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CBD Interview with Minnesota’s John Anderson (Part 1)

College Baseball Daily kicks off our series of interviews with coaches across the country today with Minnesota’s John Anderson. The Golden Gophers are coming off a 25-24 campaign and a 14-11 mark in Big Ten conference play. In our first part of a two part interview with Coach Anderson, he discusses his expectations for the 2012 season, his strong recruiting classes, the leadership of his team, and his thoughts on summer league play. 

College Baseball Daily: What are you expectations for the upcoming season and what will you be working on this fall? You’ve got a couple of kids returning who were on the All-Tournament team.

John Anderson: Yeah, we’re coming off of a very unusual season last year. I think I’ll describe it as the season that never was. The collapse of the dome and playing only 14 home games and the challenges with travel. We had a lot of weather issues. It seemed like we spent a lot of time sitting around trying to figure out when we were going to play, if we were going to play, regardless of where we were. We also had travel issues with different problems. Just the schedule alone was daunting but then you face the other challenges, it was a difficult year. But it’s in the past and we’re going to put it behind us. It was very unusual. We knew we had a great group coming back after a solid run in ’10 into the NCAA tournament, winning both the regular season and Big Ten [tournament] and I think the dome collapse really changed our season in a lot of different ways.

We’re looking forward to this year to be honest with you and getting back to somewhat of a normal year. We have a 27 game home schedule run in the dome as long as the roof stays up here, starting in the last weekend in February and right through the opening weekend of league in the first week of April. We’re excited about that and to get off the road and be able to settle in. That month is critical to the development of your team. To be able to be at home and use your whole roster and get your practice in the days you’re supposed to practice, guys pitching and playing games when you’re supposed to play. You don’t have to worry about the weather, you don’t watch the weather channel, there’s no putting the tarp on and taking it off. You can focus really on player development and getting into a routine of really developing your team. That’s what we’re really looking forward to.

I think this fall, we’re hoping to get back to some sort of normalness to our program. Obviously the fall is the forming stage. You’ve got guys coming back, you’ve got new guys, guys who have redshirted, guys who haven’t played a lot yet that have been in the program. It’s really an opportunity, it’s the forming time when you try to take all the pieces of the puzzle, throw them out there on the table like a thousand piece jigsaw puzzle and you start trying to put the pieces together. You put some on, you take some off, you move them over here and try to make them fit. That for me is really what the fall is all about. That and establishing a standard that we want to practice and play at and a process for daily improvement. We’re trying to get a little bit better every day. You’re really trying to establish a commitment to the level of work and how we’re going to work and the standard we’re going to establish for what’s acceptable here from a practice standpoint. It’s really an opportunity to learn a lot about our team.

Then at the end of fall you can sit down and get a sense of what you have here and then we go back into small groups then you can kind of take the things you saw in the fall and intrasquad games and try to work on some of the fundamental things people need to improve on. We’re going to move people around and try them at different places.

We lost our shortstop and first baseman in A.J. Pettersen and Nick O’Shea, outstanding players in our program, so we’ve got to find replacements there as well as Justin Gominsky in the outfield and center and right field. We had some losses, key losses in our position players. Obviously our bullpen, we lost one starting pitcher and we lost a bullpen that’s been very good to us the last three or four years in the league, led by Scott Matyas who was one of the elite closers in college baseball. We’re going to have to rebuild our bullpen. We have [Austin] Lubinsky back, one of our seniors, as starter from the last two years and TJ Oakes who’s been our number one guy the last two years. We’ve got to find a starter out of that group as well and probably a midweek starter as well as we play the early part of our season.

I think we’re encouraged. We’ve had two good recruiting classes, we’ve got some guys in the program that have been here for a year or two that are ready to step up and we’re optimistic. We think we have a team that can be competitive, we can challenge in our league and maybe get back to what we sense is normal here and that’s have a competitive team and challenging for the Big Ten championship and being a factor in postseason.

CBD: You mentioned you’ve had a couple of good recruiting classes. Who are some of the players you’re excited to see here in the fall out of the new group coming in as well as some of the kids who haven’t had a lot of chances to play?

JA: First and foremost, Michael Handel, a shortstop that we recruited not this past year but the year before. We really recruited Michael, he was recruited by a lot of schools, some sun belt schools, he’s out of the Madison, WI area, Sun Prairie, and we recruited him really to be the replacement to A.J. Pettersen. We had a sense that A.J. was going to graduate last spring and that he might move on if he had a chance in professional baseball. It’s really hard to play a pure freshman at shortstop unless he just had incredible talent and so we knew we wanted Michael to come in and kind of stand alongside A.J. and really learn how to play that position. He played in the Northwoods League in Madison and played another whole summer of baseball. He’s going to go through the fall and winter here and we’re going to have a player that’s going to have a better understanding of how to play and will have a better fundamental base and mental and emotional base to play at the level you need your shortstop to play at to be a contender, to have a chance to play in the postseason. To me, he’s a player that wasn’t in this class but you’ll hear more about as we move along.

I think a pitcher that didn’t get to pitch a lot last year that was a good freshman recruit that was drafted out of high school, DJ Snelten, had to start a game for us in the Big Ten tournament, did a nice job against Michigan State, was competitive. But with the dome collapse and the lack of midweek games, the loss of 14 games, his development got skewed. He just didn’t get to work very much. I think that’s a name you’re going to hear more about this year. He’s going to fill in to a starting role or maybe out of the bullpen. He’s left-handed, he’s got a high top end and we’re excited about him. We think he can be a factor for us.

We redshirted Kevin Kray last year who pitched a little bit as a freshman. I think he’ll be one of those guys in the bullpen that’s going to be a factor as well.

Bobby Juan was a highly recruited kid two years ago that got a chance to play some last year. He’s a left-handed hitter that has some power. We were really crowded in the outfield last year with Justin Gominsnky coming back and Andy Henkermeyer and Troy Larson, there just wasn’t a lot of playing time. The loss of midweek games I think affected him. I think that’s another name you’re going to hear about.

Kyle Crocker was redshirted, he’s a left-handed hitter, he was a very decorated high school athlete. He played here out of Brainerd, he was All-State in football, basketball and baseball and he hasn’t had an opportunity yet. He missed a lot of practice time because we were never at home last year and so we never got a chance to work with him even though we redshirted him. If we can get him up to speed here in the next six months I think he’s got a chance to be a factor.

We recruited a left-left center fielder out of Illinois, St. Charles, Jake Bergren. He’s exactly what I think the college game is going to turn to now. He’s a speed guy, he’s a left-handed guy. We think he can hit at the top of our lineup and be a table-setter for us. I think he’s got a chance to contribute for us as a freshman. He’s a prototypical centerfield, he has speed and I think that’s the part of the game with the new bats that you’re going to see more of and I think he comes along at the perfect time.

We’ll probably move Troy Larson back into the infield. Matt Puhl has battled a knee problem his whole career, a problem that really isn’t correctable by surgery it’s more genetic. He had a tough time with it last year and so we’re going to move Troy back into the infield at second base in case Matt’s knee doesn’t come around.

We’ve got to find a first baseman. Ryan Abrahamson has been in the program two years and has played some. He’s played in the Northwoods League, he’s going to have an opportunity to step up and play first base.

Dan Olinger did a good job for us last year and he was the MVP in the All-Star game in the Northwoods League, one of the top hitters in the league this year. He came on as a freshman last year, he was redshirted his first season.

It’s hard to talk about the new players because we don’t know enough yet. We like them, the question is can they help us this year. Are we going to redshirt, is it going to be two years? Jordan Jess is a left-handed pitcher from the Wisconsin, La Crosse area, that I think has a chance to be a factor for us and pitch this year.

Lance Thonvold from Eden Prairie, they won the state Legion world series, national world series championship and we think he has a chance to be a back end of the game guy. We’re going to groom him to be a closer in this program. He’s got a good arm, he’s got the body. We think that’s going to be his role here in this program and so we’ll bring him along.

Tony Skjefte is a second baseman from that Eden Prairie program and that world series championship team, will get a chance to play in the mix in the infield.

Matt Halloran, a catcher, played a little bit last year, he’ll get more looks behind home plate behind Kurt Schlangen.

We think we have the pieces here it’s just a question of how ready they’re going to be by next February and as the year goes along how much better they can get between the end of fall and the start of the season.

CBD: You talked about losing some key position players. From a leadership standpoint what are you looking for from upperclassmen on your team as you move forward into the new season?

JA: Leadership is going to be critical. Scott Maydus, Luke Rasmussen, Culllen Sexton, A.J. Pettersen, Nick O’Shea, you’re talking about some tremendous leaders. They were the pulse of the team in terms of their leadership and they’re gone.

Kyle Geason is a fifth year senior, third baseman, I expect Kyle to step up and provide some of that necessary leadership. I expect him to step up and be one of our premiere players this year, I think he’s ready to do that. He’s played pretty well for us but not consistently offensively but I think he’s starting to figure it out. We’re going to lean on him a great deal for leadership, no question about it.

Billy Soule’s a junior, has pitched two years for us, been in the end of ballgames for us in big situations. I expect him to bring some leadership and presence to that pitching staff along with T.J. Oakes and Austin Lubinsky. They’ve been around guys that have been leaders and I think they have an idea of how to lead and what’s needed. Matt Puhl’s been a tremendous leader in this program. I do think we’ve got some guys that can pick up some of that slack from that great senior class we lost as well as the juniors that did sign.

They’ve followed those kids, they’ve watched them. We don’t have captains in this program. Our philosophy is the team itself is the leader of the team. If you want to be a leader first and foremost you’ve got to lead by example. You don’t have credibility if you’re not making good choices and you’re not committed in the weight room and you’re not getting to class, it’s hard to be a leader. It starts with you’ve gotta manage yourself first and you’ve gotta be a strong leader of yourself first before you can lead others.

I do think those people possess those characteristics and I think they’ll provide the leadership here and create the culture we’re looking for here and they’re going to hold each other accountable and responsible for our daily commitment here athletically, academically and what we do off the field socially. The players themselves have to hold each other accountable because they spend the most time with each other.

CBD: From a developmental standpoint with the new bats, how important is it for players to play in the wood bat summer leagues now that the bats are little bit more reflective of each other?

JA: The wood bats they use in the summer I think are going to allow the hitters to develop a little more. They’re going to have a consistent bat standard, the weight of the bat, the way the bat is manufactured and the way it feels in their hands is going to be consistent all the way through. I think you’re going to see improvement in the offense once the kids make the adjustment to the standard and where the weight is in the bat and how the bat feels instead of going back and forth between wood and the old aluminum bats and the difference in feel. We have pro players that come back here that use wood all the time that haven’t used aluminum, they pick up one of those old aluminum bats and they couldn’t wait long enough because the weight was so much different than the wood bat. These are aluminum bats that are build to a wood standard. The weight is in similar places to a wood bat so I think the fact that the kids are playing with them in the summer and will continue to use a similar type of bat here in the fall and through the school year, they’ll learn to develop a better swing, they’ll learn to develop bat speed, they’ll learn to get a feel for where the barrel of the bat is and how to square the ball up and I expect to see some improvement in the offense just because the kids are going to be using it now for a second year. And the kids that played in the summer have more time to adjust. The high schools are going to be going to it next year and eventually it’ll probably improve some. But the old days of relying on the three run home run and the last at-bat wins, like the softball game, those days are over. We’re going to have to recruit differently, I think we’re going to have to build our team differently. Speed, being able to execute the short game, the sacrifice bunt, the push bunt, the drag, the hit and run, the strategy of the game is going to come back and no longer are you going to be able to stand up there and put a guy out there on defense that can’t play defense that’s going to give up two but is going to hit one out and get you three back, I think those days are over.

I think that’s another thing you’re going to see as an adjustment in the game. You’re going to have to recruit guys that are strike throwers that are willing to attack the strike zone with their fastball and have command of it. We’re back to that, it’s professional baseball. You’ve got to catch the ball on defense, you can’t walk people and you can’t let extra people get on because you can’t play defense. No longer are you going to see many games where you’re going to stand up there and outslug people hit by hit by hit. That’s what I noticed last year. It’s really hard to string three or four good at-bats together and get three or four good hits in a row. But when the defense walks somebody or they break down on defense and they bring extra people to the plate, it’s no different than the pro game, that’s when you get an opportunity to score. So, I think the fact that we’re going to use a similar bat now, a consistent standard, whenever we play the game, whether it’s in the summer or during our seasons, I think it’s just going to help the kids improve as hitters as well.

This is the first of a two part interview with Minnesota’s John Anderson. The second part of the interview is available by clicking here. All Photos courtesy of Minnesota Sports Information.