Cameron Edman thought he was just helping out. Turns out, he may have created a career.
When Edman straps on his gear and runs behind home plate tonight for the Gonzaga Bulldogs, he’ll be following in the spike marks of a handful of outstanding catchers GU has produced in the past 10 years.
But none of them had a more roundabout road to success in baseball’s toughest position.
Edman grew up in Montana, where high school baseball is nonexistent and American Legion summer ball reigns. He spent his freshmen and sophomore years at Treasure Valley CC in out-of-the-way Ontario, Ore.
All the while he was an infielder – a good-hitting one, but an infielder nonetheless. That’s what he was when he came to GU three years ago. But during his redshirt season, the Zags needed a bullpen catcher, and Edman volunteered.
“I really didn’t think much about it,” Edman said. “I thought I was doing that just to help the team. I didn’t really work on much, I really didn’t watch (Tyson) Van Winkle, which I should have, unfortunately.”
Van Winkle, another in a long line of standout Gonzaga catchers (see sidebar), was finishing his career that season. After he left, coach Mark Machtolf was worried.
“We had a high need for a catcher,” he said.
So he asked Edman if he would give it a go. Looking to get into the lineup, Edman said yes.
Coming off an NCAA appearance, last year the Zags struggled to a 20-36 finish, with Edman catching about 75 percent of GU’s games. Unrefined, he had to battle behind the plate and at it.
“Last year I was kind of shoved into it,” Edman said. “With no experience, it was kind of learn on the fly.”
To improve, Edman worked over the offseason with Gonzaga Prep coach Brian Munhall, a former Zag and a long-time minor league catcher.
Munhall, who also played the outfield at Gonzaga, caught 432 games in seven years of minor league baseball, including two years in Triple-A for the Giants.
“He really knows what he’s talking about,” Edman said. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him. … I was really able to get after it this off season with him.”
“He’s just one of the best workers we’ve ever had in our program,” Machtolf said of Edman. “He’s just worked, worked, worked.”
And it’s paid off.
“Last year he was decent behind the dish, this year’s he’s been outstanding,” Machtolf said.
Edman not only handles the physical part of catching – receiving, throwing, blocking balls and the plate – he also had grown into the mental aspect, calling pitches for some of the GU pitchers, including closer Cody Martin (11 saves).
The Zags’ staff has improved immensely this year (Gonzaga is 31-17-1 and 14-4 in the West Coast Conference), with Machtolf praising the pitchers, Steve Bennett’s coaching and, yes, one other player.
“You also have to give the catcher credit,” Machtolf said. “He’s back there and he’s the one that’s getting it out of them, ultimately.”
Such praise is something Edman blocks just like another 54-foot curveball.
“I was thinking about this the other day,” he said. “With some of these guys it’s like playing a video game almost. You’re out there, it’s, ‘All right, we’re in this count, what do I want to throw here?’ No matter what I call, more times than not they execute it.”
As his defense has improved, so has his hitting. A .495 and .385 hitter in Legion and a .382 hitter as a sophomore at Treasure Valley, he hit just .254 last season.
Edman goes into this weekend’s three-game showdown for the WCC title with USF (29-22, 14-4) hitting .345, with nine home runs and 33 RBIs, all among the best in the conference.
“Just being here and being comfortable with the system,” he said of the reasons behind his success, “being comfortable with how the coaches teach you to hit, and being comfortable with my place at the school. That’s helped, being at ease with being here.
“And then I have a really small class load so I was able to get a lot of extra swings.”
Plus, the academic All-American – he graduated this month with a 3.62 grade point average in applied communications – has discovered a passion.
“I love it,” he said. “The thing I like the most about catching is I’m in every single play. I’m actually in charge of the game.”
Washington State ends the regular season this weekend in Los Angeles. Unlike the past couple of years, there is little to no chance the Cougars will be playing beyond this week.
Despite taking two of three from Oregon last weekend – and probably putting a stake in the Ducks’ postseason hopes – WSU’s 24-27 overall record, its 8-16 mark in the Pac-10 and an RPI of 71 means its run of NCAA appearances will stop at two.
But three wins this weekend against USC (24-29 overall and 12-12 in Pac-10 play under first-year head coach Frank Cruz) would get the Cougars back to .500 overall, which would mark the sixth time in coach Donnie Marbut’s seven years in Pullman they have at least broken even.
Redshirt sophomore first baseman Taylor Ard, the reigning Pac-10 player of the week, has a chance to improve on his .326 batting average and his Pac-10-leading 51 RBIs. He and right fielder Derek Jones are also tied for the conference home run lead with eight.