Under The Radar
Friday, April 17, 2009

After just a few minutes on the phone with Ed McCann, it becomes exceedingly obvious that he has boundless energy, optimism and humor. Those are particularly useful qualities for a coach at Centenary, the nation's smallest Division I school with an enrollment of just around 800. Even after 13 years—11 as head coach—McCann still maintains his field himself, from fertilizing to mowing. He said his legs are all chewed up right now from being on the back of the weed-eater.

"We're doing things other people probably don't have to do," McCann said. "But we're not everybody else. That's what makes what has gone on here special."

When the Gents played a road series last weekend at Summit League foe Western Illinois, they took a bus from Shreveport, La., to Macomb, Ill., and back. Google Maps says that's a 778-mile trip.

"I don't know anyone else who spends 18 hours on a bus ride back from Western Illinois," McCann said. "But you win three (out of three), you feel good about yourself."

The Gents have had plenty of reason to feel good about themselves in 2009. They're 23-6 and have posted wins at Texas A&M and at home against Arkansas. They're also 6-1 in conference play heading into this weekend's four-game series at perennial Summit League winner Oral Roberts.

"Every time we play someone, they're Goliath, we're David," McCann said. "We beat A&M, when they were No. 1 in the nation, at their place. Was that a big win? Yeah, it was. Then we beat Arkansas, and we thought, 'You know, we're pretty good.'

"You've got to change that mindset at Centenary, to think we're not very good. We've got a good thing going on here. I call us the Princeton of the Pines, the Brown of the Bayou. We're the only Division I school in Shreveport, a city of half a million people. We've got great facilities, a great schedule, it's just taken some time. I think we can be the Rice of the Red River; we have high academic standards, and I think we have a chance. That's what it's about right now."

That attitude was nowhere to be found at Centenary 13 years ago, when McCann says he arrived at "Tumbleweed Tech" or "Horseshack U." Slowly, the Gents have upgraded Shehee Stadium, which was renamed after local philanthropist Peyton Shehee in 2001 after a generous donation allowed Centenary to erect quality grandstands, a fully functional press box and sound system. Each year, improvements are made on the facility: new lights, a sprinkler system, locker rooms and coaches' offices were added in 2000; concessions and restrooms in 2001; a new outfield wall with a 20-foot "monster" in 2002; dugout improvements in 2004; a new entrance area in 2006; new batting tunnels in 2007. Shehee's widow, Virginia, donated $100,000 for new restrooms and concessions, but there was a catch: She didn't want women to have to wait in long lines to use restrooms anymore. So there are eight stalls in the women's room, and two in the men's room.

It's taken some time, but Centenary now has facilities that the players take pride in. They even comb the stands picking up trash after games.

"Everybody else could have done all this (stadium renovating) in two or three years, but it's taken me 13 years," McCann said. "And I don't have that kind of patience. The only one who has that kind of patience is Job."

McCann's patience is being rewarded on the field, too. The Gents cast a wide net on the recruiting trail, reeling in many of their 22 players from California, Washington (where associate head coach Mike Diaz has roots) and Texas (where assistant Pat Holmes has ties) as well as Louisiana. For the first time McCann can remember, he has three middle-of-the-lineup threats who protect each other in Michael Tompkins (.390 with five homers), Tell Ross (.418 with three homers) and Travis Leverson (.351). Tompkins (or "Boomer", as McCann calls him) is a transfer from Walla Walla (Wash.) CC; Ross ("Big 'Un") transferred from Lon Morris (Texas) JC; and Leverson ("this little bitty guy who can swing it") came from Santa Ana (Calif.) CC.

McCann said the backbone of his team is his middle infield. Senior shortstop Ricky Imperialli and senior second baseman Tim Deering ("Batman and Robin") both transferred from Palomar (Calif.) CC and have played together since they were kids. McCann said their laid-back Southern California attitude drives him nuts, but maybe it's helped him mellow a bit.

"Do they cause me headaches? Yeah, they do," he said. "But on the field, they're cash money. They can pick it a little bit—they're the best double-play combination I've had here in years. Look at my roster, we have quite a few kids from California, quite a few from Washington. I think it makes us a better team because you blend, and you get a different flavoring."

Sophomore righthander Boone Whiting (4-1, 2.68), who beat Arkansas, is another California product, and sophomore righty Justin Kraft (5-1, 2.20) hails from Washington. Senior righty Joe Hagen (1-0, 2.50), who beat the Aggies, is another Washington product, but junior lefty Dakota Robinson (4-2, 4.46) is from Louisiana. Robinson is Centenary's best pitcher and prospect, but he rolled his ankle and is not expected to pitch this weekend.

The Gents have also been dealing with injuries to third baseman Morgan Brian (wrist) and center fielder Jomar Tabor (hamstring). They only have 22 players to begin with (three players decided in the fall they wanted to do something else and left the baseball team), so dealing with injuries is not easy.

"But we're finding a way," McCann said. "I'm not making excuses—that's for losers. They're gamers, and they want to pony up this weekend. Oral Roberts, they've got a tradition, they've got a culture of winning, a very rich heritage of winning. It's taken a long time to get it done here. We know the conference tournament and conference championship runs through Tulsa, Oklahoma."

This trip means even more for McCann, an Oklahoma native who still has family in Tulsa. In 1984, when he was the head coach at Mannford (Okla.) High, the school was destroyed by a tornado on a Sunday morning. That season, McCann coached his team to a state championship, which it won on the field at Oral Roberts.

"So it's very, very special for me; it's hard to explain," McCann said. "Oral Roberts is a campus where you expect a miracle."

(Story Courtesy of Baseball America)