Rowlett's Reality Check Pays Off

FAYETTEVILLE -- Teammates gathered around Casey Rowlett as the Arkansas senior spoke about what turned his baseball career around.

It's obvious that when he talks, people listen. They want to absorb as much knowledge as possible from Rowlett, who's riding a 20-game hitting streak into today's 6:35 p.m. game against Mississippi State in Baum Stadium.

Seeing the attentive look on their faces while Rowlett detailed everything from his hitting approach to the intense meeting with coaches that ignited the fire in his belly said it all.

"He's been kind of my mentor in a sense," said Razorbacks freshman Clint Arnold. "I mean, what a great player. I'm just in awe when watching him play.

"If you could just emulate everything he does, you'd be great, too."

Few are equals when it comes to Rowlett whether he's hammering line drives with his 34-inch, 31-ounce black Easton or making an over-the-shoulder catch at the warning track in center field.

Rowlett started this season red hot and leads the Southeastern Conference with a .506 batting average (41 for 81).He also is second in the league in hits (41) and stolen bases (16) and third in on-base-percentage (.593).

"He'll get a chance to play pro ball at the end of the year, he doesn't even have to worry about that," said Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn. "That's going to happen, no doubt about it. He's so talented that they might move him to second base and when he starts playing second base every day, he'll be a good one."

Reality Check
A meeting Rowlett will never forget took place in Van Horn's office at the end of last season. Present were Van Horn and assistant Matt Deggs and they apparently gave Rowlett a much-needed gut check.

His junior season had just wrapped up a few days earlier with a trip to the College World Series. Rowlett started in 64 games and was always amazing defensively, but didn't dazzle at the plate as he finished eighth on the team with a .292 batting average, 3 home runs and 22 RBIs.

"Oh yeah, I remember the meeting," Rowlett said. "I remember a lot about being hooked up and being consistent and being the player I'm capable of being. They said I underachieved last year."

Hearing the word "underachieve" was enough to fuel Rowlett throughout the offseason as he improved his size and strength. He added nearly 15 pounds of muscle and now bench presses 315, not bad for a 5-foot-8, 172-pounder.

"Deep down, I knew I was underachieving," Rowlett said. "I was a better ball player than what I showed. They knew it, too, and that's why they jumped me pretty good because they know what to expect out of me and they know what type of player I am.

"I sold myself short and I sold the team short last year."

From the coaches' point of view, the harsh reality of telling Rowlett that he didn't live up to expectations was required.

"When he came in, he thought he'd had a pretty good year," Van Horn said. "I said, 'Casey, you hit .292. You're not a home run hitter and you hit .292 and you think you had a good year? You're a 5-foot, 8-inch guy that hits .292? You've got to hit .350. That's what a 5-8 outfielder does.'

"I think coach Deggs and I blew him away with that. We really got on him."

Apparently, there was much of Rowlett left afterwards.

"Later, he went down to the locker room and we asked (UA graduate assistant) Bubbs (Merrill) later, 'Hey, what did he say when he left the meeting?'" Van Horn said. "Bubbs said he walked by him and said, 'Check out the back of my tail. Is there anything there because I just got it eaten off?'"

Approaching A Change
The result of the meeting was a change in Rowlett's hitting approach. Instead of trying to be a power hitter, he switched to more of a finesse-type of swing.

"I'm looking to hit everything up the middle or the other way and that's helping me stay on the baseball," Rowlett said. "When I think 'pull' or when I think, 'Hit it out of the ballpark,' that's when bad things happen.

"I'm not trying to hit home runs."

Van Horn said getting that point across was the reason for the reality check last June.

"He's trying to go the other way and that's why he's hitting so well," Van Horn said. "When he tried to pull it, he usually would hit fly balls. When he tries to go the other way, he hits line drives.

"I told him that, 'You'll hit .400 if you continue to swing the bat and go to right field,' and he might do it."

Whether the hitting streak continues doesn't matter to Rowlett. If he ever goes hitless in a game, he's confident he'll make up for it in the next time up.

"If I just stay simple and keep the same approach I've been with all year, I'll be all right," Rowlett said. "I'm getting some balls that are bloop hits that are falling in, but they'll all even out when I hit balls hard right at people.

"You've got to be lucky sometimes."

This season, Rowlett has taken on a leadership role that's been key to one of the Hogs' hottest starts ever. He's leading by example with his consistency offensively, but he also strives to be a vocal leader.

"He's always one of the main ones trying to hype everybody up," said fellow senior Scott Bridges. "It comes from him just being a competitor. He's a hard-nosed kid and I think that it's himself that gets him going a lot. Then, he likes to get everybody else going."

Rowlett has plenty of incentive to be successful as he's the only Division I baseball player from Jones (Okla.) High.

"I do feel like I have something to prove," Rowlett said. "I got a lot of people that look up to me, like little kids around my hometown and that drives me to want to go out and play the game the way it's supposed to be played and set a good example.

"If you play the game hard, something will come out of it. If you put in the hard work every day, something good will come out of it ... Whether it's in baseball or in life."

On All Cylinders
Another factor in Rowlett's turnaround is the fact he switched from a 33-inch, 30-ounce bat to the 34/31 he's swinging today. By choking up on it an inch, he said it increases bat speed and gives him "more barrel to work with."

"Coach Deggs told me to do that," Rowlett said. "Ever since I've did that, things have been clicking for me."

Rowlett learned several years ago to trust Deggs, the coach who signed him to Texarkana Junior College out of Jones High School.

"I don't know if Casey was recruited by any four-year schools," Deggs said. "He's from a little bitty town right outside of Oklahoma City and he had incredible stats in high school (.500 batting average, 28 homers, 107 RBIs in his four-year career).

"I remember when he came and worked out for us. He had played a football game the night before and he was a wishbone quarterback. We had him race our fastest player and he beat him by a couple of steps.

"I just remember thinking back then that this kid is going to be pretty exciting."

Through some rough times, Rowlett and Deggs have forged a special bond that's unmatched between most coaches and players and it's clear that their admiration is mutual.

"Coming into Texarkana as a freshman, I wasn't grown up," Rowlett said. "I hadn't matured whatsoever and (Deggs) straightened me out real quick. A few times, he even told me he was about to send me home and that got to me.

"He knows what buttons to push with people and knows what buttons he shouldn't push. He has a way of knowing that and that's one thing that's special about him."

Obviously, Deggs and Van Horn pushed the right button during last season's exit meeting.

"It's been fun for me to watch Casey because I've been with him three of his four years," Deggs said. "And he's really come a long way through a lot of hard work and perseverance. He's a self motivator and it's been fun to watch a combination of a bunch of hard work kind of come together for him.

"It's kind of all clicked."

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