For Community Colleges of Spokane pitcher McKabe Cottrell, collegiate baseball has been an odyssey , even if it’s one that hasn’t departed the area code yet.
That part could very well change soon – in an uncommon third year at the Falls, the 6-foot-1 lefty from Spokane Valley is receiving interest from what feels like the gamut of D1 programs at this point, with multiple offers from Pac-12, Big 12 and ACC programs. And with a league-leading 56 strikeouts and a 2.35 ERA in six starts as the undisputed No. 1 arm for a Sasquatch team holding the best record in the Northwest Athletic Conference (24-4, 17-1), it’s evident why.
Confidence is the 22-year-old’s game now, and it permeates his presence on the mound. In describing him, CCS pitching and strength coach Seth Heckel praised a rare capacity for gaining momentum and command as his pitch count rises. The Bigfoot are picking up speed too, having won 11 straight as an “unofficial season” nears its home stretch.
“He’s the cornerstone,” Heckel said, adding that an opposing coach told him he might be the best pitcher yet to come out of the NWAC. “He’s everything we envision our program and our pitchers to be about.”
That would’ve seemed like a pipe dream to Cottrell a little over three years ago, but not because the demands of being an ace were anything unfamiliar.
At Freeman, Cottrell was the catalyst on both offense and defense for a team that made the 1A state semifinals in all four years, a three-time League MVP who committed to play at Gonzaga midway through his junior year.
But a lone redshirt year would be the only time he’d spend at GU, where his velocity sagged and role shrank amid nagging shoulder issues. By the end of the spring, a fresh crop of throwers set to join the team the next fall felt like a barricade to a future there.
“I felt like a little fish in a big pond,” Cottrell said. “I come from a small school. I knew that I was good, but I had trouble believing I belonged on the same field with those guys.”
CCS had a different selling point: development tailored to what he wanted out of his time there, and an opportunity to create his own mold rather than something prescribed to him.
“From a pitching perspective, everyone’s body is different,” Heckel said. “Everyone’s arm is different. So why would we do the same thing, you know? That starts with us analyzing their movement patterns and figuring out what they’re good at and what they’re bad at and translating that into mobility work.
“The guys usually make the jump between being a junior college baseball player and being a Division I or a pro baseball player in the weight room.”
As Cottrell tells it, the first year brought the confidence, and the second brought the results – things just snowballed from there. In his first year on campus in 2019, he was the No. 4 starter on a CCS team that went to the NWAC championship and saw five players depart for Division I teams in the offseason.
And for the first time in a while, he said he realized that he belonged there just as much as anyone.
“Those guys have the same goals, the same work ethic – they want the same thing,” he said. “And it was just an atmosphere where everybody that showed up got better.”
So he continued to work, experimenting with his mechanics and pre-game routine, developing a changeup, and “dragging himself out of the weight room every day,” Heckel said, in an effort to reshape his frame.
Over two years, his fastball climbed into the 90s with the added strength and flexibility, and his control of the strike zone in areas that used to escape his grasp strengthened considerably.
“All that credit goes to him,” Heckel said. “That’s the thing about the way we do it. There’s a heck of a lot more room for failure than there is with the cookie-cutter approach, because I can’t – nor do I – hold anyone’s hand through it.”
In the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, he moved into the No. 1 role he has now, finishing with 27 strikeouts in three starts while giving up only four total hits. Even given the small sample size, something was clearly working.
“My confidence skyrocketed,” he said. “And I think it carried over to this year.”
But the pandemic hasn’t been kind to juco baseball this spring. The NWAC canceled its championship in December. Due to COVID precautions, travel and practice have become unrecognizable from how they were in his first two seasons there.
Doubleheaders and tripleheaders have become the norm to fill out schedules, primarily because teams can only face opponents within a three-hour drive, and many are limited in how many days a week they can compete. At CCS, practice only takes place about once a week; the rest is the responsibility of the players themselves.
And with no ulterior team objective other than a regular-season NWAC East championship, it feels more like he’s pitching to keep pitching, even if the body of work has already drawn interest nationally.
Heckel said Cottrell’s composure is part of what makes him appealing as a transfer:
“He shows up to the field ready to work, and then he portrays that once he’s on the mound. He’s never been a bad body language guy, never complained. … He just goes out there and does his job.”
The instability of the portal and potential for players to go pro on any given roster means he likely won’t reach a decision on what to do with his two years of eligibility until this summer.
A forthcoming commitment will be exterior validation of those three years of work, but it’s not as important now.
The inward kind came much earlier.
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