Baseball's Monster Mash

Although it may not resemble the impact Jamaal Mashburn had on Rick Pitino's UK basketball program in the early 90's, UK junior Ryan Strieby committing to Coach John Cohen's program in November of 2004 out of Edmonds Community College does draw some scary parallels.

Like the ‘Monster Mash' before him, the highly recruited superstar destined for stardom and fame chose the friendly confines of the bluegrass over the traditional powers that generally ruled their respective sport.

And they did it all for – a coach.

"I don't think at the time we knew who we were competing with when we were recruiting Ryan," UK baseball coach John Cohen said. "Some kids are different and you just don't know. Some embrace the competition and challenge that are present at Kentucky."

The third-year coach and former Mississippi State baseball star managed to pull the hard hitting right hander away from baseball super powers Oklahoma, Washington, Washington State and Hawaii and land him in Lexington after a tip from pitching Coach Gary Henderson led him to the West Coast.

"I'd rather fight the battles and not win them, then not fight them at all," Cohen stated. "(Kentucky) is certainly not a traditional baseball power, so we are gonna lose some kids. Last year, we lost a kid to LSU and Georgia, but we've beaten both of those schools for kids, too, so we've gotta keep fighting those battles.

"We sit here and expect our kids to compete at the highest level, so we should too"

But while the signature shocked most in the college baseball globe, it didn't shock those around the former 29th round draft pick of the LA Dodgers.

The son of Ken and Anne Strieby, Ryan was born and raised in the state of Washington in a town called Brier, just a short drive from nearby Seattle, where Ryan was born. A natural born athlete, Strieby had been welcoming challenges from the moment he stepped on the playing field.

"He's a kid of few words," said Nalin Sood, current Mountlake Terrace boys' basketball coach who formerly coached Strieby in high school. "He doesn't do a bunch of talking. He sort of speaks softly and carries a big stick. He doesn't have a chip on his shoulder. He just wants to go out and improve."

A humble personality and soft spoken ability helped lead Strieby to new heights academically and athletically. The patient slugger went from the bench to the spotlight his senior year in basketball and baseball at Mountlake Terrace High School, where he earned Athlete of the Year in 2002-2003.

"Really, up until my junior year at Terrace, I was on JV," said Strieby, who averaged 16 points and 11 rebounds his senior season in leading Terrance High School to the State Tournament. "I didn't get my shot until my senior year and I had a great year. I guess you could say - I just was waiting for my shot."

His shot - he was told - was in baseball, however, where the 6-foot-7, 235 pound basher has become a household name.

"My potential was always with baseball," Strieby explained. "My future was brighter. There just aren't many chances for a 6-foot-6 white kid in basketball, but there aren't too many 6-foot-6 guys in baseball."

More so than his height; his 'art' as Coach Cohen calls his plate presence.

"(Strieby) is one of the most talented players I've ever worked with and I've coached four guys in the big leagues right now," Cohen added. "He's as good as any of them and his potential is limitless. He is a rare combination of contact and power and those two usually aren't associated with each other."

After high school, Strieby, who was drafted in the 29th round by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2004, came to Kentucky from Edmonds Community College in Brier, Wash. after hitting a ridiculous .450, with 7 home runs.

"The stuff Coach Cohen teaches you is a different philosophy than most of us our used too," Strieby said on Cohen. "But he really helps you become a more complete and mature hitter."

"You just have to trust him."

Trust.

Sound familiar? To UK fans, it should. In 1992, a young freshman from the Bronx made a similar career choice in choosing an upstart program over the more glamorous schools of choice.

His name will be forever etched in stone at Kentucky basketball history, but will Strieby's?

"I don't know," the junior first baseman explained. "I definitely liked that about Kentucky and I think our team thinks about it all the time. It's gonna be real special, down the line. Coach Cohen has this program going in a good direction and it would be really neat to look back at my time here and say it all started with my team."

It wasn't the easiest of sells. Oklahoma State has always been a traditional baseball power and nearby Washington and Washington State have had better baseball programs historically than Kentucky. Even Hawaii, the land of 1,000 beaches, seemingly had a better shot at landing the flexible gunslinger.

That changed when he met Coach Cohen and Lexington.

"When I came on my visit here, I felt really welcome at the school and the coaching staff," Strieby continued. "That was really the main reason. I really liked what Coach Cohen had in store for me and what I could learn from him."

Many believed Kentucky would never get a chance to teach the Washington state native anything, as Strieby was projected to be taken in the major league draft and ultimately sign a major league contract.

After rolling up huge numbers as a sophomore that included a .450 batting average that ranked in second in the league, seven home runs, a league- leading 21 doubles, 62 RBIS and 48 runs scored, many felt it was a no-brainer that the Northwest Athletic Association of Community Colleges first teamer was headed to the big-leagues.

For whatever reason, they were wrong.

"At Edmonds, I made huge strides," Strieby said. "Last year, I was in a win-win situation, really. I had a pro contract waiting for me or I could go to Kentucky. I just played my game and that's about it. I didn't really worry about the major leagues. I figured I'll go when I was ready."

Coach John Cohen, the slugger thought, would make him ready.

"Coach Cohen is a really great hitting coach," Strieby said. "He places a lot of emphasis on hitting in the middle and works a lot on my lower half of my body, but he thinks my hands are really good and he thinks I can get better."

"He's a kid that was drafted twice by the Dodgers and is just an artist as a hitter and really has a great feel for hitting," Cohen said of his star protégé. "He's got a great 240-250 pound body. Thank goodness he felt he wasn't ready for the next level yet."

And the Wildcats couldn't be happier with Strieby's production. Already off to the school's best start in its 102-year history, the baseball program is sky high thanks to its newest contributor, who has already been named SEC Player of the Week after leading UK to an upset series victory over 8th ranked LSU.

The victory also landed the Wildcats in the national polls.

"As a team, I want us to get better and better every day and make a regional," Strieby concluded. "It would be a huge step for the program. To do well in the SEC and to play in the post-season would be huge and would be memorable."

"Our group came here to do that. It doesn't happen too often at a school like Kentucky, so it's a big deal."

And if he does lead UK to the 'dance,' will the junior college addition be one and done?

"I don't know, it all depends," Strieby said with a grin. "At this point, it would be a tough choice."

Of course, so was choosing Kentucky.

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Rob is a contributing recruiting analyst for Scout.com's East Region and the state of Kentucky. He is currently a liaison journalist for Cumulus Broadcasting, as well as co-host of Kentucky Sports Radio and Rovion's SEC Basketball Preview. He formerly wrote and edited for Inside Kentucky, the magazine and website, and his articles have been syndicated on websites for Yahoo!, CBS Sportsline, Fox Sports, Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News.


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