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Worth The Wait

March 9, 2010

by Jon Cooper, Associate Editor

ATLANTA — Patience.

It’s a crucial element in succeeding at the plate.

Cole Leonida is proving that it’s also pretty important in succeeding behind it.

In Leonida’s case, patience had nothing to do with waiting on pitches or pitchers. It had more to do with waiting for the chance to get in the game for Georgia Tech.

“It’s been a little while,” said the junior, who already has made 10 starts this season after making 40 over his first two seasons combined. “I’ve had to take my lumps and sit behind some guys who definitely deserved it.”

“He’s had a run of tough luck, getting here as a young player and having an older catcher in front of him,” said assistant coach Bryan Prince. “It was only a matter of time before he got an everyday spot to show and to prove how good he really is.”

As he waited, Leonida, never one to sit idly by, continued to work.

That work ethic has earned Leonia a fan in the team’s strength and conditioning coach Steve Tamborra.

“He works hard. He’s got a good head on his shoulders,” said Tamborra. “He’s one of those kids, I can give him the workout, I don’t even need to watch him. He’s going to do every single rep, he’s going to do every exercise. He’s going to take his appropriate rest. He’s an easy kid to work with, low maintenance. Give him the workout, he”ll get it done.”

If necessary, he’ll come back for more and will stay as long as it takes. Prince recalled one evening, when Leonida took almost an extra hour of batting practice following a spring intrasquad game.

“That’s what he does,” said Prince. “We just got finished practicing and he just said something wasn’t right and he wanted to work. So we went into the cages and worked and talked about some things. it’s the rule with him. He’s just always trying get better.”

“He never really got down about [lack of playing time],” said Tech pitcher Deck McGuire, Leonida’s best friend and roommate. “He kind of knew coming in he had one or two games a week, accepted it and just tried to excel when he got his chance. He never really worried about his playing time. Cole had to bide his time. Now he’s gotten his chance and he’s really performed.”

When 2009 starter Jason Haniger graduated and Brandon Miller transferred following his freshman season, Leonida knew 2010 was his opportunity to shine.

Ironically, it was only then, when he knew he’d start, that he started worrying about playing time. He directed that anxiety into working even harder in his off-season preparation this past winter.

“I didn’t want to have any excuses come June as to why I was getting tired or run down,” said the Aurora, Colo., native. “I wanted to make sure that everything I did in the fall and early in the spring put me in the right place to be successful all season because our team is special this year and a lot of guys are depending on me to be healthy and, to be there for the pitching staff and for the team all season.

“If I hadn’t worked hard throughout the fall and the spring I was putting our team at a disadvantage.”

Thus far, it’s advantage, Georgia Tech.

Through 11 games, Leonida is crushing the ball, hitting .474, second only to infielder/pitcher Jacob Esch, with 18 hits (third behind only Esch and outfielder Chase Burnette). His three doubles, three homers, 15 RBI also rank second. He’s the team leader in on-base percentage (.545), and is second in slugging at .789, only two percentage points behind Burnette.

Not bad for a guy who came into the season with a career average of .236 — largely due to his freshman season, when he hit .145.

“I’ve built on what I started working on last year,” said Leonida, who hit .306 in 2009. “I’ve tried to be more connsistent with my swing and having a better approach, especially with two strikes. It’s really just getting the bat on the ball and understanding what you’re trying to do every time you’re at the plate instead of trying to do too much up there. I’m trying to shorten things up, realizing that home runs and doubles, all that are just accidents.”

It’s no accident that Leonida’s improved hitting coincided with increased playing time and his production should further increase with his move into the clean-up spot, where, in his first weekend on the job, he cleaned up. In his first game there last Saturday, in front of his mom and dad, he went 4-for-5, with a homer, four RBI and three runs scored. The next day, he added two more hits.

“There’s protection all throughout the lineup. Everybody’s a good hitter, everybody’s got power. It’s great,” he said. “You’ve got to break up the lefties somehow. I’m just fortunate to be right-handed.”

He feels as fortunate to catch such a tremendous pitching staff.

“I’d love to take some credit for how good our pitching staff is but all those guys work so hard. They know their mechanics, they know what they need to do,” he said. “My job really is just to try and keep certain guys excited, certain guys calmed down. It’s more just managing their emotions out there because physically, our top four starters could be Friday guys anywhere in the country. I really don’t have to do a whole lot. They make me look better than I am.”

McGuire feels that’s not exactly true.

“There’s not a guy you’ll talk to who says they don’t love to have him behind the plate,” he said. “When you look at the physical tools, he’s a big target to throw to, he has great hands and he just does a great job behind the plate. And the way he handles each and every guy, he knows us all so well that it really helps on the mental side of things, too.”

Being in control of the staff and firmly in control of his game, Leonida is driven to follow in the footsteps of his father, Dennis, his coach since he started playing the game and a third baseman on the 1974 Northern Colorado team that made the College World Series. His uncle, Chuck Kniffen, played in the Phillies organization and has been pitching coach for the Class AAA Colorado Springs Sky Sox of the Pacific Coast League and the Arizona Diamondbacks.

“We’ve talked extensively about the College World Series and about Omaha,” Cole said. “He said it was an experience like nothing else. That’s been one of the goals I’ve had, as long as I’ve understood what college baseball is all about, I’ve wanted to get there and be the second Leonida to play in Omaha.”

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