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magazine home > archives > spring 2005 > features

With most eyes focused on Heisman candidate DeAngelo Williams, another U of M athlete has quietly made himself a rarity by capturing all-conference honors in not one, but a pair of sports.

Double Play
by Greg Russell

  Gostkowski

U of M place-kicker, and pitcher, Stephen Gostkowski

Random thoughts pass through the writer's mind as he is cast into the unusual position of acting as holder for U of M place-kicker Stephen Gostkowski -- Lucy pulling the ball away from Charlie Brown, for instance. But the most unsettling thought for one not accustomed to holding the ball (the writer of this story has volunteered for a practice kick) is, "What if this 200-pounder misses the ball and takes my finger off?"

But Gostkowski doesn't miss -- it's as if he never misses. Check a few of the numbers since the two-sport all-conference star came to the U of M three years ago: nine strikeouts in a near-perfect outing against Air Force to open this baseball season; 20 of 24 field goals made last football season en route to being a semifinalist for the coveted Lou Groza Award. Added all up, it could mean the junior from Madison, Miss., could be the first U of M athlete to be drafted in two sports since football/baseball stars John Bramlett and Russell Vollmer in the early 1960s.

It might also mean -- hold onto your seat Tiger fans -- Gostkowski could be drafted by a major league club at the end of this baseball season, throwing him into a situation similar to the quandary star tailback DeAngelo Williams faced earlier this year: Leave after a junior season to pursue a pro career or stay put for a final year of college.

"I haven't really thought about it," says Gostkowski.

"Whatever happens, happens, but for now I am planning on returning for my senior year, regardless."

Chances are, Gostkowski will be back -- he already has been named to one preseason All-America list for the upcoming football season. And on the mound, the junior may need to develop more consistency. No matter what happens, Gostkowski has already left his mark as Conference USA's first-ever two-sport, all-conference freshman selection.

Gostkowski on the mound
U of M hurler Stephen Gostkowski hopes this season to return to the form that helped him earn Freshman All-Conference baseball honors two years ago.

You can call me ...

Of the six or seven nicknames Gostkowski has, the one he is most accustomed to -- Beaver -- might also be the most telling about his competitive nature.

While playing in a hotly contested back-yard hockey game as a third-grader in Buffalo, N.Y., Gostkowski's two front teeth went flying after he hit the ice face first. It is easy to imagine what happened next.

"I had to get fake ones put in and they kind of stuck out, so people called me 'Beaver,'" he says.

The less-than-flattering look faded as he grew older, but Gostkowski's fiercely competitive nature remained.

"We're blessed to have him," says first-year Tiger baseball skipper Daron Schoenrock. "He's a tremendous athlete. He is a very good runner and a good soccer player, too."

Gostkowski's expertise at several sports flung open more doors of opportunity than most collegiate athletes have. He came to the U of M as a baseball signee for former coach Dave Anderson, having given up on football after a "terrible" senior season on the gridiron.

"After my junior season in high school in football, I was being recruited as a kicker by Ole Miss, Southern Miss and Rice," Gostkowski says. "But I ended up getting benched halfway through my senior high school season -- I lost my job to one of my best friends -- and all of my football scholarship offers were taken away. I let the pressure of recruiting get to me."

Baseball, though, was still a viable option -- Gostkowski posted an 8-2 mark and a 1.40 ERA his senior season. Anderson provided the hurler "a chance to play right away" so he chose the Tigers over Ole Miss and Meridian Junior College.

But football -- with the Tigers' practice field just around the corner from the U of M baseball stadium -- was never far away.

"I wasn't going to play [football] here, but my parents talked me into trying out," he says. "I thought I would give football a try one year and if it didn't work out, I was just going to stick to baseball."

Four weeks into preseason drills as a walk-on, Gostkowski endeared himself enough to Tiger football coaches that

  Gostkowski on the field

On the gridiron, the 6-2, 200-pound place-kicker was a semifinalist last season for the Lou Groza Award and has already been named to one All-America list for the upcoming football year.

they offered him a scholarship. He soon also pocketed the job as the team's starting kicker.

Three seasons later, Gostkowski was a near miss for the Groza Award, which is given annually to collegiate football's best kicker. He put himself into the Groza picture by hitting 15 of his first 17 field goal attempts before two misfires against Southern Miss late in the season toppled his chances.

"You can't look back and say 'What if, what if," says the exercise sport-science major.

Gostkowski's 268 career points are the most ever for a Tiger at any position, eclipsing former U of M kicker Joey Allison's 263. Interestingly enough, it was Allison who won the inaugural Groza Award in 1992. With 48 career kicks to his credit, Gostkowski is posed to break Allison's all-time mark of 51 this fall.

Impressive too is Gostkowski's range: he made six of seven attempts from 40 yards or longer last year, and has a collegiate best of 50 yards. He once made a 55-yarder in high school.

Different sport, same result

Six months after earning All-Freshman C-USA football honors, Gostkowski finished a solid baseball season to be named to the C-USA All-Freshman baseball team. His 6-2, 200-pound frame and 90-mph fastball certainly make him attractive to pro baseball scouts.

But mixing two sports in college is not always easy -- take a look at Gostkowski's sophomore baseball season. The 3.99 earned run average he posted as a freshman ballooned to a bedeviling 6.66 in his second season.

"My arm felt really tired last year," he says. "I felt like I rushed myself trying to catch up with the other pitchers on the team."

Rock On!
 
Schoenrock
Schoenrock

Call it Daron Schoenrock's little book of wisdom.

When the first-year Tiger baseball coach took the skipper's helm last July, he brought with him a book he wrote over the course of a decade about the different components of pitching.

"It is a collaboration of everything I teach on the field -- it breaks down in pretty simple terms what the pitcher's role is in the whole scheme of things," says Schoenrock, or 'Rock,' as his team calls him.

U of M hurler Stephen Gostkowski says the book is helping him become a better pitcher because it makes him aware of lesser aspects of the game.

"It gives you an idea of what you need to do to get yourself mentally prepared to pitch," says Gostkowski.

The book has helped other pitchers as well -- 30 of Schoenrock's former hurlers have gone on to the professional level.

Schoenrock joins the Tigers after time spent at Mississippi State and Georgia.

His exuberance is already apparent. Besides an aggressive national recruiting effort that resulted in 14 highly touted early signees,

Schoenrock is working to start an active booster club and find a way to improve Nat Buring Stadium.

Don't expect any first-year miracles -- the Tigers' top three hurlers last year left the team for the minor leagues.

"We aren't as talented as last year, but I expect our team to be competitive," the head coach says.

 

To complicate matters, Gostkowski was pitching behind three Tiger starters, all of whom signed minor league contracts at season's end. The right-handed hurler was pushed aside, according to Schoenrock.

"A pitcher's psyche is very important," the Tiger coach says. "'G' is a very cerebral person. I think he just lost his confidence and got into a tailspin.

"This year, we are counting on him -- we're going to keep giving him the ball."

Missing fall baseball practice, Schoenrock says, means Gostkowski does have to play catch up.

"The biggest thing is getting his delivery ironed out," Schoenrock says. "And this year, with a new coaching staff, learning a new all-around system has been a challenge too."

Transitioning back to football in the fall has proven not to be as difficult for Gostkowski. U of M head football coach Tommy West says that missing spring drills may even benefit his kicker.

"Kicking is something you can really wear yourself out on," West says. "From a mental standpoint, the time off in the spring does him good."

And the winner is ...

So if Gostkowski had to make a choice, would baseball or football win out? Not exactly an easy question, he says.

"As far as things are run operation-wise, you can't beat college football," Gostkowski says. "There are so many perks to playing, so many fans. The press is always there and you get to travel to a bunch of great stadiums.

"But if I wanted to go out and just do something one day, it would probably be baseball. There is so much more pressure kicking field goals -- you could make all your field goals all year then miss a game-winning one and that's all people will remember. In baseball, you have a lot more chances to prove yourself. You can get hit hard in one game, but the next game come back and pitch a no-hitter."

The thought of playing pro baseball or football is equally tantalizing if the opportunity is afforded him, the junior says, but coaching baseball after college would suit him fine.

"It seems like baseball has always been a part of my life," he says.

Gostkowski shows he could have a career in politics too -- he has developed a very diplomatic side.

"I love both sports pretty equally," Gostkowski says. "I couldn't see myself giving one up for the other right now."

Which comes as good news for Tiger fans and coaches of both sports.

 

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