“We are both pretty smart players and we are more concerned with winning than individual performance,” Kyle Chamberlain responded when asked about the ways in which he and fellow senior Michael Hopp are both similar and different. “I at least have a chance to hit a double,” he added, upon which both players burst into laughter.
In many ways, Chamberlain’s response perfectly captured the essence of who the two Wildcats are both on and off the field.
Ask any baseball player what the most important aspects of a good team are and he will respond with something along the lines of, “talent, work ethic, chemistry and leadership.” The Wildcats have proven that they have the talent necessary to be one of the top teams in the country, and one would be hard-pressed to find a person that questions the work ethic of anyone in the program.
The chemistry and leadership aspects are a bit more complicated.
Good teams know how to win, and when they do so consistently, a snowball effect can make them an unstoppable force. However, often times a single loss or mishap along the way can derail the team and shift its mindset completely.
Great teams, however, not only know how to win, but have leaders who are also excellent at responding to losses and understand how to turn negatives into positives. These players bring teams to the next level, and for the second-ranked ‘Cats, the attitudes of Chamberlain and Hopp are a big part of why the team is a national powerhouse.
Both on and off the field, their light, playful and sometimes joking demeanor is readily on display for anyone paying close attention. It’s there when the ‘Cats break for pregame infield and Hopp hesitates for a few seconds to push head coach Scott Brosius back into the huddle and prevent him from jogging onto the field. It’s there when Chamberlain and the younger catchers lie on their bellies by home plate after games, carefully filling in the holes worn by a day’s worth of cleats. But when the background music cuts and the umpire points toward the mound to signal ‘play ball,’ the mindset switches to all business and the two are truly at their best.
Individually, each player has a unique set of tools that makes him a valuable asset to the squad. “Hoppy is honestly the most intelligent player on the team in terms of on-field thinking and anticipating situations,” Brosius said of the utility infielder. “He always seems to be not just in-step, but a step ahead of the game both at the plate and understanding how to defend.”
Hopp’s innate ability to think ahead and make adjustments more quickly than anyone else is noticed by his teammates as well. “He’s got that baseball savvy and intelligence and you can always trust him to do the right thing in the right situation,” fellow infielder Jordan Harlow explained. “He’s a great defensive player, he can handle the tight situations, and can make both the routine play and the great play,” the senior third baseman added.
Brosius cited Chamberlain’s solidarity and even-keel mentality as the catcher’s most valuable traits. “He doesn’t change whether he’s swinging the bat well or struggling, and whether it’s a tight game or a blowout he is the same guy,” Brosius said, adding, “He is calm, easy going and never gets tight or anxious, and it is really important for the younger players to see that.”
“He is never stressed even if he’s not having a good game or not playing well,” sophomore catcher Chance Laboda commented on Chamberlain’s mindset. “He is a smart player who knows the game, and he is a good guy to follow and play behind.”
In it since Day 1.
The senior tandem has a number of qualities in common. They both bat from the left side, they are both noted by teammates as leaders by example, but perhaps what stands out most is the fact that they are the only two seniors who have been in the program for four years.
“They are the two amigos from the class of 2013, and they are very similar in terms of their approach to the game and how they go about their business,” Brosius said. “You don’t ever see anything negative from them, and they always make an effort to help coach the younger players.”
“It was kind of weird seeing everyone go, and when we tell stories from freshman year we are the only two who really get it,” Hopp commented. “No one played with Kelson (Brown) or Tommy (George) or remembers when Bosko was dominant,” he added referring to playing alongside Brown, who currently plays in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ minor league system, and former All-American Zach Boskovich, who led the nation with 17 home runs in 2010.
“I feel really old. I remember Rhett’s three-bomb day and Coleman’s ‘Party In The USA’ song,” Chamberlain said referring to the potent power of Rhett Fenton (2010) and the always hilarious antics of Kevin Coleman (2011). “No one knows who to make fun of when we talk about them.”
While it would have been tough to predict that Chamberlain and Hopp would become best of friends by the end of their college careers, perhaps the fact that they met each other before arriving at Linfield suggested this eventual reality. “The first time I saw him was at the (Oregon) All-State Series in high school and he had the ‘fro going,” Chamberlain said, referencing Hopp’s hair that occasionally reaches a length that requires a headband to keep it at bay. “He was scrappy and loud and he stole off of me twice,” Chamberlain remembered back to the series, adding, “I thought to myself, ‘Who is this guy?’”
For Hopp on the other hand, the memory of his first encounter with Chamberlain is much more vague. “I don’t really remember him from the State series, but we were catch partners here freshman year,” Hopp said, adding, “he was pretty quiet and reserved, but I could tell that he knew what he was doing.”
While Chamberlain and Hopp share the common factor of attending Linfield for the opportunity to play ball, each player had secondary ties to Linfield as well. “Casey Cameron and my uncle both played here,” said Chamberlain, whose cousin who graduated in the spring of 2012. Hopp’s connection stemmed from both of his high school coaches, who attended Linfield.
Making a great first impression.
Entering a perennially successful program is no easy task for a player out of high school, but Chamberlain and Hopp each showed promise by debuting on varsity as freshmen.
Hopp played in 10 games - starting three - throughout the first half of the 2010 season. He was used primarily as a defensive replacement, as he saw just 17 at-bats his freshman year. His glove proved to be a huge asset for the ‘Cats, however, as he handled all 25 of his chances perfectly, making no errors while seeing action at second, third and shortstop.
As the year came to a close and conference play wrapped up, the ‘Cats made an impressive run to win the NWC. They followed that with a first-place finish in the regional tournament for a chance to compete in the NCAA Division III Baseball Championship. When the roster was released, it didn’t take Chamberlain long to scan down the alphabetically listed players until he saw his name sandwiched between Cederberg and Coleman. “Going to Appleton (the site of the tournament in Wisconsin) was probably the best moment of my career,” Chamberlain remembered. He picked up his first varsity hit en route to a third-place finish by the ‘Cats.
One last chance at glory.
Since the 2010 season, Linfield has suffered a defeat in the championship game of the regional tournament (Texas, 2011) and a third-place finish in the NWC last season, the latter of which squelched its chances at a regional berth. The ‘Cats have different plans for this season, which has already been witness to several great accomplishments. Linfield was honored with its first No. 1 ranking in the DIII coaches’ polls, the pitching staff has been outstanding with four complete games and a 2.33 ERA, and junior Jake Wylie currently leads the nation with 45 RBI.
While all the numbers suggest another deep run into the playoffs, the reality is that team chemistry and the Wildcats’ reaction to adversity will determine their ultimate fate in the final season for the Chamberlain and Hopp.
“Baseball is a game that is sometimes based on how you handle the failure, and you have to be able to laugh at yourself a bit,” Brosius said. “They both have a great sense of humor and an ability to laugh at themselves, which is a great trait to have.”
The rest of the season is, in many ways, a bold-faced challenge and an uphill battle for the ‘Cats. While Linfield shares first place in the NWC, 10 of its final 13 games are on the road, including nonconference trips to California and Idaho. There may be a setback here and there, and Linfield may very well find that its hopes of reclaiming the NWC crown come down to the final series of the season.
The team’s ultimate test down the stretch will be whether a positive attitude can remain resilient no matter what happens between the lines. Considering keeping morale up and remaining steadfast is their specialty, Chamberlain and Hopp will undoubtedly help the ‘Cats reach their highest potential.
-- Evan O'Kelly '13