CMU removes interim tag from softball coach Kozel

Sentinel FILE PHOTO Erik Kozel made the Colorado Mesa softball program his own last season, despite being the interim head coach. Tuesday, Kozel became the head coach when the Mavs removed the interim tag.

Erik Kozel went into the 2019 softball season at Colorado Mesa treating the program as his own, even though he had the "interim head coach" tag.

After a 45-11 record, an RMAC championship and an NCAA Division II regional berth, the program is truly his.

On Tuesday, CMU removed the "interim" portion of his title.

"Erik's immediate success and familiarity with the current players, current recruiting needs, player development, and all aspects of the operation make him a natural selection to lead the Mavericks into the future," Kris Mort, CMU's co-athletic director, said Tuesday in a release announcing Kozel's hiring.

For Kozel, it means he can keep doing the job he's been doing since Ben Garcia left last August for the University of Northern Colorado.

"I just treated it like a head coach position. If I were to focus too much on the interim tag then I didn't feel I could give the girls everything I had," Kozel said Tuesday afternoon. "One thing I wanted to do, one thing I wanted to walk away with was, did I give everything I could to these girls who deserve everything that I had to give? They didn't deserve anything less.

"After the season, being in the office, until they hand me a box to get my stuff out of here, I still owe it to these girls to be the very best coach I can be."

Kozel, who played baseball for Colorado Mesa, learned plenty about being a head coach on the fly during the season, and midway through, took it upon himself to make a change. He had his seven seniors take on the responsibility of teaching the new players how things are done, not addressing it himself.

"I wanted them to take control and make it their team. I put too much responsibility on their shoulders," Kozel said. "I used that as a method to help the girls with the transition and what I realized is all I'm doing is transferring responsibility. That's my responsibility."

So, four weeks into the conference season, the Mavericks learned what Kozel termed "just being a Maverick" was all about.

An entire practice was spent on how Kozel expects his team to play.

"Sprinting to get a foul ball during a game," he said. "We worked on running home to first, you run all the way to the bag even if you're out, sprinting to your position. We went from the ground up."

It worked — the Mavericks lost only one game through the rest of the regular season, clinching the RMAC title, but lost to Dixie State in the conference tournament championship game, then went 0-2 in the South Central Region playoffs.

After the season, CMU opened the head coaching position, and Kozel was quick to apply. He interviewed earlier this summer, continuing to recruit players despite fielding the question from players and parents: Will you be the coach?

"My response was just honest and I let them know exactly what was going on," Kozel said. "They've formed the search committee, I've applied for the job and once I hear back I'll let you know, but for the most part, the kids who come to Mesa, they love the school, they love the program, the tradition. We have a great facility, school, community and they want to play here.

"There was that question, are you going to be the coach, are you not going to be the coach? I just told them when I found out I'll let you know but until then I'm going to treat it like I am the head coach."

Tuesday, he could let the seven players he's signed for next season and the others he's still recruiting know that yes, he is the head coach.

Former and current Mavs were sending their congratulations all day Tuesday.

"My phone, I tell you what, the girls, when they heard, the graduated seniors, I've been getting text messages congratulating me," Kozel said. "It's been a lot of warm fuzzies and I really appreciated everything they did for us."

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