The search for stability

By Postie Editors

By JOE GUZMAN

Senior Reporter

On March 23, the Oakland University baseball team will play its first home game of the season. OU is currently 1-7 in a season that started on Feb. 21. The team still has to play eight more games on the road before the home opener.

With no prior success to draw from — OU has yet to have a winning season in Division I — building the team from the ground up is not an easy task. Second-year head coach John Musachio is taking takes a “baby-steps” approach to producing a respectable product on the field rather than focusing on things like number of wins and statistical goals.

“This is a program that hasn’t had a lot of success and concrete goals need to be attainable,” Musachio said. “More importantly players have to believe they can accomplish them.”

Relying on a philosophy that is grounded in playing every game like its your last and trying to “control only what is controllable,” combined with patient coaching, respect for his players and a focus on their growth as men as well as ballplayers, Musachio has already changed the mentality of players deeply immersed in a losing culture.

“Some of us here have gone [through] three coaching changes, and we’ve seen a lot of different approaches, some good, some not so good,” said fifth-year senior infielder Rob Merkle. “When I came in there wasn’t a winning attitude, it was more that we hoped to win and, if we do that, it would be great. There’s an attitude where we expect to win. We’re not surprised if we win.”

A team of his own

Musachio was promoted to head coach last year after serving as assistant coach for two years. The change was the team’s third in four years, so it goes without saying that finding a coach committed to the team was the first step before even beginning to think about turning around the product on the field.

Promoting from within provided the much needed consistency to the coaching position. Musachio is now in charge of managing the players he had recruited, players with which he had an established relationship.

Having Musachio grow along with many of the players he’s recruited has allowed a consistent message to be built upon. They have experienced the same successes and failures over his four years here and that relationship has allowed him to trust in his veterans to police themselves.

“He has trust in us, that he can hand over the reigns to us, so he can let us take the team where we want to go,” Merkle said. Musachio said that the players have earned his trust through their perseverance through the program’s tough times, as well as the character they exemplify while working hard on the field, in the classroom and in the community.

A new mindset

Entering his first season as head coach, he was focused on motivating his players to play hard day in and day out, as the team went 15-30 and finished second to last in the Summit League. Reflecting back, he saw that the team was becoming competitive in games against opponents that they didn’t play well against in years past.

“Last year’s team really went out and competed,” Musachio said. “That was really the goal, and then let the chips fall where they’re going to fall. We were in a position to win a lot more games than we did, and that’s the next step leading into this year, which is learning how to win.”

End game

Last year, the team lost nine games in which they led after eight innings. According to Musachio, the inability to win late in games effected the team’s focus.

Musachio said learning how to win starts with playing the same way, with the same mentality, for the entire game versus innings one through seven.

“This program hasn’t been comfortable being in the lead late [in games] on a consistent basis, so we have to get past that point,” Musachio said. “Our guys had had their hearts broken quite a bit, and sometimes it just takes one break through victory before they turn that corner, and I know this group is going to get that breakthrough victory.”

Musachio is confident that this victory will come this season based on the relative success the team experienced last year, when the program achieved the best RPI the program has had, and achieved the best run differential in program history as well. When he reflects on last season, he looks to the whole body of work and takes pride in the fact that the team was more competitive than any other OU baseball team in its Division I history.

Confidence booster

First baseman Taylor Traub, another fifth-year senior on the squad, said that the team is buying into Musachio’s methods because what he brings to the team is instilling the core values that the team needed, such as team unity and trust in each other.

“He puts a lot of emphasis on senior leadership to take care of the younger guys and make it like a family atmosphere,” Traub said. “He has brought a sense of care and respect that I think was lacking in previous years.”

According to Traub, Musachio has done this by implementing a more comfortable, open-door policy for the players to interact with the coaching staff. He said the players respond to him because Muachio shows them respect in turn.

“He is not a yeller, so when he does, you know it’s for a reason,” Traub said. “It’s one thing to be a disciplinarian and yell to show guys up, when those guys aren’t buying into the program, it’s another when you show respect and then have a message to you madness.”

In the eight games this year, Traub is leading the team in hitting, with a .440 batting average, and in walks, with six.

For Traub the biggest effect the coaching changes had on him was on his confidence. He had battle injuries in his first couple years, and when that happened he began to put more pressure on himself, which impeded his growth. But he said his game has grown because Musachio instilled him with the confidence to trust his talent.

“He really has slowed the game down for me,” Traub said. “[He’s done this by] letting you know that your talented enough to get the job done and just let the game come to you, and just focus on the things you can control, which is the biggest thing because a lot of time in baseball things are going to happen that are out of your control.”

Musachio’s coaching goes beyond the results on the scoreboard. He is determined not only to teach his players to excel on the field, but in life as well, by demanding excellence in the classroom and participation in charity work.

Last year, 25 players were named to the Summit League Commissioner’s List of Academic Excellence, the most of any team in the league. They also volunteered to work with the children at Jack’s Place for Autism.

Merkle said working for Jack’s Place for Autism was hard at first because of all the responsibilities of college athletics, but it turned out to be fun.

“You see the smiles on their faces and their parent’s faces and they ask you questions and think you’re a superstar, and we know we’re not, but you actually understand that you make a difference, and it feels good,” Merkle said.

As OU’s baseball team continues towards its goal of producing a competitive product on the field, there is no doubt that to measure its successes it will have to go beyond the numbers in the win column, and for that, the team is already on the road to turning the program around.

“The commitment we’ve made to these young men is to teach them and help them transition from young men into responsible men,” said Musachio. “They take this experience very seriously, they see that this is a foundation of what we bel

ieve in as a program. Wins and losses are going to take care of themselves. We’re going to win games, it’s going to happen. But these guys have made a commitment across the board.”