Bearcat Insider Speaks With Coach Cleary

Coach Cleary took time from his busy schedule to sit down and speak with Bearcat Insider for 45 minutes on Tuesday morning. We spoke about a number of topics.

As the Bearcat baseball team continues into the second half of its 2007 schedule hoping to qualify for the Big East Conference tournament in late May, Bearcat Insider visited with Coach Cleary to talk about the state of the program.  The Bearcats are presently 18-14 overall and tied with two others for 6th place in the Big East.  Eight of the twelve clubs qualify for the conference tournament.


Cincinnati lost six of its nine everyday hitters from last season, and the general belief is that the 2007 club doesn't have the same power numbers as the previous year's team.  Bearcat Insider looked at the numbers.  The 2006 club averaged 2 doubles, .27 triples and .67 home runs a game.  The 2007 team averages 1.7 doubles, .16 triples and .91 home runs.  Overall, last year's team averaged 2.9 extra base hits a game while this year's group averages 2.8 a game.  As far as run production goes, the 2006 Bearcats averaged 7.1 runs a game, and this year's version averages 6.7 runs a contest.  The offensive numbers are down but only slightly.  


Maybe the one position that has seen the biggest reduction in offensive output is catcher.  Junior college transfer, Ryan Baker, is presently hitting only .212 in 31 games.  Steve Maragas, who is medically redshirting, hit .253 last season and high school signee, Jesse D'Amico, unexpectedly got drafted and signed with the Milwaukee Brewers.  Coach Cleary talked about the catching situation.  "Jesse was a surprise draft for everybody, and certainly you wouldn't expect a guy drafted at that stage of the game to sign."  D'Amico was drafted in the 21st round. 


The major league draft in early June creates a Catch 22 for many college baseball coaches.  They want to find the best player they can get, but they don't want a player so good that he's a likely high draft pick.  "The problem is you lose a player in mid-June, and there aren't a ton of players available.  Our challenge is to recruit people that aren't a slam dunk to sign a pro contract, but at the same time you want draftable players.  Players that pro teams want.  With D'Amico, I think it's fair to say that only one team liked him.  Never in our estimation was he a guy that could go to pro ball out of high school."  The surprise loss of both Maragas and D'Amico have caused a lack of competition at catcher and fewer offensive options for the manager.  "We felt we were in pretty good shape at catcher.  We had Maragas returning, a junior college catcher (Baker) to give us depth and a high school catcher."


Monday night, Neall French caught the entire game against Marshall University, but according to Coach Cleary, the team's leading hitter moved behind the plate for two reasons-to infuse more offense into the line-up and to rest Baker.  "It was a little bit of both.  Neall is a good receiver and blocker.  I thought he called a great game.  He does a lot of good things, but he's struggled to throw consistently."  There were no attempted steals by Marshall on Monday night.


As far as the offensive production goes, Coach Cleary believes a number of factors figure into the equation.  "I think we may have more home runs than this time last year.  They maybe haven't been as timely as in the past.  I think one of the things people need to understand is the scholarship limit.  You have 11.7 scholarships, and you're probably going to have to do without something you want.  It's not like football where you're playing 44 guys and have 85 scholarships.  You have 25 or so players and only 11.7 scholarships.  I think you need power in the line-up, but it's hard to find.  Hitters are hard to evaluate.  If you look at this league, I felt there were times last year where our power just didn't show up because parks were big and there was just good pitching.  I felt we needed to try to create more runs, but in a perfect world, you want a balance of both.  I would like to have more power, and I would like to have more speed and more consistency offensively.  I would like to see us score more runs than we have, but we're giving ourselves a chance to win in most of our games because of our pitching and defense.  I think it's a pitching league."


In recruiting, coaches can go the junior college route or take high schoolers.  Coach Cleary gave his preference.  "High school players for me are the no brainer, but they're going to struggle.  The only thing to do is to keep them out there.  Michael Earley is a good example for us.  He's made some mistakes, but he's got a chance to be a good player for us.  The same is true for junior college players.  It's a different game here.  Look at Logan Parker.  He was okay his junior year, but it wasn't until his senior year that he really learned what he was doing.  We've taken junior college players, but they've usually had some connection here.  Either they went away and came back, or we recruited them out of high school."


Recently, Coach Cleary made the managerial move of removing himself from the third base coaching box to take a seat in the dugout.  He discussed the decision.  "I spent three or four years not coaching third base several years ago.  It's never been a major issue for me.  We debated this move in the off season.  I would like to not coach third base.  There are some things you can't see from third.  I felt I wanted to be in the dugout more and be able to talk to the players.  I'd say probably half the teams we play don't have their head coach coaching third base."  Of course, no major league managers coach third base.


The NCAA allows schools to have two assistant coaches on payroll.  Brad Meador and Joe Regruth fill those roles at UC.  Luke Howard is a volunteer assistant.  "We're at the limit of what the NCAA allows."  Coach Meador coaches the position players while Coach Regruth serves as the pitching coach, but Coach Cleary has taken more of an interest in the all-important pitching.  "I have taken more of an active role with the pitchers this year than I ever have.  I think pitching is going to be a very large component of our success, and I wanted to be sure I knew what our pitchers were thinking.  I think it's been a good thing."


The goals Coach Cleary has set for his program are what an avid fan would want.  "I want us to compete year in and year out for Big East championships.  I want to set ourselves up to win it every year knowing full well we won't.  Baseball is cyclical given the scholarship limit, but if we can continue to recruit the people to the facilities we've got, I think we'll be in position to compete for the championship regularly."  Coach Cleary doesn't rule out a trip to Omaha in the future.  "The gap between teams that get there and those that don't isn't that great.  We're not there yet, but I've been to Omaha and seen those teams.  We're not as far off as you might think.  Do we have players good enough to play in Omaha?  You bet.  That's something that if we can get ourselves to being leaders in our league, it's certainly a possibility."


Some would scoff at Coach Cleary's assertion that the Bearcats are capable of making it to the College World Series because of Cincinnati's cooler climate and the fact that most of Omaha's regulars (South Carolina, Miami, Texas, Stanford, Fullerton, etc.) are from warm weather climates.  But an NCAA rule change may soon be helping the Midwestern and eastern schools.  "It would be foolish to say weather has no impact, but it's not at the top of our list of obstacles.  The impact of the weather will be minimized next year when the season is moved back.  Miami's going to have to play their same number of games in the same amount of time as Cincinnati."  All schools are limited to playing 56 games, but warm weather teams like Miami of Florida have started their season a couple weeks earlier.  This allows them to play many of their games on weekends and use their top three pitchers more often.  This also has a trickle down affect with scholarships.  If Miami can use its top pitchers in the majority of its 56 games, they have more scholarship money to entice position players since they can survive with a smaller bullpen.  "Next season everyone will start and finish their season together, and that's the single most significant thing college baseball has done to try and level the playing field."


In addition to a unified season for all schools, Coach Cleary also believes the NCAA will soon institute a proposal restricting roster sizes to no more than 27 players and scholarship offers to no lower than 33%. 


With a new administration, a steady turnover in varsity coaches and the institution of the Catapult program with the expectation of every sport winning a Big East championship within a five year period, does an eleventh year coach with no league championships feel pressure to win immediately?  "There's nobody with higher expectations for Cincinnati baseball than me.  I thought I knew what I was getting into when I came here.  I've been through the tough times, and now I feel like we're in a position to achieve.  I want to get this program to where I want it and win championships here.  I feel more pressure to impress myself than anyone else.  I'm trying to do the best job I can every day I'm here."


If Cincinnati Bearcat baseball has a model for what it can become, it needs look no further than Louisville, Kentucky.  The Cardinals have a similar climate and have moved from antiquated stadiums to a state-of-the-art facility, but despite those problems, the Cardinals have been a consistent winner with appearances in the NCAA tourney.  Coach Cleary respects the Cardinals but sees a couple major advantages for their baseball program over his.  "One advantage they have on us is the cost to go to school there.  It's significantly less than us.  In our sport that has an impact since we don't offer full scholarships.  Ohio is the #2 state in the nation for cost of college.  It's very expensive, and that unfortunately impacts your chances to get players.  They also are ahead of us in budget, not just in baseball but everything.  I don't think they're light years ahead of us, and when this is all said and done, I think you're going to be looking at us, Louisville, S. Florida and Notre Dame in the mix to win this thing."


The Big East baseball tourney will be held in Brooklyn this year.  Will it ever come to the Queen City?  "I don't think it's real likely we'd get it.  We did bid on it for last year, and our administration put together a competitive bid.  There's been a thought to hold it in a neutral site in a minor league park so I think it'll be difficult for us to host it."


This weekend the Bearcats travel to Morgantown to play the Mountaineers, who are tied with UC for 6th place.  Coach Cleary's goal is simple.  "The goal every weekend is to win two of three, and you definitely don't want to get swept.  Getting swept is tough to overcome."  But before the Bearcats tangle with their league rivals, they will try to extract some measure of revenge against their crosstown rivals.  The Muskies beat the Bearcats 1-0 on March 20 and started a slide where UC lost four of five games.  UC can't afford a repeat and would obviously love to take a two game winning streak into West Virginia.  Wednesday's game with Xavier has a scheduled first pitch at 6:30.


Bearcat Insider would also like to thank Coach Cleary for granting us this interview.

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