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All American Game  | Story  | 4/15/2013

'Best three years of my life'

Jeff Dahn     
Photo: San Diego

There are certainly worse stations in life than being a college student and baseball player in beautiful San Diego, even if the experience meant delaying a professional baseball career for three years. It’s a decision Kris Bryant was faced with after he graduated from Bonanza High School in Las Vegas, Nev., in 2010 and was faced with two viable options involving his future.

Bryant, at the time the No. 39-ranked national prospect in the high school class of 2010, had signed a letter of intent with head coach Rich Hill at the University of San Diego. He was subsequently selected by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 18th round of the 2010 MLB First-Year Player Draft. Bryant ultimately chose the baseball and beaches offered in San Diego, and to say a plan has fallen neatly into place would be a gross understatement; his draft stock has risen meteorically after three lights-out seasons as a Torero.

“It’s been the best three years of my life and it’s gone by so fast,” Bryant told PG during a recent telephone conversation. “Coming out of high school I don’t know if I was ready for professional baseball, but now I think I definitely am because these coaches here (at USD) made me better in all aspects of my game. I am so thankful to them for the opportunity that they gave me here and now I’m ready to see what my future holds.”

That future, seemingly, couldn’t be much brighter. Through USD’s first 35 games this season, Bryant – a 6-foot-5, 215-pound right-handed hitting third baseman – batted .336 (41-for-122) with a national-best 15 home runs, to go with 36 RBI, a .515 on-base percentage and .811 slugging percentage. Perfect Game now ranks Bryant as the No. 8 overall prospect in this year’s MLB amateur draft.

Once Bryant got acclimated to playing baseball at the highest collegiate level, he immediately made his presence known. He was named the West Coast Conference Co-Player and Co-Freshman of the Year after batting .365 with nine home runs, 17 doubles, 36 RBI and 57 runs scored in 2011.

There was certainly no sophomore slump for the big guy in 2012 when he again was named first-team all-conference after hitting .366 and leading the Toreros in seven offensive categories including hits (79), home runs (14) and RBI (57).

Incredibly, Bryant showed no letdown through the first half of this season.

“The most satisfying thing has been seeing him make a jump (in his progression) every year,” Hill told PG in a separate telephone interview. “When he came to us he had a pretty good background in hitting … but he just needed to grow into his body. He was 6-5 and wiry and strong and athletic but he’s spread out and really became a lot more stacked-up and real balanced (and) he has just taken off.”

Bryant is an ultimate student of the game and has been a very fast learner. He prides himself on his ability to figure out the competition before they can solve the puzzle he presents when he’s at the plate.

“I think a lot of it is just getting used to how (other teams) are pitching me,” he said. “I’ve been here for two years now and I’ve kind of picked up on some of the things that they try to attack me with. That’s what baseball is about; it’s about making adjustments, and going to college was the best decision I’ve ever made because you learn a whole more.”

Bryant’s father, Mike Bryant, was a ninth-round draft pick of the Boston Red Sox in 1980 and played two seasons in the minor leagues before his playing career ended. Mike was the first person to work with young Kris on his game, and that instruction continues today.

“He had a huge impact on me and he still does,” Bryant said. “It’s just nice to have someone who played the game and knows the ins and outs of it, because this game is so tough; you really need someone that you can just to about things. He’s been that figure for me since day one and I call him after a game here still, and talk to him. … He’s definitely been the best dad I could ever ask for.”

In the summers of 2008 and ’09, Bryant participated in five Perfect Game events on four of the biggest stages in PG’s theater. He played at the PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., in both 2008 and ’09 with the powerhouse Ohio Warhawks. Among his teammates on that ’09 Warhawks squad was current Torero right-hander Michael Wagner, also a Las Vegas native. The two have been roommates at USD the past two years.

“It was obviously something different but it was something that I needed to do in order to be where I’m at today,” Bryant said. “I really feel like (Perfect Game) gets the best competition that (it) can get and it’s great for the sport of baseball. I’m happy I was able to attend those events because it really got me on the map and it really got me looked at.”

Bryant also attended three Perfect Game showcases, including the two biggest: the 2009 Perfect Game All-American Classic, held at San Diego’s PETCO Park, and the ’09 PG National Showcase, held at Minneapolis’ Metrodome. Twenty eventual first-round or first-round compensation draft picks attended the 2009 PG National Showcase, including another current USD player, right-hander Dylan Covey (who was also a West teammate of Bryant’s at the 2009 Classic; another West teammate was a kid named Bryce Harper).

“That was definitely one of the top (experiences) in my career,” Bryant said of the Classic. “It really wasn’t even the game itself; it was the events we did outside of the game in the (San Diego) community. Just being around awesome players and awesome people – that was definitely a fun time in my life, especially with it being in San Diego.”

Bryant was a 2010 Rawlings First Team All-American selection following his senior season at Bonanza. After the 2010 draft was completed and the people that were close to him began to digest his fall to the 18th round, USD’s Hill was among those most interested in the young prospect’s decision.

“The only thing I know about the pro deal – is a kid going to sign, is he not going to sign, is he coming? – is that I don’t know,” he said. “Until the deadline passes and they’re on campus, you’re not really sure. So many things can happen it’s tough to really compete with all of those zeroes.

“But I had a really good feeling about it, just because of the family,” Hill continued. “They were extremely convicted that college was the place Kris needed to use as his minor leagues. There was conviction in the parents’ voices so we felt really good about it.”

Bryant couldn’t help but feel he had been overlooked. When he arrived in San Diego in the fall of 2010, he was a young prospect with something to prove and a bit of a chip on his shoulder.

“There were a lot of factors that went into that selection but I felt like I was better than an 18th-round pick,” he said. “But I decided I was just going to forget about that whole draft, and I was going to come to San Diego and tear it up. I’ve put that in the past and not even thought about it.”

By Bryant’s own account, working with Hill and USD hitting coach Jay Johnson over the past three years has improved every aspect of his game. He’s a much better defensive third baseman and is bound and determined to remain at that position. He has also played some first base and outfield for the Toreros.

“It’s a challenging position,” Bryant said. “Not to take anything away from playing the outfield, but I feel third base is more challenging for me. I really take pride in my defense as much as I do in my hitting and I really want to show people that I can play third even though I’m a big guy.”

“I think that he’s figured out there are a lot of guys that can play the outfield and a select few that can play third base; he’s really worked hard at that craft,” Hill said. “Just recently in the last few weeks I’ve seen a real jump. He’s become more aggressive on ground balls and really makes the plays coming in.”

His ability to swing the bat has never been questioned. In a Perfect Game “Draft Focus” report published on March 15, PG national crosschecker Frankie Piliere wrote:  “The power that Bryant has is also much more than pull power. What makes him unique is his ability to drive the ball out to any part of the field, including right-center. He stays inside the ball exceptionally well, and that big extension allows him to generate significant opposite field power.”

Piliere added: “No player that I scouted in the 2013 draft class gets the type of extension that Bryant does. At 6-foot-5, 215 pounds, clearly he has the long frame working to his advantage, and that extension is a big part of why his power appears to come so easily.”

Bryant also excels in the classroom. He graduated from high school with a 4.7 GPA and the USD finance major was named to the WCC’s All-Academic Team in 2012 after posting a 3.34 GPA. When combined with the numbers he posts on the baseball diamond, it’s about as complete of a package imaginable.

“He’s a once in a (coaching) career kind of guy in terms of a position player with these kind of tools and this kind of make-up,” Hill said. “The make-up is what jumps out at you first; he’s a real polite, respectful kid that is extremely hard-working. He’s also the guy you want to walk down an alley with at three in the morning, so he possesses some incredible character traits.”

USD slipped to 20-15 overall (6-6 WCC) after losing two of three games to Pepperdine this past weekend. The Toreros were 40-17 (15-9 WCC) in 2012 and advanced to an NCAA Regional where they went 0-2, and had the goal of returning to the postseason this spring. There is still time to turn things around as USD moves into the second half of its conference slate.

“We do have a lot of strengths and we’re really trying to accentuate that,” Hill said. “We’ve built it around Kris and trying to get guys on in front of him and get guys to protect him, also. We’ve just been a little streaky so hopefully in the second half we can get guys to become more consistent and we can get on a roll.”

Bryant can only hope to continue the roll he has been on for nearly three years at USD. The draft will arrive again in early June, and this time he can expect to hear his name called very early on the first day. Yet Bryant insists the draft is not his focus at this time. He’s still enjoying his days in San Diego.

“I would be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about it all … but I’m just here right now trying to focus on winning as many games as possible, and if I’m winning games then the draft will take care of itself,” he said. “My three years here have just been amazing and it’s the best decision that I made. I am so glad I didn’t sign out of high school because I wasn’t ready for it. The experiences that I’ve had here are priceless and I’m so glad I got to go through these three years with some of the most special people I’ve ever met in my life.”