Breaking the mold
Catcher Erik Kozel is thriving as Mavericks' leadoff hitter
Most baseball teams lead off with an outfielder or middle infielder.
Colorado Mesa isn’t most teams this year. The Mavericks (41-7), who moved up to No. 2 in this week’s NCAA Division II coaches poll, usually lead off with a catcher.
“I equate the catching position to the fullback or linebacker position in football,” CMU coach Chris Hanks said. “I think generally speaking, it’s the build of the position. When you have a catcher that can run, that allows you to have an even faster lineup because typically catcher is one of those spots that doesn’t run particularly well.”
Hanks has a catcher who runs fast.
In fact, Erik Kozel may be the fastest player on a Mesa team that has stolen a school record 132 bases this season.
“He’s arguably our fastest player,” Hanks said. “He has one of our highest on-base percentages, and he had success doing it.”
Kozel runs the 60-yard dash in 6.6 seconds, and his time from home plate to first base is 3.7 to 3.9 seconds, Hanks said.
“The big league average is 4.2 (from home to first),” Hanks said. “He would be above average on the scouting ranking. That would be a plus-tool for him as the pro scouts rate it. He runs with the best major leaguers.”
Kozel is leading off for the Mavericks, who won a second consecutive RMAC regular-season title and host the RMAC tournament beginning at noon today at Suplizio Field. Mesa plays No. 6 seed Colorado School of Mines (21-25) at 7 tonight.
The Mavericks are 29-1 when Kozel bats leadoff. He has started 34 games: 18 behind the plate, 13 as a designated hitter and three in left field.
He is hitting .372 with an on-base percentage of .476. He has five doubles, two triples, three home runs and 19 RBI. He is third on the team with 19 stolen bases.
Kozel has played baseball since Little League. He started out as a first baseman and shortstop, then moved to outfielder.
His older brother, Rickey, started to pitch in high school, so Erik would catch for him in the backyard at home.
“I figured, ‘Why not catch,’ so I started catching in high school,” Erik Kozel said. “I stuck with outfielder and catcher.”
Out of high school in Tucson, Ariz., Kozel went to Pima (Ariz.) Community College, but he didn’t play much, so he transferred to San Joaquin Delta (Calif.) College in 2011.
San Joaquin Delta coach Reed Peters saw Kozel play summer ball down the road in Lodi, Calif.
“While he was out here he learned about our program,” Peters said. “It was a good fit for him. Everything fell into place.”
Peters realized Kozel had speed despite his size (6-foot-3, 200 pounds), so he batted him leadoff.
“With him it made sense, because number one, he can run,” Peters said. “He’s a very intelligent player. He gets the most out of his skills. He could really handle the bat, and he knew how to steal a base. He maximized the skills he has.”
Kozel, who batted second in the lineup in high school, thrived in the leadoff spot.
“I did what I could,” Kozel said. “I worked hard. Whenever I was in the leadoff spot, my main concern was my responsibility as a leadoff hitter. If I was catching, the only thing I had to worry about was getting my catching gear off in time to get in some practice swings.”
Kozel hit .301 with 14 doubles and stole 11 bases in 12 attempts for San Joaquin Delta. The Mustangs won the California Community College Athletics Association title that year.
“He was huge contributor,” Peters said. “He filled the leadoff spot very well. He gave us quality at-bats against good pitching.”
After the season, Peters helped Kozel get an opportunity at Mesa.
“He said, ‘Give me your top three schools,’ ” Kozel said. “I wasn’t able to go DI, so I wanted a good, solid Division II school with a good reputation. It just so happens that Colorado Mesa is also close to home.
“Literally that day, I was in the office with my coach, and he jumps on the phone real quick and called Coach Hanks right there.”
Peters knew of Mesa’s program back when Hanks was an assistant for Joe Giarratano from 1993 to 1998.
“I replaced Giarratano at Colby (Community College). When he left he helped me get the job at Colby,” Peters said. “During that time I got to know Hanks pretty well. We’ve had a long relationship with Coach Hanks. We try to send our kids to quality programs with great coaching.”
Around the bases
■ The last time the Mavericks were ranked No. 2 in the coaches poll was April 20, 2009. It is Mesa’s highest ranking since becoming an NCAA institution in 1992-93.
■ The Mavs’ Matt Williams is the RMAC pitcher of the week. The senior pitched six shutout innings in a 7-0 victory over Colorado School of Mines last weekend. He allowed two hits, one walk and struck out eight. The Orediggers hit .111 off him with no extra-base hits.
■ Texas A&M-Kingsville (39-16), which overtook Mesa for No. 1 in the NCAA South Central Region poll last week, won the Lone Star Conference tournament title Monday. The next region poll is scheduled to be released today. The final poll, which determines the regional qualifiers, will be released Sunday.