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Cal State Bakersfield coach Bill Kernen once left the coaching profession to become a playwright with hopes of crafting the perfect story. Little did he know that when he returned as a college head coach, he’d be part of the script in one of college baseball’s best stories so far this season.
It’s the story of the Cal State Bakersfield Roadrunners. It’s a program that was started from scratch when Kernen was hired in 2007. And it’s a school fighting major recruiting obstacles sitting in the middle of California and an hour outside of Los Angeles.
Away from the glitz and glamour of Los Angeles, Kernen and the Roadrunners have put together a story that has captured the nation’s attention. They’re 11-3 this season and have a chance to make their biggest statement this weekend at South Carolina.
The surge comes in a year when the Roadrunners are postseason eligible for the first time in program history.
“I really didn’t know what exactly to expect as far as results this season, but I thought we’d be advanced enough to compete at a high level against most teams,” Kernen said. “We think it’s far too early to start thinking about making an NCAA Regional, but you have to consider it. If we can win 35 games with this schedule, you would have to take a serious look at us.”
The Roadrunners will have plenty of opportunities to earn marquee wins the rest of the season despite being a Division I Independent. They have the series against the Gamecocks this weekend, and will play UCLA later in the season. They also have series with UC Riverside and Fresno State, among others.
Even with a possible postseason berth at least a blip on the radar screen, the more intriguing aspect of this previously unknown program is how it has gotten to the point of competing with the elite.
Bakersfield hired Kernen back in 2007 with an understanding that he was a mental-driven coach that had success at previous stops. He compiled a 240-154-3 in seven seasons at Cal State Northridge, and also served as an assistant for former Cal State Fullerton and current Texas coach Augie Garrido.
Kernen had the bloodlines of a winner.
In his first season on the job, in 2009, the Roadrunners, as expected, struggled to find an identity. They had a huge collection of new players that obviously had never been around each other. And they finished the season with a 13-37 record.
Last season, with several returning players, the Roadrunners made vast improvements, finishing the year with a 26-30 record. Progress was marked and it was obvious the program was headed the right direction.
“The main thing that has happened over the last 30 months is that the guys that have been here since Day 1, they’re really gotten used to us and their teammates,” Kernen said. “There’s more experience, more player development and most important of all, there’s more team chemistry than ever.”
The Roadrunners also have made vast improvements in their mental game, something that Kernen emphasizes more than anything else.
“A lot of sports has to do with the mental aspect of the game. You can be as good and talented as you want, but unless you have the heart, guts and intelligence, it’s not going to do you any good in the end,” Kernen said. “The athletes that are the very best have a competitiveness level that is just completely off the charts.”
When Kernen took the job at Bakersfield, he raved about the success that could come from rigorous mental training and pushing the body to the limit. That philosophy has helped players such as pitcher Tommy Hoenshell and catcher Jeremy Rodriguez greatly improve their game.
“From a practice perspective, we actually do practice like we’re in the middle of a game. And it has a huge impact on us,” Rodriguez said. “I’ve never had a coach like Bill Kernen. He’s been awesome and I’ve learned so much. I definitely think he’s the type of coach you want to play for to get to the next level.”
Hoenshell, who outlined Kernen’s visualization of various playing situations in practice as a huge plus for his game, echoes Rodriguez’s sentiments.
“The visualization process and mental aspect of his coaching has definitely helped me improve more than ever. I’ve gained more control of my pitches, and he helps us recognize when to throw pitches in what counts,” he said. “We as players have so much respect for Kernen. He expects a lot of us and he knows what he wants.”
Kernen is pleased with his club’s production and consistency. The pitching staff has been fantastic with Hoenshell, Jonathan Montoya, Mike McCarthy and Brandon Van Dam leading the way to a 1.98 staff ERA. The offense, meanwhile, has a .306 average, but Kernen believes they could do better.
“I really don’t know how good this team is yet,” he said. “We’re going to find out much more about these guys against the Gamecocks. We’re playing a great team at a place where they pretty much never lose.”
Perhaps the Roadrunners are ready to add another chapter to what already is an intriguing story.
Kendall Rogers is the managing editor of college baseball for Perfect Game USA and has covered the sport for over 10 seasons. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org