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Cal (Pa.) pitcher Fennell finds his groove

| Tuesday, March 25, 2014, 9:15 p.m.
Cal (Pa.) athletics
Butler graduate Mick Fennell is 2-1 with a 1.13 ERA for Cal (Pa.).

Ask any baseball coach, and they will tell you a pitcher's best pitch isn't a fastball or a slider — it's a first-pitch strike. Starting ahead in the count helps pitchers take control of each at-bat.

Cal (Pa.) sophomore pitcher and utility player Mick Fennell is ahead of the game so far.

After a solid freshman season, the Butler graduate has gotten off to a successful start in his second collegiate season. Fennell is 2-1 with a 1.13 ERA. He has pitched 24 innings and allowed six runs (three earned), and he has struck out 14 batters against just three walks.

On consecutive outings March 9 and March 15, Fennell posted back-to-back complete-game shutouts, performances that earned him PSAC Pitcher of the Week honors.

“I feel like I'm off to a great start,” Fennell said. “I've been happy with my performances pitching. … Hitting, I should be doing better right now.”

Fennell is batting .295, down from .322 his freshman season, when he also posted 21 RBIs, 10 stolen bases and four triples. He drove in the winning run in the first game of a doubleheader sweep Tuesday against Salem International at Consol Energy Park.

The Vulcans (13-7, 2-2) have won nine of their past 11 games and hope to qualify for the PSAC Tournament for the sixth consecutive season under coach Mike Conte, who is in his 18th season leading the program.

Fennell and Cal junior shortstop Matt Peters were among 125 players chosen nationwide for the initial watch list for the 2014 Tino Martinez Award, which recognizes the best player in NCAA Division II.

Just 13 underclassmen, including Fennell, made the list.

“He's a very talented, hard-working kid,” Conte said. “He's lightning fast, has a cannon for an arm. He knows how to pitch. He's a good hitter. He's a plus player all-around.”

Fennell said the key to having success early in his collegiate career came down to attitude.

“I guess you could say it was intimidating going against these older kids as a freshman,” Fennell said, “but it's just being confident, knowing what your potential could be.”

Conte had “very high aspirations” for Fennell coming out of Butler, and both agree Fennell has improved from his freshman year.

“His talent level is very high,” Conte said, “and obviously, the more experience someone gets, the fewer mistakes they'll make.”

When he's pitching, Fennell tries to force hitters into making mistakes.

“I'm kind of a control guy that will throw strikes and make you make mistakes rather than give you a walk,” he said.

And he follows that mantra of getting ahead in the count.

“He always throws first-pitch strikes,” junior catcher Will Kaufman said. “You have that first-pitch strike, and you can do anything you want after that.”

Fennell also has picked up something new this season: third base. After playing in the outfield when he wasn't pitching last season, he has played third base and left field this season.

“Any position that'll get me in, I like it,” Fennell said.

It wasn't a move Fennell begrudgingly made, Kaufman said.

“He was absolutely gung-ho for this,” Kaufman said. “I think that's the reason this team is going to be good. Everyone's out there for someone else.”

Fennell has found success in the classroom, too. After his freshman year, the sport management major earned PSAC Scholar-Athlete status, which goes to athletes who post a cumulative GPA higher than 3.25. Fennell also has been on the Cal (Pa.) Honor Roll, which includes athletes with a GPA of better than 3.00 for a semester, for each of the three semesters he has completed.

Finding time for school hasn't been too difficult, even with the workload of baseball.

“It can be busy at times during the season, but it hasn't been too bad,” Fennell said.

Conte said it's the program's goal for athletes to focus first on their studies. The team posted a cumulative GPA of 3.371 for the fall semester.

“You're here for academics first,” Conte said, adding it's often the upperclassmen who encourage players academically.

Fennell said he's not sure what field he'd like to work in after college, but he would jump at opportunity to keep playing baseball.

The Vulcans have had several players move on to the professional ranks, including Kyle Petty, the university's first consensus All-American who was drafted in the 23rd round last year by the Seattle Mariners.

For Fennell, playing professionally would be a dream come true.

“I definitely think if I got the chance, I would pursue that,” said Fennell, whose older brother Jason was selected by the Chicago White Sox in the 45th round of the 1995 draft and played seven seasons in the minor leagues.

“Ever since I was little, baseball's been my love.”

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