Chris Pollard’s 2018 Duke team tied a program record with seven MLB Draft picks, set a program record for wins, and advanced to its first Super Regional in school history.
What were the expectations like for your 2018 team, and how did you manage them?
This was really one of the first years in the modern history of Duke Baseball that we entered the season with some expectations. We had several returning playing that were proven performers in the ACC, and we had a few guys that had really electric summers- Jimmy Herron, Zack Kone and Griffin Conine were All-Stars in the Cape Cod League- and Griffin was named the top pro prospect in the Cape. There were some expectations that this team could be pretty good, and we had a preseason national ranking for the first time in school history.
We had to manage those expectations more this year than any previous years I’ve had as a coach. We had a veteran group with several guys who were going to go on and play at the next level, so we spent a lot of our focus on being committed to the moment, being where our feet are. If you’re really completely invested in that next pitch, that next play, that next rep- you shouldn’t feel that pressure. Expectations and pressure are external distractions. We preach process and routine, and when guys are committed to that, they’re able to block out those external factors, but it’s hard. It’s a lot easier to talk about those things than it is to put it into practice. There are times during the year that we did a good job with that, and there were times that we really had to grind away at it, get back to being committed to that moment.
How else do you practice the mental game with your club?
I’m big on practicing breathing. We start off every practice with breath control. We’re also big into yoga, we do it every week with our guys. I’ve found that yoga has just as many- if not more- mental benefits than physical. It’s great for your body, but I think it’s even better for your mind. So before we start our dynamic warmup, we spend a couple minutes on our breath- to ‘check in’ and be completely committed to the moment.
I’m also really big on guys using routine development. If more guys can develop routines for everything they do- and get focused on the adherence and completion of those routines- you can become more driven by the process than the outcome.
Going into what would be a one-hour, 37 minute lightning delay at the Athens Regional, you guys faced a seven-run deficit with three innings left to play in the losers bracket. After that delay, you outscored the competition 47-15 over the next four days to advance to Duke’s first-ever Super Regional. So… what happened?
It gave us an opportunity to hit the reset button. They had sent us up in the batting cages underneath the concourse, and it was a really somber atmosphere, really emotional. You could see the faces of some of our seniors who were thinking ‘this is it.’ We just talked about the fact that we had three innings left to play, and we were going to play hard, play together and whatever happened, we were going to keep our heads high. We scratched across a couple runs in the seventh, a couple more in the eighth, and had that big inning in the ninth, a really improbable inning led off by a freshman that really hadn’t played all year.
The first 16 innings of the Athens Regional, we just really laid an egg- we didn’t get good starts on the bump, we didn’t swing it at all. We were sitting there in that rain delay down 8-1, getting ready to go 0-2, and it was a frustrating time, our guys were really down. But something clicked in that rain delay, we were able to come out of that thing like a different team, and really played some of our best baseball over the remainder of that regional.
What are practice fundamentals that you hit every week?
We have a Thursday practice with a pretty set routine as far as that goes. One is just an adaptation of fly ball communication, we have to complete 21 plays in a row without a mistake, and if we make a mistake we start from scratch. Most everybody does something like that too, but I like it because it gets guys talking, it gets them competing and it creates a little bit of pressure within the flow of practice.
Another thing we like to do is something we stole from Rusty Stroupe at Gardner-Webb, called a concentration drill. It’s just a pre-set group of plays that we repeat about 5-6 times. We turn some double plays, we have a PFP play in there, some bunt defenses in it. We complete one set and we do it over and over again, it allows us to see some things that might happen over the course of the weekend- turn a double play, handle a squeeze bunt- you get a lot in a short amount of time in that drill.
We are really routine-driven here, especially if you ask our players. I like it because it’s familiar and consistent on a day-to-day basis. I don’t know that there’s anything outlandish or unusual, but it’s our goal to have most everything stay the same, regardless of whether we’re on a four-game winning streak or a four-game losing streak.
Being a head coach/pitching coach
It’s been a long track record of me driving our pitching coaches crazy- I’ve been just involved enough to get on their nerves! It’s hard for me to completely divest from that side of it because it’s my background, but in the flow of practice I tend to migrate that direction. I’ve tried it two times in my career, where I was a head coach and a pitching coach at the same time, but it was a big mistake. I have tremendous respect for Kevin O’Sullivan and John Savage and the guys that are really good at doing that. I’m probably as uninvolved as our pitchers right now as I have been in the last ten years.
Every once in a while within the flow of a game, I may give a suggestion- but Coach [Dusty] Blake is really, really talented and prepared. Anytime a pitch is about to be called, I know he has a lot better background and a rationale for the decision he’s making because of the time he’s spent studying our opponent.
I called pitches for 17 years. When I was at Appalachian, we had a pitching coach that worked with our guys on a day-to-day basis and I would call pitches, for about 7-8 years we did that. But more and more, I feel that the guy that’s working with the pitchers in the trenches should be the guy that’s calling the pitches. He’s also the guy that’s spending the hours studying hitters and putting together scouting reports.
What are the must-haves when it comes to building a program?
Every situation is different, they all have advantages and some disadvantages. So you work with the resources that you have, but the things that are absolutes? You have to have a great staff. You have to have attention to detail, consistency of approach, work ethic. Great facilities won’t help you if you don’t have those things. There’s a great quote in The Mind Gym that says “those that do well with the tools they have get more tools.” We are going to do the best we can with what we’ve got, and we’re not going to make excuses based on what we don’t have.
What are the trends in recruiting that you’ve noticed, and what would you change?
Everyone is looking for players that are a fit for their programs. What makes that harder is when you’re trying to identify those qualities as a 14-15 year old versus a 17-18 year old. We made some headway this past April by shifting back to a model where kids are making decisions later. I think we’re getting on the same page, I think everybody realizes that we have to do something. We’re not exactly on the same page with what that something is, but I think we are getting closer.
There’s already a model out there with lacrosse that softball has adopted, and that’s that you can’t have any contact with players until September 1 of their junior year. There are some logistical challenges, but I think that’s where we are going eventually. It concerns me that you can have a phone conversation with a kid and you can’t sit down and talk with them one on one in your office.
Given time, I think we’ll get back to the days where kids are committing their senior years, and everyone will know a lot more about what they’re getting, coaches and players.
What’s it like working in the same athletic department as Coach K?
The thing that I have so much respect for when it comes to Coach Krzyzewski is after all of these years, he still has that edge. He’s passionate and intense just like a first- or second-year coach. To me, that’s a big part of what makes him special.