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.

 

The Weekend Preview: May 2

The playoff field is set for next weekend, but not every question has been answered. This weekend’s schedule is light on NESCAC games, with only three makeup games on the docket, so we’ll focus on the Saturday doubleheader between Bates, who is playing in its first NESCAC tournament, and Tufts which will decide where the NESCAC playoffs are to be held. Aside from that matchup, there are some interesting East vs. West games coming up this weekend that we’ll take a peek at.

Who’s Number One: #9 Tufts (27-4, 8-2) at Bates (18-14, 6-4)

The Jumbos travel to Lewiston for the completion of a series that Tufts’ took the opener of way back on the first weekend of NESCAC play, 2-0. That game was played in Medford due to weather, and Kyle Slinger ’15 struck out 11 Bobcats through seven innings before phenom Tim Superko ’17 tossed two dominant frames for his first career save.
The situation this time around is simple. If Tufts wins one game, the NESCAC tourney will be played in Medford, but if Bates can sweep the Jumbos at home then the rest of the playoff field will be heading north. And for those who are wondering, the #9 next to Tufts is their national ranking according to D3baseball. The Jumbos are the only team from the NESCAC to receive votes this week. After a terrible 1-6 Georgia trip, Bates has been coming on strong down the stretch. The team’s only back-to-back losses since the beginning of April occurred this past Tuesday and Wednesday on the road at Fisher and #5 Southern Maine.

A certain amount of strategy figures to come into effect for the first game of the doubleheader this weekend. Brad Reynolds ’14 of Bates has been an animal for the Bobcats in 2014, winning the series opener against Bowdoin, Trinity and Colby. Reynolds lost last time out against Tufts, but pitched well, allowing two runs in seven innings. Reynolds has been employed for the nine-inning series openers all season, but head coach Mike Leonard will have to treat these two games like a playoff series if he intends to play for the chance to host, as I suspect he will. It’s only the first game of the doubleheader, but Reynolds gives Bates the best chance to win, so don’t be surprised if Reynolds trots out there with the expectation of throwing a complete seven-inning game.

Superko has been the seven-inning man for Tufts, and I see no reason why Tufts should change what’s been working, unless head coach John Casey decides to hand the ball to his senior, Christian Sbily ’14, and give him the chance to win home field advantage, or opts to go with his most dominant arm and NESCAC ERA leader Slinger for the seven-inning game.Depending on who wins the first game, the second game could either mean everything or nothing at all. All hands should be on deck as long as the top seed is in the balance, so whoever doesn’t start for Tufts will likely see action out of the bullpen. What makes the Jumbos so great is that they could trot out any one of four powerful arms – Sbily, Slinger, Superko or Tom Ryan ’15 – and still be expected to win.

As for Bates, if they can steal game one, the ball ought to go to Will Levangie ’15 in the second game because he owns a 1.78 ERA. But Levangle has only gone more than five innings once this season, so the rest of the staff, including Anthony Telesca ’17 (1.69 ERA) will need to be ready to go.

In the end, Tufts is too balanced and too good to let Bates win two games in one day, so expect the road to the title to go through Medford. You can take a look at the Bates’ perspective of the coming series here.

Around the ‘CAC

Hamilton heads to Williams tonight to finish their series begun last Sunday. With the win, Williams will finish its NESCAC season with a winning record. The live stream can be found here.

After a Friday game with Lasell, Colby will take to the road for a doubleheader with Amherst on Saturday (video). Colby was knocked out of the playoffs last weekend, and would love to make a statement against one of the West representatives.

Trinity and Wesleyan are also playing a cross-divisional doubleheader on Saturday (video). It’s been a disappointing season for Trinity, but a couple wins against in-state rival Wesleyan would go a long way towards ending the year on a high note.

Middlebury will finish off its long season this weekend by hosting Bowdoin for a doubleheader on Saturday and Tufts on Sunday. It will be interesting to see how Tufts employs its staff on Sunday after Saturday’s meaningful match ups.

A few more non-conference games will be played this weekend. Hamilton travels to SUNYIT on Saturday for a doubleheader and will play host to SUNY Canton on Sunday. Springfield heads to Williams for two on Saturday, while Suffolk will visit the Ephs on Sunday. UMass-Boston will play two with Amherst on Sunday as well, and Bowdoin will head to St. Joseph’s on Sunday, a team that the Polar Bears beat 11-6 earlier this season. The biggest non-NESCAC game of the weekend comes on Sunday when #24 Eastern Connecticut heads to Middletown to play Wesleyan at 1 PM on Sunday.

Make sure to tune in for what promises to be an intense matchup in Lewiston on Saturday. The conference’s top seed hangs in the balance.