Whitting builds a winner

The Cougars have won more games this season through 31 games than they did last season. | Justin Tijerina/ TheDaily Cougar

The Cougars have won more games this season through 31 games than they did last season. | Justin Tijerina/ TheDaily Cougar

With pressure from fans mounting and expectations for this season waning, head coach Todd Whitting still has a vision for the future of UH baseball.

Whitting’s second year at the helm marked the Cougars’ fourth consecutive losing season, and it seemed like the program had taken a step back. After compiling a 27-35 record during Whitting’s first season, the Cougars won only 18 games in 2012.

Though UH was Whitting’s dream job, he didn’t expect turning the program around to be easy. He was tasked with rebuilding a program that he helped grow first as a player, then as an assistant coach.

Unfinished business

“There are numerous reasons why (the choice was) Todd Whitting,” said Athletics Director Mack Rhoades to the Houston Chronicle. “He’s a program-builder. When he was with us here at the University of Houston, we had great success. Then you look at what he’s done at TCU.”

Whitting said not making the College World Series left him feeling that he had unfinished business at the University. The Cougars were one game away from playing for a national championship in Omaha, Neb., three of his last four seasons as an assistant coach.

That motivated him to get the program back where it was when he was an assistant coach.

It was a tough project, though. The two seasons before Whitting took over, the Cougars were under .500 in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1974-75.

He started by improving the Cougars’ recruiting, but he knew it was a process.

“You can’t flip these things quick anymore,” Whitting said. “The recruiting cycle, the way it works, a lot of the elite players are committing during their junior year of high school. The freshmen we have right now are really our first class that we’ve had the opportunity to work the full recruiting cycle as opposed to kind of taking what was left and the pool of who wasn’t recruited yet.”

This season they are 24-6 and are on top of the Conference USA standings. Though the turnaround was unexpected to fans and media, the team said they believed success was attainable, and the players from their first full recruiting class are contributing to the turnaround.

Freshman infielder Josh Vidales is batting .312 and has been the team’s lead-off hitter since the season opened. He leads the team in doubles and is second in walks. Freshman infielder Kyle Kirk has a .308 average and 16 RBIs. Freshman infielder Justin Montemayor has the highest batting average on the team at .333.

Building camaraderie 

It took a commitment during the summer to thrust the Cougars to being nationally ranked for the first time since 2008 by the new crop of freshmen.

Many college baseball players compete in summer leagues. They take time off and travel. With 19 new players and six starting freshmen, the team had a chance to come together, junior catcher Caleb Barker said.

“All of the guys just being together over the summer just really brought this team closer than a lot of other teams that we have played,” Barker said. “ A lot of the guys got here in June. I got here in July, and it was just a lot of time to spend with the guys. Really, it’s just become a brotherhood and a family.”

The Cougars worked on getting stronger and more athletic this offseason, Whitting said. It made the Cougars faster on the base path and a better offensive club with more versatility. Last season, the Cougars were last in C-USA in every major offensive statistic. This season, the Cougars are in the top three of batting average, slugging percentage, base percentage, RBIs and hits and runs scored.

Vidales said the summer workouts were a winning formula.

“I think that’s what really meshed us together. We like being around each other,” Vidales said. “We make each other laugh. It’s like another family to us.”

“(Strength and conditioning coach Lee Fiocchi) kind of put in our minds that we have a lot of work to do, and it starts in the weight room. As we kept going along with our workouts, he said it’s not going to be easy,” Vidales said. “We saw a change, and we got it done. We first started to know that we were going to do it was the first day that we walked in.”

A tight group

Now, the Cougars are just having fun coming to the ballpark with a chance to win each contest. Off the diamond, they pull pranks on each other, and junior outfielder Landon Appling is always involved, Barker said.

Barker said you might see water cups on top of the door, flowers on ceiling fans or furniture stacked in front of someone’s bedroom door.

It has transferred to a team that likes playing with each other and plays for each other, Appling said.

“I think the thing that makes us good is we all depend on each other,” Appling said. “We all work together. We work as one.”

The Cougars may not make it to the College World Series this season, but the team has still taken a step toward fulfilling Whitting’s dreams.

Dream come true

“If we could get this program to Omaha to compete for a national championship, that would absolutely be a dream come true,” Whitting said.

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