Headfirst Round Table Discussion: Adjusting to the College Level
March 7, 2019
With many schools around the country kicking off their 2019 campaign, plenty of freshmen will get their first experience playing at the college level. From adjusting to the expectations, speed of the game and skill level of college rosters, to the nerves and excitement leading up to that first game, the Headfirst Honor Roll team shares their perspective from their freshman seasons.
Click on any of the questions below to skip ahead:
- Athletically, what was the biggest shock/hardest adjustment during your freshman year?
- How did you deal with internal competition as a freshman player?
- How did your role as a freshman compare to what you expected before the season?
- Thinking back to your first opening day in college, what were your emotions like in the days leading up to that game? What last-minute prep helped you get ready?
Athletically, what was the biggest shock/hardest adjustment during your freshman year?
- Al Morris, Duke University – Definitely the training program. Coaches and staff are very committed to student-athlete success at Duke, so our lifting coach would design personal workouts catered to every member of our team. Weight training was not at the front of my mind in high school, and the results that came from my first year with Duke’s program were shocking. My commitment to developing my game extended off the field and outside the lines as well, and demanded a lot of my time and energy during my adjustment to college baseball.
- Austin Sumners, Dickinson College – The overall talent level. Everybody in college was All-State, All-Region, All-Conference, etc. in high school, and all egos need to be set aside. As a freshman nothing is guaranteed or handed to you. If you want to start, you have to put in more work than everyone at your position, and you have to be ready to take advantage of every opportunity that you have on the field – straight from day one.
- Cory Spera, Lafayette College – In high school, I didn’t realize I was throwing my breaking ball from a different arm slot than my low-three-quarters fastball. College players at all levels are talented enough and smart enough to recognize this difference. My coaches wanted to change my over-the-top curveball into a slider from my fastball arm slot. This was a challenge I accepted, but one I struggled with, too.
- Jack Marooney, Kenyon College – The biggest shock was just how athletic everyone was – the jump from high school to college was most apparent in the overall athleticism of the average college player – whether it was on the field or just playing ping pong. It was apparent that college ball was a whole different game. As a result, I needed to put even more time into my preparation if I wanted to approach the same level as the other guys.
- Jed Barkin, Denison University – The biggest shock for me was how much the game sped up. Not only are college ballplayers bigger and stronger, but they are also faster. For me as an infielder, my internal clock of getting my hands on the ball and getting rid of it to make a play needed some adjusting, as well as the angles I was taking to attack the baseball. I figured this out during our fall season as a freshman during our team intrasquad games, so luckily it was something that I became aware of quickly. However, it was a bigger change and challenge than I expected prior to arriving on campus. Some advice to all infielders – the first step you take is everything, so make it count.
- Jenna Orlando, Lafayette College – Coaching adjustment. After signing, there was a coaching change, and I was no longer going to play for the coach that recruited me. Heading into the fall of my freshman year, I was really worried about proving myself all over again to this new coach that had never seen me play. I had to learn how to balance playing my game with wanting to prove myself – hoping I’d fit the mold of a player the new coach wanted to be a part of the program. It almost felt like I was trying to get recruited all over again. Working through the mental side of this and managing my expectations accordingly was probably the toughest adjustment I had to make.
- Max McKenna, Amherst College – As I was initially recruited as a two-way player, the biggest shock for me was the pitching at the college level. The velocity, control and nasty breaking pitches really caught me off guard. The fall of my freshman year is when I realized that Max-as-a-hitter was totally unequipped to compete against myself as a pitcher.
How did you deal with internal competition as a freshman player?
- Al Morris – I always focused on my role within the team. As a freshman, and even as an upperclassman, you may not be the star player on the team, but with 35 players on a roster it is so crucial to be the best at the task you are given. I never felt like I was competing against other members of my team – instead, I felt we were constantly feeding off each other and making our game better because of it.
- Austin Sumners – You need to stay hungry and prove to coaches as early as possible that you can compete for that top spot. I think showing the upperclassmen on the team that you’re dedicated and put in the work also really helps because they have influence on coaches – and because they see and appreciate the dedication and hard work from like-minded underclassmen. Every day you need to go into practice/games with that chip on your shoulder and when you hear your name called, take advantage of your opportunity to make it count.
- Cory Spera – I was my teammates’ biggest cheerleader – and I didn’t see any other way to go about it. There was no doubt I wanted to be the best, but when you’re living/eating/studying/spending most of your day with your teammates, it seems odd to go about it any other way. And, if you’re striving to be the best, the more you can help them improve, the better you’ll become.
- Jack Marooney – I made a concerted effort to focus on process, rather than results. I knew that other guys were going to give it their all – just like I was – and that didn’t bother me one bit. All that I could control was my effort and preparation. If anything, I enjoyed competing with my teammates because it made me pay more attention to potential flaws not only in my game, but also in my work leading up to games. I tried to use competition to elevate myself and learn from others, without making it cutthroat.
- Jenna Orlando – I was a bit of a “headcase” when it came to internal competition – and it was something I had to continuously work on throughout all four years. Something that really helped me was beginning to look at certain situations I once associated with pressure, instead as opportunities to be successful and prove myself. My entire body language and demeanor would change when I had this mindset. It helped me to look at nerve-racking moments as an opportunity for me to crush it, rather than a potential moment for me to fail and lose my starting spot.
- Justin Woods, Shenandoah University – At Shenandoah, we had a 50-man roster that consisted of a JV or “development team”, so there were numerous intrasquads during practice which gave you an opportunity to prove yourself as a contributor in the line-up. You could never say you didn’t have a chance to get into the line-up, so everything rested on you and your own performance.
How did your role as a freshman compare to what you expected before the season?
- Al Morris – As much as I wanted to be an every day starter all throughout college, I became the team bullpen catcher my freshman year. There was not a lot of exposure that came with being a bullpen catcher, but I knew that it was my role to make sure that every pitcher was ready to go when they stepped on the field for Duke. I was the last person each pitcher would talk to before the game was in their control. If you take a lot of pride in your role and work as hard as you can during and outside of practice hours, you will see results.
- Austin Sumners – I missed all fall ball practices because of the soccer season so I was already set back in terms of workouts and reps. My goal was to start as a freshman by the time we returned from our spring training baseball trip to Florida. I got a pinch-hitting opportunity and took advantage of it, which helped me secure my starting spot by the end of the trip. I didn’t care which position I played in the outfield or where I was in the lineup – my goal was to get on the field any way possible and once I got my spot in the lineup, I grinded and made sure my coaches never second-guessed their decision.
- Cory Spera – It was… different than expected – all from my own doing. My coaches were excited about my potential when I started school, and I had a solid freshman fall to back it up. I thought I had a good chance to compete for weekend bullpen innings and maybe even a weekday start. Those thoughts never came to fruition as I completely lost control of my pitches and couldn’t throw a strike. I ended the spring with two appearances. It was a humbling and trying experience – but one that I’m so thankful I went through.
- Jenna Orlando – Before heading to Lafayette, I was primarily a second baseman with only a few games at shortstop under my belt. I was fortunate enough to earn the chance to start at short my freshman year. Not only did this exceed my expectations, but it also put me in a position to be a vocal leader much earlier on than expected. Being a freshman, I wasn’t very vocal and thought that I would approach my first season by putting my head down and just working as hard as I could – hoping to lead by example. My coach stressed to me that I had to be a vocal leader in the infield which was an adjustment that needed to be made early on.
- Justin Woods – As a recruited walk-on, I came into my freshman year with very low expectations. I didn’t know how my game would match up to other guys, and I didn’t expect to be held as accountable as we were as freshman. Being a part of a certain grad year came with a sense of pride, so there was a quick bond that formed early in my class.
- Max McKenna – Completely different. I was primarily recruited as a SS/MIF, but in the truncated NESCAC pre-season, I was converted to being a PO. As a freshman, I was primarily coming out of the bullpen, which was a completely different role than I was used to. But, regardless of what it was, it was an opportunity to get on the field, and being a PO – though not what I was expecting coming into my freshman fall or season – was definitely the best fit for me at the college level.
Thinking back to your first opening day in college, what were your emotions like in the days leading up to that game? What last-minute prep helped you get ready?
- Austin Sumners – Pure excitement. It’s a dream to get to that point as a kid in little league, and to be able to make that dream come true was a great feeling. I had some butterflies in my stomach, but it was definitely that good type of nervous.
- Cory Spera – I was so incredibly nervous. At the time of our opener, I was really struggling to find the strike zone. I wasn’t too sure what was going to happen if I got in there. Oddly enough, when I changed into my uniform for the first time, just hours before the first game, those nerves truly changed to excitement. I had worked pretty hard to get to experience that moment, and even with my personal struggles at the time, it was still a special feeling.
- Jed Barkin – I could not have been more excited. We escaped the cold in Ohio and made our way down to Port Charlotte, Florida for our season opener my freshman year. At the time, I had a solid awareness of where I ranked on the depth chart and did not expect to be playing, but I always prepared as if I was in the starting lineup. I never knew when my number would be called but knew I needed to be ready when it was. Nerves played a minor role in this experience as well, but above all else was the pure joy that I felt knowing I had officially achieved my dream of playing college baseball.
- Jenna Orlando – Heading into opening day, I started to hone into all of the differences in the game at the college level, rather than focusing on all that was similar. “I’ve never played against a pitcher with this much movement,” “These girls are going to get down the line quicker than I’m used to,” etc. I remember my parents telling me that I know how to play the game well, so now I just have to be confident in my ability to execute. I started to think about specific moments where I felt extremely confident – softball related or not – before stepping in the box. It changed my whole approach. This took my mind off the specifics of my mechanics and instead just let my confidence lead the way.
- Justin Woods – Before my first collegiate game I was feeling tons of adrenaline. Prepping for a college game was much different than high school with how organized pre-game batting practice was and how serious you need to take your pre-game reps. You really need to prepare on a completely different level in college in order to stay productive throughout the season.
- Max McKenna – I was incredibly nervous. My first appearance was in a mop-up relief situation in Florida my freshman year. It was muggy, I was sweating, and I threw a couple borderline pitches. Now, we were up by 9 or 10 runs at this point – so when I asked the ump where that last 2-2 fastball had missed – in what I thought an information-gathering and innocent way – the senior co-captain catching me came out to the mound and politely told me to keep my head on straight. In terms of last-minute prep – I’m a superstitious person, so it was important to me to establish and then keep a rhythm. Out of the pen my freshman year, this meant finding a quick, transitional routine to get into the mindset that I needed for success between the call, warming up and then hitting the mound in the game.