Whole New Game
By Michael Perry
In his first year as Xavier’s head baseball coach, Scott Googins’ recruiting pitch went something like this: “Come to Xavier and you have a chance to play right away.”
Four years later, it’s changed to: “Come to Xavier and be part of a winning program.”
“Even if you’re playing every day and getting your tail kicked, it’s no fun,” Googins says. “Players want to be part of a championship team.”
That’s the offer now. Xavier’s baseball program is coming off the best season in its history, finishing 39-21 and setting a school record for most victories. The team won its first Atlantic 10 Conference tournament title and earned its first ever NCAA Tournament appearance.
“In any sport, it’s easy to be good for a day or two or have a real good year,” Googins says. “The big step for us now is to be consistent.”
They’re on their way, due in large part to Googins. The 43-year-old first-time head coach inherited a program that had not finished with an overall winning record since 1998. He turned that around in a hurry, going 54-27 in Atlantic 10 play over the last three years, winning 17, 19 and 18 games respectively and advancing to the six-team conference tourney each year. He was named Atlantic 10 Coach of the Year in 2008 after leading the Musketeers to a share of the regular-season championship. And he’s done all this while purposefully putting together a more demanding non-conference schedule.
“I remember standing in front of the team that first year saying we could have something special,” Googins says. “But we would invent ways to lose. Now we’re finding ways to win. Our confidence level is so different. It’s a whole different mindset.”
Googins’ secret: Hard work and enthusiasm. The coaches require only two days of weightlifting a week. Some players, though, started lifting four times a week—and experiencing success. That led to others doing the same. “It’s that type of stuff that is contagious,” says Googins. “Now all of a sudden out of 32 guys, we have 19 guys lifting four days a week. It’s really snowballed. I still think we have a ways to go, but the buy-in is getting better.”
It all paid off in May when Xavier competed in the NCAA Tournament. Although they were eventually eliminated by perennial power and host Rice University, the players were not intimidated. Instead they were relaxed, energized, confident. “We felt we were going to surprise some people and maybe win that regional,” Googins says.
Now, he adds, “The guys are hungrier to get back to that level again.”
The success has also helped the program gain credibility—and recognition. The Musketeers had three players sign professional contracts this year—junior pitcher Danny Rosenbaum was picked by the Washington Nationals in the 22nd round of the Major League Baseball draft in June, and senior catcher Billy O’Conner and senior pitcher Jordan Conley signed as free agents.
As Googins sits in his office recounting the season, he sounds excited, like he can’t wait to start the 2010 season. And it’s only late July, less than two months since the NCAA loss to Rice.
“I haven’t taken a day off since the tournament ended,” Googins says. “I’ve been doing something every day for the program, and it doesn’t even feel like work right now. When things are going well, you just want to keep that momentum going and stay with it.”