New Coach on the Block: A Profile of Middlebury’s Mike Leonard

 Middlebury’s athletic program is rock solid. To be fair, I’m a student here, but to be objective – if objectivity still exists – Sports Illustrated recently gave us the title of the 8th-ranked school in the country for sports lovers. The Panthers have won 7 national championships in the last 10 years – roll Pants. But none of them have been in baseball. Many of our teams have a gaudy reputation both on campus and around the country. Historically, the baseball team has not been one of them.

Enter new head coach Mike Leonard. Coach Leonard, not surprisingly, is a ball player. He caught at UConn and was All Big-East. He went on to play in the Cape Cod League for the Harwich Mariners, and made it as far as the AA Portland Sea Dogs, before taking his batter’s eye from the batter’s box to the dugout (yes, that’s the corniest sentence I’ve ever written). In six seasons as the head coach at Bates, Leonard won over 20 games three times, and compiled 114 wins overall.

Leonard regards both his team and Middlebury’s reputation in a way that speaks towards a bright future for his baseball program. He sees the success of a team in much more than a record. When asked about the health of the program he was inheriting, Coach Leonard said, “I don’t know that the program itself has been struggling…for me personally to judge the program on just wins and losses wasn’t fair.”

I for one, had simply assumed that the program was a weak one. Leonard, as well as the performance of his team this year, have challenged that assumption.

He referenced the attitude of his players, as they situate themselves within the athletic culture at Midd, “They’re certainly ready to join the other teams on campus who are winning NESCAC titles and national championships…They were ready to put in the work, and they have the leadership and direction to get there…I’m excited.”

This is not to say that Middlebury’s new coach is unconcerned about record. After all, any team needs tallies in the win column to make the NESCAC tournament – to do so consistently is one of his goals – but it seems he wants so much more out of his players than just wins. As Leonard put it, “from an identity standpoint I want us to be resilient, confident, regardless of results, regardless of past outcomes.”

As far as young talent is concerned, Middlebury has plenty of it. But Leonard referenced the leadership of his seniors as the key to the team’s success. He said, “One of my messages to the seniors was to always include and empower the first year guys, because if you’re a senior you want to go out on top, and if that means that a freshman can go out and hit a grand slam and help you beat Amherst (Justin!); you’ve gotta be invested in that.”

The level of responsibility placed on senior leaders like Jason Lock ’17 and Ryan Rizzo ’17 has paid off in more ways than one. Not only are several young players playing fantastic baseball, but Rizzo and Lock are both having career seasons. But again, it’s not about the numbers. He sees not only young players playing to their full potential, but perhaps more importantly, he sees that “our seniors have done a great job of kind of putting ego aside and really trying to make it feel like one cohesive unit, one family.”

An excellent example of Coach Leonard’s philosophy shining through was first year Justin Han’s go-ahead grand slam against Amherst last weekend. It is just one of many instances of clutch hitting or solid performances off the mound from young Middlebury players this season. Leonard preaches discipline at the plate and in the game itself, and truly believes that that is the way to success.

He puts competition and cohesion before wins and losses, saying, “We’re sitting here right now at 6-10 with 8 losses by two runs or less. We’ve put ourselves in a position to compete. I want us to continue to be that type of team as long as I’m here.”

With greater emphasis on things like grit, commitment, and leadership, the Middlebury baseball team is already putting itself in position to be successful. As Mike Leonard himself said, judging a program based on number of wins alone isn’t fair. But by taking that perspective to heart, and by nurturing the relationships within his team, especially between the upper- and lower class-men, Middlebury is poised to add significantly to that win count.

Those among us without Coach Leonard’s perspective, those who prioritize victory in their judgement of a team, may soon enough count the Middlebury baseball team among the other consistent winners on campus.


A Fan’s Perspective on the Beginning of the Kevin App Era

Editors Note: As most NESCAC men’s basketball fans (and all readers of our blog) already know, a mass exodus occurred from Williamstown, MA this offseason. Seniors Michael Mayer and Taylor Epley graduated after combining for 32.0 PPG and 11.9 RPG. On top of that loss,  NESCAC Rookie of the Year and Second-Teamer Duncan Robinson transferred to Michigan, and head coach Mike Maker stepped down after six years at the helm and three Final Fours in order to take a Division-I head coaching job at Marist. Stepping into Maker’s shoes is his former assistant Kevin App.

Coach App played college ball at Cornell University where he was named tri-captain during his senior season. He got his first coaching gig as an assistant to Maker in 2008-09, then returned to his alma mater for one season before spending the last four years as an assistant at the United States Military Academy under head coach Zach Spiker, who coached App for three seasons at Cornell. Of all his stops as a coach so far, Williams held a special place in his heart.

“”I really didn’t apply for the job simply because I wanted to be a head coach,” App said. “I really applied because ever since I was assistant there, it’s been my dream to be the head coach at Williams College. I didn’t know — or think — I would get the opportunity this early.”

And these aren’t just idle words. App met his wife, formerly Katelyn Brochu, at Williams in his one year there. So Williams fans have reason to hope that App will be in Williamstown for a good long time.

On the departure of Robinson, App has a positive outlook.

“Now, we can kind of focus on the guys that will be there and start planning accordingly knowing exactly who’s going to be there,” App said. “It just gives other guys opportunities to step into bigger roles, which I think some of them are excited about… Even the incoming guys could be stepping into an impactful role.”

App has already been on campus, meeting with returning players and running a camp just weeks after taking the job. He’s also made his excitement about his new home clear via Twitter.

The new coach has announced his first hire, Mick Hedgepeth. Hedgepeth is a former player at Belmont University who played overseas in Spain after graduation. App hopes to have his entire staff in place by the first of September.

Lastly, we wish a happy 29th birthday to Coach App, and the best of luck at Williams.

Courtesy of Williams College Athletics

This has been a tough offseason for the fans of the Williams College basketball team, losing both their coach and star player to the bright lights of Division One. In order to get a more direct perspective on this trying period in Williamstown, I turned to my close high school friend (and rising sophomore at Williams) David Burt, a precocious math major, passionate basketball fan and average Mario Kart player. Burt and I sat down to discuss these matters in his basement, over a rousing game of NBA 2K14.

Peter: Okay, I’m sitting here with David Burt, my friend who goes to Williams College-

David: Wait they’re listening to this whole thing? The interview is going on the blog?

P: No, no, I’m transcribing it later.

D: So why are you talking like that then?

P: I was just setting it up a little, getting in the zone…whatever, can we just get started here?

D: Fine, fine.

P: First of all, can I run you a bath, or get you a drink or something? I know this offseason must have been a trying time for you.

D: I definitely do not want a bath from you, no. Thanks though.

P: What are your thoughts on the Williams offseason?

D: There are obviously a lot of questions about next year, but I think it speaks to how strong the program has been in the last few years that our coach [Mike Maker] and Duncan are both going to D-1 schools.

P: That exposure should also help with recruiting in the future, as Williams is much higher profile now due to the Division One attention.

D: Yeah, I would assume so.

P: You mentioned Coach Maker in there, what are your thoughts on the new coach, Kevin App? He’s been kind of a man of mystery on this blog; we haven’t really done anything on him yet, although I understand he doesn’t have much head coaching experience.

D: He hasn’t ever been a head coach is my understanding, but he was at Williams as an assistant, so in some sense he’s coming back, and he’s been with a couple Division One programs as an assistant. Cornell and the US Military Academy, I believe. I think he [Coach App] is young, and will bring a lot of energy to the program, which again should be a good factor in recruiting. (Coughs loudly and obtrusively) Don’t worry, just choking on some popcorn.

P: We’ve got Smart Food down here, he requested it as compensation.

D: I think it was more of a demand than a request…

P: Anyway, the big story coming out of the Williams offseason was Duncan Robinson’s transfer to Michigan, and, honestly how do you think he’s going to do there? We haven’t had a lot of discussion about that yet, we’ve been more focusing on the effects it has on NESCAC, but it’s certainly exciting to imagine. Can he play with those D1 guys?

D: Clearly he was different, you could tell as soon as he stepped on the court at Williams that he was the best guy. It’s hard to say, but with the year off to develop, the future looks bright.

P: Yeah that’s one thing I was thinking as I was reading the article on Robinson, this year off could be the best thing for him. A year to practice against his seasoned D1 teammates, and get his quickness and defense up to that level will be huge for his development.

D: Definitely. Offensively I think most everyone who watched him last year can imagine him being a Division One level player.

P: He was definitely special.

D: Question. If I say “off the record,” will it actually be off the record?

P: Of course. If you say that, I won’t put it in the piece.

D: That’s cool, I like that.


P: Do you have something to say off the record?

D: Oh not at all, I was just wondering.

P: Okay, cool. It would be huge for NESCAC if Robinson did well there also, just for respect and exposure purposes. From watching NESCAC basketball the last couple of years, you have a basic knowledge of the rest of the league, so how do you think the league shakes out with these changes in Williamstown?

D: Amherst looks good-

P: Way to earn the Smart Food, stellar analysis there, Tim McCarver.

D: Let me finish. Williams is definitely a wild card, it would be hard to imagine a NESCAC season without them being in the mix at the end, but some things will definitely have to work out. Middlebury is also something of a wild card, they have a lot a talent and returning starters, but the inconsistency from last year has to get worked out. Tufts will also be in the mix. I think Amherst has to come in as the favorite, as much as I hate to say it. And I do HATE to say it.

P: More than anything. Yeah, I actually expect Tufts to be excellent this year, almost all of their key players are coming back. I could see them finishing first or second in the league, and certainly being above Williams and Middlebury in preseason rankings. I would still have to put Amherst at number one though, which is just terrible.

D: Sucks. Completely unbiased note here, Amherst is awful.

P: Well, those were David Burt’s illuminating comments. David just spilled a ton of Smart Food on the floor, so we’re going to go deal with that situation now. Thanks for reading.