CEDAR RAPIDS — Coe Coach Steve Cook has been able to harvest the nearby crop of quality baseball players.
In the middle of the regular-season champion’s lineup, four regular starters, including three infielders, are products from Metro programs.
“There is a nice culture here in Cedar Rapids and the surrounding area,” Cook said. “We think there are plenty of good baseball (players) here and we’re just trying to identify the kids who are open to the idea of staying home and playing closer to home.
“This group in particular has had a really nice presence, for sure. I think it’s integral in our success to have guys think coming to Coe and staying closer to home is a good idea.”
The 12th-ranked Kohawks will get to play in their own backyard as well, earning the top seed for the American Rivers Conference tournament at Memorial Stadium, beginning Thursday morning. Coe received a first-round bye and awaits the winner of Dubuque and Central.
“We’re going to go out there and pitch our best, hit our best and play our best,” Coe shortstop and former Cedar Rapids Prairie prep T.J. Johnson said. “In the end, we’re going to trust the process and hopefully it comes out our way.”
Johnson is part of that hometown contingent that helped Coe roll to the conference title, going 22-2 in the A-R-C and 32-3 overall. He is a full-time starter and relief pitcher. He is joined by former Cedar Rapids Xavier prep and second baseman Nolan Arp. Jacob Henry, a former Cedar Rapids Kennedy standout, has taken over at third. Cam Frazier, of Cedar Rapids Jefferson, has started 20 games in center field.
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“It shows the Metro has been strong,” said Johnson, who is 5-0 with two saves. “It shows there is a lot of potential coming out of it.”
Even though players battled against one another in recent high school seasons, they have come together at Coe. What about good-natured ribbing about better prep programs?
“Not a whole lot,” Johnson said. “Maybe a little just for fun. More of the trash talk is Dubuque County vs. Linn County.
“There is always that joking around and having fun.”
Arp and Johnson are among team leaders in batting average, hitting .343 and .341, respectively. Both have been solid defensively, fielding around .970 and turning double-digit double plays. Henry overcame a bit of a slow start and has played well.
“Pitching and defense has been our cornerstone all year and we’ve done both at a high level,” Cook said. “We’ve gotten high level performance out of all three of those guys in the way they play, not only statistically but the types of plays and the moments when they happen.
“When you’re doing that up the middle, you have a foundation for your defense. Both of our (middle) infielders have been absolutely exceptional this year.”
Arp and Frazier, who is second among outfielders with 43 putouts, are seniors. Frazier has increased his role, sharing some time with Isaac Evans. Johnson saw some action as a freshman and said that experience was vital in making progress.
“Those are the transformations you have to have in order to be good,” Cook said. “If you don’t get that out of T.J. or three or four other spots on the field from one year to the next you won’t have the type of season that we’ve had.”
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Interestingly, Henry was being considered as a middle infielder entering the season. Cook moved him back to the hot corner, which he played part of the last two seasons.
“He is hard-nosed,” Cook said. “He’s a kid you never have to worry if he’s locked in to play a game. He is always there mentally and emotionally, giving you everything. Laser focused.
“He’s been really big for us. He’s played well both offensively and defensively.”
Coe is looking to add to its three conference tournament titles. The Kohawks have won many games with their league-leading pitching and defense, but also lead the conference in batting. They are versatile and will rely on that for success this weekend.
“We talked a lot about sticking to what we’ve been doing,” Cook said. “Talking about how we’ve won a lot of different ways and that’s always a good formula for tournament time. ... Ultimately, finding ways to win and being OK with that.”
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