Just like his broken-in glove, Cole Irick found the perfect fit for a college where he can continue both his academic and baseball-playing endeavors.
Actually, the Camden High School senior and shortstop found all he was looking for in a college home two years ago. But his commitment to Charleston Southern University did not become official until Irick signed a National Letter of Intent with the school on Nov. 12.
Inside a meeting room located inside the CHS library which was jammed with his family, teammates and coaches, Irick was all smiles as the day he dreamed about since he a young boy had finally arrived.
"This is a dream come true," Irick said while decked out in a dress shirt and bowtie. "I fell in love with the school the first time that I visited it. I had a few other offers but I’ve been committed to Charleston Southern since the beginning of my sophomore year. They were the first school that was interested in me."
The Buccaneers are coming off their first winning season since 1996 and Stuart Lake’s program, as well as the school itself, were exactly what Irick was looking for in his search for a school. The chance to play Division I baseball, he said, also factored into his decision. "The signing of the letter is one of the biggest days of a young athlete’s life. Being able to play Division I baseball is awesome," he said with a smile.
"The coaches are absolutely wonderful. They are good coaches and they teach fundamentals the right way," Irick continued. "The university is Baptist so, I know that I will keep straight with everything; my mind will be in the right place and it will keep me out of trouble."
A three-year starting shortstop for Denny Beckley’s Bulldogs, Irick is coming off a junior campaign in which he batted at a .298 clip with four doubles while swiping 18 of 22 bases and scoring a team-best 22 runs. In his first three seasons of high school baseball, the 5-10, 160-pounder has batted for a .299 average with seven doubles, having stolen 39 bases in 44 attempts and scoring 59 runs.
What those numbers cannot measure, Beckley said, is the heart of a young man who loves to play the game.
"Cole is a guy who has an unbelievable passion for the game of baseball," said the Bulldog boss. "I remember watching him when he was nine and 10 years old and seeing him do things in travel ball tournaments that made me recognize, right away, that he was a special talent.
"He has an unbelievable work ethic. He really enjoys the game and I think that is something which has made him a very good player, along with his talent. When you mix that in the passion and the work ethic, along with talent, then you have got yourself a special player which is what Cole is."
Camden High assistant coach, Tony Hough, started coaching Irick when the newly minted CSU signee was nine years old. He has continued coaching him in summer and fall leagues, including a recently completed fall campaign in which Irick was selected to play for the Kansas City Royals’ scout team and went up against junior college and two-year college teams and players and Irick more than held his own in those games.
What Hough has seen from Irick is a player who has let the game come to him as opposed to trying to force things to happen.
"In the last few years," Hough said, "Cole has really matured as a baseball player. He’s become more baseball-savvy. He thinks about strategy more than he used to.
"Cole used to go out there and play wide-open. He was one of those kids who would always come home filthy after a ballgame. Now, he’s thinking ahead and is more involved in what’s going on in the game. He’s trying to pick up his own pitcher’s signals so he might have an idea about where the batter might hit the ball and he can position himself better."
Irick is a player who gets the most out of his speed. He has refined his bunting skills and with a quick first step out of the box, no infield grounder is a sure out with him darting down the first base line.
In another era in baseball, such talents may have been overlooked by college coaches looking for the big bopper who could turn a fastball into a three-run homer. But since the advent of the less-springy bats at the high school and college level, players who can leg out hits are back in vogue.
"First of all, Cole is extremely fast," Beckley said in assessing how Irick’s talents relate to the college game. "The game of baseball has changed a lot over the past three or four years with the new bats and his style of play is more accustomed to the changes that have been made. He’s a small-ball kind of guy; he bunts for hits and he steals bases. Those are the kind of things that colleges are looking for more nowadays than they did in the past."
"My strengths are my speed and my defensive skills. Those are what have carried me through this far," Irick said. "I need to improve with my hitting. Last year was a decent year for me, but I still have to get better there."
One thing which Hough said continues to impress him in regard to Irick is that he is one of those players who, in spite of their success, does not think he has the entire game of baseball figured out.
"I’ve played Cole just about every position on the field; from third base to catcher to middle infield to outfield and to this year, where he may have to pitch for us some in high school," Hough said. "He’s the type of kid who will work hard wherever you put him.
"He’s also very coachable. Anything you tell him to do, he’s going to do it. He realizes that we may know a little more about baseball than he does and he’s willing to take that advice and work hard to make an improvement in his game. He’s also the kind of player who all coaches want to have on their team."
For his part, Irick said there is still plenty of learning in his future as he finishes out his Bulldogs career before going on to CSU. He said there will be dramatic changes at the college level.
"The working out every single day and practicing all year long will be different in college than in high school," he said.
"The biggest in-game change will probably be the pitching. Of course, the (pitcher’s) velocity is going to be the biggest change. The curveball you see in high school is not a quick curveball; it’s slow and it’s hanging. In college, it will only be a couple miles an hour slower than your fastball but will have a three-foot break on it."
Beckley said that while Irick has had a taste of what the game will be like in college after having played travel league ball in the summer and fall, Irick will be playing catch up once at CSU as his older teammates have already learned in the intricacies of the college game. Beckley said that being the quick learner Irick is, he should not have many problems adjusting to the pace of play at the next level.
"The game is going to be faster so, he’s not going to have the same advantages that Cole has had in high school," Beckley said. "He is going to have to learn to read pitchers better and be able to pick up on the little things that catchers do in the college game and see what he can take advantage of to enhance his skills.
"One of the positives for Cole is that he has always been able to hit velocity pitching very well. I don’t think pitchers who throw harder will affect him very much at all. In fact, it might help him."
While Irick expects to be used as a middle infielder at CSU, Beckley said he could see a scenario in which Lake and company would take advantage of Irick’s speed and give him a long look in center field. Whether or not that comes to fruition, however, is for another day.
Right now, Irick said he is putting college on the back burner as he and his Bulldog teammates get closer to taking to the practice field in preparation for the 2015 campaign. He will go into the season with a clear head with his college plans signed sealed and delivered.
"It takes a lot of stress and pressure off, but it also brings expectations with it," he said of being a college signee before your senior season. "Of course, you are going to have expectations going into your senior year and, I’m ready to fulfill those."