|Austin Kay was finally able to stay on the field and realize his potential at shortstop for Cal Lutheran.
Photo by Steve Frommell, d3photography.com
|Austin Kay dons the official championship T-shirt and hat while pitchers Nate Wehner and Marshall Pautsch celebrate.
Photo by Larry Radloff, d3photography.com
|Kay and coach Marty Slimak enjoy the moment.
Photo by Larry Radloff, d3photography.com
By Pat Coleman
GRAND CHUTE, Wis. -- Throughout the tournament, the 2017 Cal Lutheran baseball team stressed family. The family atmosphere among players, among the members of the program.
One of the Kingsmen starters had to battle hard to remain part of that family.
Austin Kay, a junior and the Kingsmen’s starting shortstop, worked his way back from injury, where he missed the better part of two years. He became a key contributor and earned the right to celebrate with his teammates Tuesday evening in Appleton after his Cal Lutheran team defeated Washington & Jefferson 12-4 and 7-3 to win the Division III national championship.
Two years ago, as a sophomore, he suffered a season-ending injury sliding headfirst into home early in the season. Last year, as a junior, his recurring injuries finally forced him to have surgery, something he’d been trying to avoid.
And this year, Kay came back strong, anchored the shortstop position, and helped his Cal Lutheran team win the Division III baseball national title.
All of that happened because Kay was able to be OK with failure.
Kay played a decent amount as a freshman in 2014, starting a little more than half of the Kingsmen’s games, earning a reputation as a defensive standout although he hit just .200.
It was a lot of failure early on, even though he was healthy.
Coach Marty Slimak could tell that it was as much of a mental struggle as a physical one: “The biggest challenge is that he takes everything so personally. If he doesn’t get a hit, he just takes too much upon himself.”
And then Kay got hurt, diving across the plate with the winning run in the bottom of the 11th in a game vs. Drew in early March of 2015. He’d been hitting .368 at the time.
“I felt it pop out and right back in,” Kay recalls. “Every time it came out, it would go right back in, but that was the first time it happened. I tried to play on it, redshirted that year, and it never got back to the way it was.”
Meanwhile, he watched, and learned, like so many injured athletes have before. He dove into watching video of hitters, players he never would have looked at before. Kay ended up changing his approach at the plate, and eventually his swing.
And, too, he eventually went and had the surgery to repair a tear in his labrum and reattach a ligament along the back of his shoulder.
But that was just the physical aspect of the game. Anyone who has played baseball or watched a lot of it knows there’s a tremendous mental aspect to it as well. Great hitters still make outs nearly 70 percent of the time. Shortstops are involved in lots of plays defensively and might not get to every ball they think they should.
In short, it’s easy to get in your own head. And Kay was battling that as well, until he got a new mantra.
“My father actually gave me a sentimental rock that his ex-fiancee gave him, and it just says the word, ‘OK,’” Kay explained.
“I think of that every time that I get out or something bad happens and just think, ‘Hey, it’s OK. There’s always another pitch. There’s always another at-bat. There’s always another play.’ That really got me going and kept my head in it.”
It sure didn’t seem like there was a lot of adversity down the stretch for Kay, either. He finished with nine hits from the No. 9 spot in the order in Appleton, including going 5-for-9 with three runs scored on the season’s decisive Tuesday.
“The key to his season this year, and his success, was being able to let it go. Let the negative go, let the at-bat go. Let the error go and move on,” Slimak said. “And I think that was the biggest thing. When he learned that, he became one of our guys.
Much was made of the camaraderie among the players as the season wore to a close. A week in Tyler, Texas … another week in Appleton, Wis. … it all makes for a lot of time spent together. But usually these are also teams that aren’t ready for the ride to end, and this was no different.
“We’re really all out here to have fun,” said senior outfielder Brad Fullerton. “We’re all so close. This is a great group of guys. I think that’s what it really boils down to.”
“These guys are unreal,” Kay agrees. “We just mess around and make fun of each other. It keeps us loose. Guys can take it out there. The cohesiveness of this team was the best part of this season, for sure.”
And now, after the dust has settled, Kay has another year of eligibility he can use. But he isn’t sure he can help Cal Lutheran defend its championship.
“I don’t think I can go another year, but why not? I’d like to end on this, so I think I’m going to be done.”
After watching this group of Kingsmen win it all, it’s hard to say anything other than that’s OK.