By Jonathan Snyder
The true effectiveness of a coach cannot be measured by simply looking at a box score or a win-loss record.
You must look at how he unites a team, bringing different personalities together for one common goal. You need to observe how he responds to the hard times, how he carries himself under pressure. The steps a coach takes toward preparing for game day alongside the temperament shown by him throughout need to be examined if he is to be revered.
A team out of practice is a recipe for disaster. Cedarville head baseball coach Matt Richter sees is a leader who sees the importance of keeping players disciplined throughout the spring. Fundamentals are drilled into the team until they become second nature.
Before practice starts, Richter will sometimes address the team about weaknesses that need fixed. He also gives the team some words of encouragement before they start working. Depending on the performance of the recent series, Richter may also point out specific game situations the team needs improvement at during this losing season.
“Even though it looks like some things have been bleak and are really tough, there could be a lot of good ahead, we just have to keep walking,” said Richter.
Position players, pitchers and catchers separate at practice. Pitchers work on their form by tossing the ball between their partner, continuously pointing out the minor flaws. Position players see a near endless slew of ground balls and short flies, each one forcing players to work on their forehand catching, backhand catching and reading each bounce.
When the Cedarville Yellow Jackets take to practice, input from coaches can be mixed. Richter stresses that the players have their own personal goals that they want to hit. When things are going well, Richter avoids changing something that could turn the tide away from success. When things are going wrong then Richter will have more input.
The Jackets also showcase their own desire to improve in their feedback with the coaching staff. When players recognize that they are falling short of their own expectations, they will look to the coaches for help. If a player is struggling with a breaking ball, they will ask coaches for that specific pitch to be thrown.
“The guys are very open to input,” Richter said. “It’s a combination of guys hungry to get better but also guys knowing that they have coaches who see things and want to help them.”
Senior infielder and pitcher Micah Stewart sees the hunger to improve every time the Jackets practice. Throughout the year, Stewart has seen Richter get involved with the practices, sometimes getting on the field himself and doing a demonstration of something he sees that needs improvement.
“It’s not improving ourselves for the sake of ourselves,” Stewart said. “We all come in and work hard inside and outside of practice. We will put in work outside of official times, with guys getting extra time in the cage and extra lifts, all for the benefit of the team.”
Depending on the time of year, practices might be quite different for Cedarville. During the fall, Richter will put on high-intensity workouts to improve the overall athleticism of his guys. Consistent weightlifting and conditioning are critical to building a healthy foundation that the players can improve with.
When springtime hits, practices turn from high-intensity athletic improvement to maintenance mode. There is a large focus on shoring up the finer aspects of defensive work, like fielding bouncing balls and taking good routes to fly balls in the outfield. The skill work required to be a good fielder and hitter never takes a day off, and situational play is kept in the limelight.
With things currently in maintenance mode, practices start out at a slower pace. Players are avoiding throwing the ball with bullet-like velocity, instead choosing to make sure their arms and shoulders are warmed up before whipping the ball around the park. This, combined with a roster that does not have as many players as their Great Midwest Athletic Conference foes, and pacing the team becomes critical.
The ability to recover from the previous weekend’s games, travel fatigue and a small roster forces Richter to keep things light to not risk injury. Small rosters lead to a host of problems in pitching depth and roster makeup. With the smaller group, injuries and academic suspensions become more devastating and practices need to be kept lighter to not risk burning players out.
“With as many games as we play, we have to go lighter with them,” Richter said. “We are just trying to keep them healthy, recovering and maintaining form. If we had a bigger roster, we would have a number of guys still in developmental mode, they would be working on speed and arm strength because they aren’t playing very much.”
This small roster also forces some players to head out of their comfort zone and take on responsibilities that are almost foreign to them. Stewart is a natural infielder but thanks to some injuries to the pitching staff, he has gone to the mound to pitch in some cases.
“I’m not the only position player who will pitch,” Stewart said. “But we are really just looking to fill the gap and do whatever we can to help the team.”
While the players still work through their academic commitments, Richter and his staff also do their homework on the opposition. Richter uses a platform that automatically reads different situations and sorts them accordingly with immense detail. If Richter wanted to see how right-handed hitters perform against breaking balls on 2-1 counts in the middle innings at night, Richter can find those clips.
“There is such a thing as giving our players too much information,” Richter said. “We are working on finding the balance between what they need to figure out themselves, and what we can give them ahead of time that will actually help.”
These situations that Richter sees are emulated in practice. Richter tries to find improvement by mixing the practice schedule up in both mental intensity and in timing. Sometimes Richter will keep things lighter when the Jackets are hitting, with guys allowed 25 to 30 swings to get things right. Other times, Richter will simulate game-time pressure, with guys only getting one or two swings before they move on.
“Just going through the motions of taking a bunch of swings doesn’t get you ready for the game,” Richter said. “Anything we can do to add some pressure will help because the game is filled with pressure moments, and guys need to meet the standard under pressure.”
Richter also draws on experiences from the past to concoct an ideal plan to get his team ready. Richter cites his outline for things to ensure game preparation and evaluation from his experience at the University of Arizona. The key for Richter, however, to keep his players engaged is to keep things fresh. Richter tries to cover all his bases, while differing his outline from day to day.
Equipment can only get a team so far though, and while the Jackets have put in the effort, the results have not gone their way. The Jackets are currently 12-34 heading into the final series of the season against Findlay, while sitting at the bottom of the GMAC standings.
While people would see this as a result of a major talent gap between the elite of the GMAC and Cedarville, Richter sees something different. Even though this year has been tough for the Jackets, Richter still sees potential in his returning players. He points to times where they have kept games close against other GMAC teams that just got away from them in the end.
Against Ashland on March 25, the Jackets were down two runs heading into the ninth inning. Richter saw the pitching staff perform well until that point, and Richter pointed out that Cedarville needed to find ways to produce runs to take the pressure off the pitching.
“Our starting pitching will match up with any starting pitching staff in the conference,” he said. “It’s not even a question. Our one, two, and three pitchers can go up against other one, two and three in the conference and keep us in ball games.”
Richter has the drive and determination to see Cedarville’s baseball program become a powerhouse. Even though it will take time, he is fully committed to the program and seeing his players improve over time. With a total of 17 freshman being a part of the program next year, Richter is starting to build a solid foundation to turn Cedarville’s fortunes around.
“At this point if you are looking at our record, without knowing the makeup of the team and what our true potential is, with this being Richter’s first year it doesn’t look great,” Stewart said. “It’s very tough to come in as a coach with a culture of guys that has been around for 15-plus years and turn it around overnight. I’m very confident that Richter has us on the right path, these underclassmen are going to be the leaders through next couple of years, and I’m confident that these guys are buying in.”
“Anybody who looks at our schedule will see that this is a bad year,” Richter said. “The goal is that we finish better than we started. We wanted to be playing our best baseball in April and we are playing our best baseball now.”