Recruiting in college baseball is already a pretty tough endeavor. You have to balance the players available with your roster needs for the coming season. You have to make sure you stay under the scholarship limit, and that you are giving each player at least the amount of aid required by NCAA rule. That’s to say nothing of the entire player evaluation process that comes before scholarships can even be offered to anyone.
Then there are a number of variables that you can throw on top of those challenges that can make the process even more difficult. If you’re a prestigious academic institution, it can be difficult to find high school players that have the grades to get into school and then the aptitude to handle the academic rigors of schoolwork once he is enrolled.
If you’re a private school with high tuition rates, you have to worry about how the average student-athlete is going to be able to pay for his schooling, and what kind of additional aid the school can offer if need be. If you’re a school that forces a student-athlete to live a unique lifestyle different from what you would observe at your average big state school, you have to be extra-diligent in finding students willing to take on that lifestyle. If you’re a school in a remote geographic location, you have to deal with the relative lack of elite high school talent in your area and the threat of homesickness when you inevitably have to recruit out of the region.
When you’re the head coach at Navy, as Paul Kostacopoulos is, you have to deal with many of these challenges. For one, the Naval Academy is a selective academic institution. According to the US News & World Report, the acceptance rate is somewhere around 8%. Beyond that, Maryland is not exactly known as a state teeming with high school baseball talent in that same way that a Florida, California, or Texas is. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they have to find students who are willing to take on the lifestyle of a “plebe” at the Naval Academy and then serve their country in the Navy upon graduation.
That last criteria would seem to be the deal breaker for most players, and Kostacopoulos admits as much.
“They have to have an interest (in a service academy) to start that conversation. And if they’re not interested, it is going to be almost impossible to make them interested. There has to be a level of interest or something that sparks them to take on a unique lifestyle here,” he said.
And yet, they’ve certainly made it work. The team has routinely placed near the top of the Patriot League during his tenure and some top-level talent has flourished under Kostacopoulos, including big leaguers like Mitch Harris and Oliver Drake. Additionally, three other players from Navy have been drafted in the top 11 rounds of the draft in recent years in Preston Gainey (11th round, 2012), Alex Azor (10th round, 2012), and Stephen Moore (10th round, 2015). Those are not small feats for a service academy.
Kostacopoulos points to a number of things when reflecting on their successes in getting talent to Annapolis.
“I’d like to say that we have some exact profound formula about doing it, but we really don’t. Some of it is based on really doing a great job of following up on initial players that just have an interest in the service academies, and there are a percentage of them out there. It’s a big country, we always say, got to throw a big net. I think that is another portion of our recruiting- just dealing in huge volume as far as numbers go and letting people know that there is a viable option here. We like to work around Navy bases, with people who are familiar with the Naval Academy. We like to focus in on those areas also,” he said.
It’s also worth mentioning that, for all of the disadvantages the program has to deal with, there are some upsides as well, including that the Naval Academy is perennially mentioned among the very best universities in the country, and that the average salary for graduates is among the highest in the nation. There are also benefits that are not as easily quantified.
“You have an opportunity to serve your country and be around some of the greatest people that you will ever encounter in your life as far as commitment, work ethic, and the things that we value. Once we can get some of those kids, we can do a pretty good job with them, generally speaking. We get some highly-motivated kids, we get some guys that are willing to do some out-of-the-ordinary things. We get some really, really intelligent kids that we can ask more of, I think, sometimes. There are certainly some positives to the situation,” Kostacopoulos added.
It’s one thing to get some talent to campus, but it’s quite another to take that talent, develop it, and get the very most out of it. That’s true no matter where you go in college baseball, but it becomes exponentially more important at service academies, and not just because those schools aren’t typically recruiting upper crust high school recruits in each and every recruiting cycle.
“You have really got to be really good at developing players, simply because they don’t play summer ball here ever. They don’t get a lot of extra reps. You don’t get some of the time, probably, that other student-athletes get at a civilian school. I look at the Army program and I look at Air Force, and I think that’s what they’re doing and we’re doing that. We’ve developed some players. We’re not going to get the top top kid, but what we are going to get is a highly-motivated kid that, if you’re willing to spend some time with them and willing to develop them, you’re going to get a pretty solid player, and that’s kind of what, I think, we’re living on right now. That doesn’t mean we don’t get some talent, too, but it’s really development of players. Everyone always comments on recruiting, recruiting, recruiting, and that’s super important, but man, it’s important here to be able to develop what you have. Coach Kaz has done it at Air Force. Coach Reid will continue to do that at Army, and I think that’s the key to service academy success,” Kostacopoulos said.
Perhaps there is no greater evidence of the success that the Navy staff has had in doing so than their team from a season ago and the team they have poised to return in 2016.
Last year, the Midshipmen went 37-20 overall and 13-7 in league play, good enough to win the Patriot League regular-season crown. Three players were named to the All-Patriot League first team and two were on the second team. Ace pitcher Luke Gillingham was named the league’s Pitcher of the Year, while the team’s top hitter, Sean Trent, was named the Player of the Year. Kostacopoulos was the conference’s Coach of the Year as well. The one thing the team failed to do was reach a regional, as they were upset by second-place Lehigh in the Patriot League Championship.
Don’t look now, but the 2016 team has a chance to take care of that unfinished business and be even better. The headliners returning are the aforementioned Luke Gillingham and Sean Trent. The lefty Gillingham went 8-1 last season with an unfathomably low 1.19 ERA. If you can believe it, the numbers only get more ridiculous from there. In 83.1 innings of work, he struck out 111, walked just 14, and opposing batters hit just .151 against him. The outfielder Trent hit .407 a season ago, with 18 doubles and 42 RBI. The numbers for those two will be a tough act to follow, and Kostacopoulos is quick to say that he doesn’t want his guys trying to best 2015 as far as stats go.
“I think that’s something that we’re consciously not trying to do. We’re not trying to keep adding on to the tallest building. It’s a new year, we’ve got to kind of start over, and try not to compete with the numbers because the numbers would be really hard to compete with. If you keep trying to top four-time National Pitcher of the Week and a minuscule ERA, that’s going to be hard to do. It’s hard to get, in the Patriot League, more than 90 hits (as Trent did). It just doesn’t happen,” he said.
And with all of the talent they have returning around that pair, those guys shouldn’t feel like they have to put the entire team on their shoulders and do it on their own.
Kostacopoulos mentions a few players in particular that should be big parts of the team’s success in 2016.
“Our center fielder has been a four-year starter, Bob Currie. He just plays at a high level all the time. He doesn’t do some of those prolific things that maybe the other guys have done, but he’s as pretty good player for us. Our catcher, (Adrian) Chinnery, he has next-level talent. He has a very good arm, he’s a very good receiver. He’s a talented kid. You take a pretty good catcher with a pretty good center fielder and you start to feel better about yourself. Travis Blue will be a third-year starer at shortstop. He struggled last year offensively, but he’s the kind of guy, for whatever reason, when he’s in there, we’re better, when he’s not, we’re not. Those three guys, I think, are the kind of guys that are pretty good players that will have pretty good years and help us win some games.”
There is certainly more where that came from. Joining Gillingham among those returning to the pitching staff are dual relief aces Jett Meenach (1.99, 4 SV) and Sam Sorenson (2.58, 3 SV), along with Kyle Condry (2-5, 3.97) and George Coughlin (7-3, 4.00), who both have significant starting experience. Andrew Bartek (3.60) provides yet another experienced bullpen arm.
Offensively, in addition to Trent, Currie, Chinnery, and Blue, Connor Deneen (.278/.349/.432) and Brad Borosak (.274, 34 RBI, 15 SB) are two guys with proven track records of success.
Every great team needs breakout stars and Kostacopoulos thinks he’s got a couple of those waiting in the wings as well for good measure.
“Steve Born was a freshman last year who actually had a really good season, although very limited in the sense that, quite frankly, I didn’t realize how good he was early and then we got him in there and he played really well, and then he missed the rest of the season (with injury). I think he’s going to be a player to watch. it seems like he’s doing some pretty good things. If he can handle the environment, Noah Song could be pretty good for us, a right-handed pitcher out of California,” he added.
All of the pieces are in place for Navy to have another big season in 2016. They’ve got experience all over the field, proven commodities at just about every position, and some new faces ready to go right away. Kostacopoulos isn’t quite ready to make any grand proclamations, though, and he’s careful to mention that he and his team are just controlling what they can control.
“In 27 years of coaching, I always approach it the same way. If our process is good, our results will be good. We have a saying here- trust your training and you’re going to be okay.”