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The ability to recruit nationally. It’s the reason basketball coach John Calipari is at Kentucky. It’s why Brian Kelly got the job at Notre Dame and maybe one of the big reasons Bobby Knight is unemployed.
Recruiting is the key to success in college sports, and the wider the recruiting base, the more successful a program will be. Campbellsville University Tiger baseball is no exception.
Head coach Beauford Sanders says recruiting is a key part of winning at the college level and that his coaching staff has done an excellent job re-tooling the team year after year.
“If done properly, recruiting can be a very tedious and time consuming process,” Sanders said. “Our coaches have done an excellent job making contacts and getting the players who can play at a high level.”
For the last six seasons, the Tiger coaching staff has aggressively pursued recruiting across the map, signing a number of junior college recruits from California, Washington, Oregon and even Canada.
In those six seasons, the Tigers have five conference tournament championships, six regional appearances, and, in 2009, earned a trip to the NAIA World Series.
The internal expansion of the coaching staff has directly reflected the external expansion of recruiting.
A native of Canada, assistant coach Randy LeBleu coached with the Tigers for the first time in 2004. At that time, the team consisted of players mostly from Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio.
The following season, LeBleu hit the recruiting trail, targeting his native country for new talent. He contacted coaches and players from Canada, and the Tigers signed four Canadian players for the 2005 season.
By the 2006 season, the Tigers had 11 Canadian born players on their roster.
In 2007, graduate assistant Jake McKinley joined the CU coaching staff. McKinley, now the head of baseball operations at Sacramento State University, played his college ball at American River College in Sacramento, Calif.
McKinley’s connection to California schools gave the coaching staff an inside track to recruit players from both California and Canada.
The 2009 team, which earned the school’s first berth into the NAIA World Series, was dominantly comprised of California and Canadian players who were recruited by LeBleu and McKinley.
At the beginning of last season, Chris Lewis took over as head of recruiting for the Tigers. Previously a coach in Oregon and California, Lewis further opened up the northwest as an avenue for recruiting new talent.
Lewis says that a broad recruiting area is key to signing the best players.
“It’s like fishing,” Lewis said. “If you have a tiny net, you won’t catch much. But if your net covers the whole river, you got a better shot at catching the biggest fish.”
To cover the largest area, every CU coach covers a certain region.
Lewis recruits players from California, Nevada and Arizona. Coach LeBleu handles Canada, Texas and New Mexico. Pitching coach Brad Neffendorf is in charge of the Northwest, looking for players in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. Sanders works the phones and looks for local and area talent.
This year’s recruiting class consists of 23 players, including players from California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada Idaho and Canada. Of the 23 recruits, only two are from Kentucky, including Campbellsville High School stand-out Aaron Schwoebel.
Lewis says that recruiting local players is difficult because the top-level high school players usually choose the bigger schools, while second-tier players often travel to junior colleges in the south. With so many junior colleges on the west coast, it makes it easier to lure talented players who may have been overlooked or for whatever reason did not get a shot at a bigger school.
Lewis also said that the main factor in getting players to leave the west coast to come to Campbellsville is the winning tradition of the program.
“When you are recruiting players from across the country or internationally, their first impression of the program comes from the team website. When players log on and see six straight conference championships and 40-win seasons, you immediately spark their interest.”
LeBleu emphasizes that recruiting the right players does not happen overnight.
“It’s a year-long effort,” LeBleu said. “Getting the best players is the first priority. Skills development is second.”
Lewis agrees, saying, “All season long you are assessing the teams needs, where we need more depth, who will be leaving next year, where do we want to upgrade. It’s a never-ending process.”
When a program has the success that CU baseball has had, other schools imitate what they have done.
St. Catharine, Lindsey Wilson and Georgetown have all turned to the west coast to find new recruits.
To stay ahead of the game, the coaching staff is beginning to recruit players from Texas and New Mexico.
The Tiger staff knows that in order to win, one must have the talent to compete.
“No matter how good your facilities are or how well you think you can coach, if you want to win a national championship, you have to have the players to take you there,” Lewis said.
While recruiting, the Tigers are not just looking for the best players, but the right players.
“Character is just as important as talent,” LeBleu said. “We intentionally look for players that we know come from disciplined programs, so we know what to expect when they come.”
Tiger baseball continues to expand recruiting every year in search of the right combination of talent to reach that ultimate goal — an NAIA national championship.