SYCAMORE – When Jason Cavanaugh tells a group of high school students to clear their desks and take out a paper and pencil, a collective moan usually fills the classroom.
The Sycamore baseball coach doubles as a math teacher. This spring the Spartans baseball team is as likely to use a notebook and pencil as students in Cavanaugh’s daily classes.
Last spring, for the third time in four seasons, the Spartans lost to a team in the postseason that went on to play in the state title game. When Cavanaugh met with the Sycamore coaching staff after the season, they mapped a course for success.
In his 17th season, Cavanaugh is still in search of a sectional title even though the Spartans have had incredibly talented teams with Division I recruits. Yet the Spartans haven’t been able to advance to a supersectional and a shot at the state tournament.
So this spring Sycamore has gone back to baseball school. The Spartans spend equal time in the classroom and on the field. They hone the mental aspects of the game in an attempt to make history.
“We have been there so many times,” Cavanaugh said about the Spartans’ playoff runs “As a staff we met when the season ended and discussed what we had to do to get over the hump. We believe our lineup is as good as any one through nine. We can play defense. We have a solid pitching staff. In our classroom sessions we focus on patience and concentration. When we practice now we are eager to get going. We go at 100 percent every day; at game speed.”
At a recent classroom session Sycamore assistant coach Matt Anderson played Game 5 from the 1995 American League Division Series between the Seattle Mariners and New York Yankees. The Mariners won, 6-5, in 11 innings. The Spartans charted pitches and balls in play. They discussed the ebb and flow in an epic game where pitchers dominated early, runs were scored in the middle innings and pressure and intensity mounted in a chaotic finish.
Because the majority of the Sycamore roster was born in 1996 or 1997, the players had never seen the game.
Classroom time can feature film, a discussion, a quiz or even an introspective walk through the Sycamore halls to view pictures of all conference, regional, sectional and state champions.
“The last two years we practiced outside after school every day,” senior right fielder Alec Kozak said. “This is the first year where we have introduced classroom study time. It’s a different feeling to have discussion, take notes and have baseball quizzes.
“We’ve had so much success and are so close to winning a sectional title. I believe the mental preparation is what has been missing. In a 30-game season, players get tired and worn out. I think we are taking the necessary steps to stay fresh mentally and push through the season.”
Once a storage vessel for only gloves, bats and balls Sycamore players now likely have added pen, pencil and notebook to their bat bags. Cavanaugh is comfortable with the new approach because the Spartans have a deep, veteran roster that has spent the offseason in preparation for another chance to win a sectional, supersectional and advance to state.
“Some teams aren’t ready in three weeks to get the season started, they actually need five weeks,” Cavanaugh said. “We were ready in seven days to play this year. Which could be a good thing with the bad weather we’ve had this spring.”
As for the Sycamore teams that have had Division I recruits and won conference and regional titles in the past only to fall short in sectionals, Kozak said the 2014 Spartans can author a unique postseason story.
“I wasn’t a part of those teams,” Kozak said. “All I can talk about is this group of guys and what makes us good. We’ve played together since we were in travel ball and summer leagues. We have great team chemistry and the extra mental work we’ve started this spring will help.”