interests out front, and they want development on the field, and development off the field. And that's what we're all about.
SBNation Houston: One of the big stories this off-season in college baseball has been the new bats. How much of an impact do you think that's going to have on college baseball in general, and how much of an impact will it have on UH specifically?
Todd Whitting: College baseball, to me, is an offensive game. By deadening the bats, I think they've changed our game tremendously. It's a game that does rely on offense, and the fans love to see offense, but the bat changes are what they are. I think you're going to see more traditional-type baseball, and instead of sitting back waiting to hit the three-run homer, you're going to have to manage more. You're going to have to move runners over, you're going to have to have guys who have the ability to move around the bases, to execute a hit and run, to get a bunt down, all of the things that are so fun about baseball. So it's going to be more of a traditional game than it has been in the past.
SBNation Houston: How much would you say you have a good handle on what the pitching roles will be for this team, and how much of that is going to be something that's going to have to get played our over the course of the year, in terms of who is your Friday guy, who's your Saturday guy, who's your closer?
Todd Whitting: It's the same way with any program, whatever the lineup is on Day One, it never stays that way throughout the year. Pitching rotations are included in that. We're going to go (Codey) Morehouse on Friday, we're going to go Jordan Lewis on Saturday, and right now we're "To Be Announced" on Sunday. We haven't named a Sunday starter yet. We're going to put the emphasis on the first two games. And if we're in position to win a game on Friday or Saturday, we'll fire the best bullet out of the bullpen that we have to help us win that game.
SBNation Houston: I read the preview on UHCougars.com, they said that David Murphy was injured until mid-season. I showed up to the Alumni Game, and he hit a three-run homer. So is he at 100%?
Todd Whitting: David Murphy has made a miraculous recovery. He had a foot injury in the fall that we thought was going to be devestating, but the docs did a great job, he had surgery on it, he's way ahead of schedule in his recovery, and he's available this weekend and ready to go.
SBNation Houston: One last question, this may be oddly specific, but it's been kind of a sore spot around here with some of the fans, so I just want to ask - we've got some two-way guys here, guys like Morehouse, Matt Creel - what's your position on bringing a guy in, if he's been in the field all game, to come in and pitch in late innings?
Todd Whitting: I can tell you this, with the issues we have with pitching depth, anybody on our team who has ever pitched, in high school or in college, is available to pitch at this point. That's where we're at. With two-way guys, you never want their secondary to take away from their primary. Any kids in our program who are primary pitchers and secondary position players, their focus is going to be on the mound. It has to be for us to have enough innings to get through games. There are a few two-way players on this team. I'm not opposed to having two-way players, I've always had 'em. So it's going to be a way of life in Cougar baseball this season.
Pitching coach Jack Cressend was also kind enough to answer a few questions via e-mail. Here's what he had to say.
SBNation Houston: How much of a concern is pitching depth for the Cougars this year?
Jack Cressend: I am not real concerned at this point. We have enough arms to go out and compete for 56 games. Our guys have a great opportunity this year to get a lot of work, and that should continue to create a competitive atmosphere, which is always good.
SBNation Houston: After putting up a Freshman All-American season in 2008, Chase Dempsay has struggled to put forth that kind of production the last two years. What does he have to do to get back to that 2008 form?
Jack Cressend: I think Chase Dempsay will have a great year. He has dealt with some lingering shoulder issues during the fall and early Spring, but he is on track to be ready for Opening Day. He has the ability to be at the top of our pitching staff, and I look for him to get back to his freshman form. He just has to trust himself and realize how good he can be.
SBNation Houston: Houston pitchers walked a staggering 6 batters per 9 innings in 2010. How big of an emphasis has throwing strikes been for you since you were hired, and how big of an improvement is this team capable of in that area?
Jack Cressend: It has been the single biggest point of emphasis since I was hired. I preach it every day, and our guys know that strike-throwers will pitch the most. I have worked hard with these guys to change their mindset and attack the zone. I think some of them were pitching away from contact and we want to do the exact opposite. Force contact early in the count and use our defense. I think our fans will see a big improvement in that area across the board.