bleedCrimson.net: Getting to the NCAA Regionals was one of the goals for your team this season and to be able to have achieved it is a big accomplishment.
Rocky Ward: Yeah. You set goals every year as a coach in any sport and you try to set them at a level where they're challenging but not unattainable and there are times when that's a difficult thing to do. We kind of set them at a pretty good level. We thought that they were a challenge to get to an NCAA regional but very attainable based on the schedule we put in front of our kids and if they would do what we thought they could do then they would get to that point. I think sometimes you feel a little disappointed that you didn't set your goals a little bit higher even though I thought our players played really well in the regionals. We played really really plus defense, we pitched very well. The two historical weaknesses of our program showed up. We had opportunities as an offensive and we didn't come through so our offense fell a little short. I think in the long run I'm managing this better because we did get the segments of our team that had been a little bit of a weakness to play really well. I think I would have been more disappointed, like I was in the conference tournament when we didn't play any defense and didn't give ourselves a chance to win.
End result is that the goals we set to make an NCAA Regional were met and we really played well in the role. You wonder why when you get there and you really play quality defense that some baseball breaks kind of get in your way. I think luck, baseball luck or any luck is just a psychological position. It's not real, yet people talk about it all the time and you always feel like the concept, even logical thinking people, buy into the idea of luck that if you've had some bad luck lately that you've got good luck coming. I don't know how that works all I know is that based on the regional and some of the things that happened to us we have a whole bunch of luck coming. I just don't know when it's going to come.
You're proud of what the program accomplished. Goals and expectations are a funny thing. It's a matter of perspective. If you're a mid-major team that doesn't have very good funding and some semblance of recent history like we've had, we had moved ourselves into a realistic cinderella stage where we were good enough to beat some of the better teams. We had to get some breaks to get it done. That's a breakthrough because there have been some teams in New Mexico State history that couldn't get to that point. So I think that all of us to a certain extent, throughout our lives, I think it's a life mission for every human being on the planet to get to the point where they're comfortable and satisfied with what they've accomplished, that they're proud of themselves.
One of the things my dad told me when I was a kid that was really confusing, when I was 12 or 13 years old he kept telling me that I have to learn to love myself and I'm going, "Well that's kind of weird. What do you mean by that?" But I understand better now. All of us strive throughout our lives to be accepted by others but the real, most important acceptance is when we accept ourselves as what we are and we can live with what we've accomplished and survive what we haven't accomplished. Yet as we reach goals, it's almost an impossible task.
Keeping it in baseball terms, at one point in our life playing above .500 is an important goal, then qualifying for a conference tournament, winning a conference championship, going to a regional, every year it's almost a self-defeating prophecy to be happy. Once we've reached a goal we set the next goal a little bit higher and as a result there's a long-running business principle called The Peter Principle. Everybody within a corporate structure is at a level of incompetence. It means that you're promoted from one level to the next level to the next until you get to a level where you can't be promoted to the next which means you're incompetent at the level you're at. It's a negative concept but it has some reality to it. Our next goal is to not just make it to a regional but to make it deep into a regional. Our next goal is to not just make it to a conference tournament but to win the conference tournament. The world works this way, life works this way. It's not terribly worth living if your goals are easily attainable. There's not much reward at the end and yet in order to set goals where there's a major reward at the end you have to accept the fact that you may fail and you have to accept those failures. I think you stop progressing as a ball club and you stop progressing as a team when you're not willing to set goals that are lofty. At that point you might want to consider doing something else. So this club, we set lofty goals, we reached them but all it leaves us at this point just a week since the last game, you either set your goals to not only make a regional but get to a super regional and continue to risk the pain that comes with failure or you just sit back and accept that maybe this is the best, this is the highest place you can reach. I know who I am and I know what I want so my goals will be set to not only make a regional but to win it.
bc.net: When you take a look at the Super Regional field, three of the teams were on this year's schedule and you finished with a 4-4 record against those teams and a 12-10 record against the teams that made it into the tournament.
RW: When you put it that context, Kent State, Arizona and Baylor. What Kent State did in getting to the Super Regional does not surprise me. I was impressed with the ball club. To go back to that period, we had lost two in a row to them and the game three of that series was game one of 14 wins in a row for us. I give them a lot of credit for kind of slapping us around and waking us up. Game three of that series I think we were 8-8 and could have gone below .500 and that's a big psychological barrier but we won that game, won the next one and kept on winning after that and included a couple wins against Arizona on the road, a win against Texas Tech and a couple wins against New Mexico that were all big wins through that stretch. I'm really pleased and happy that the team that woke us up and got us going is having some success. It's hard to do in this business, it's hard to be happy the success of your opponents. I've got a lot of friends in this business and there are a lot of times I'm not terribly happy that they've won but I am in this case with Kent State.
bc.net: The difference between the 14 game winning streak this year and some of the streaks in the past is the quality that you mentioned, two wins over Kent State who is a Super Regional team, two wins over New Mexico who was a regional team, two wins over Arizona on the road is a Super Regional team and a win over Texas Tech and it was also the longest winning streak in club history.
RW: It was a neat run and only a few people know the whole story. This ball club did it without me at one point, they did it without their hitting coach for period of time, without their pitching coach for a period of time. Because of mom's sickness they had a head coach whose mom was put on a ventilator who everybody felt like probably wouldn't survive but we've been blessed by the fact that they did. They have a hitting coach who is very important to the tradition and history of our ball club that couldn't be with us for almost two months of the season and then we had a pitching coach that had kidney stones that put him in the hospital. So for a couple games there the leadership of the team was in a 24-year old, or as he told me he's 25 now, in Nate Shaver. I feel blessed that I've got a former player that was at the right place at the right time that couldn't handle that situation without choking. He didn't make any big decisions, he just kind of let them play which is what I wanted him to do and he handled himself very, very well during that period.
It's a period of time in the season where a lot of things were accomplished under very difficult conditions and I think that I'll remember these players for a long time. I have a lot of respect for all the kids that have played for me but you have a pecking order in your mind as you get older as a coach. As a whole team I feel that as the years move on, that's a period of time in my career that I won't forget.
bc.net: During conference play you had the great opening start, you had a tough stretch in the middle with Hawai'i and Fresno State but the team bounced back that final week and you win the first regular season title in the program's history which is a big deal.
RW: Yeah. It was weird though. It was a big deal because it was something that's never been done yet the way it was done was almost anti-climatic. We had been impacted by the history of the matchups. Our inability historically to play well in Hawai'i. We always lose two out of three but we'd always found a way to win one and this year we couldn't even do that and we got shut out 1-0. Do you know how many times you can count a Ward coached club has been shut out 1-0? Maybe once. I don't think it had ever happened in the history of my career but I don't ever remember being beaten 1-0 and that was a tough pill to swallow. [Editor's Note: That was the first time under the Wards that the Aggies had lost 1-0] Then Fresno comes in having played real poorly in the first nine games of the conference season and basically coming in 6th or something in the league. They pretty much had to win at least one game at our place to feel like they were going to qualify for the tournament. We got one game out of it but it was a series that because of Hawai'i we had to. At the time were were thinking that we had to win two out of three against Fresno and we should win two out of three against Fresno and we didn't. It really put us in a tough spot where we'd lost five out of six at that point in league.
There were lots of reason for it. We had played 10 of our last 14 games on the road, we played at Hawai'i coming into our finals week and people have a tendency to forget how important or how much emotion and responsibility college is to players. To come off the island into Hawai'i with all the time changes and stuff and to get in at one in the morning and have to get up and take finals and then basically batten down the hatches, finish finals and then play Fresno at home on Thursday, that was a tough get. That was a lot to ask and I knew when the schedule was developed, you don't have control of the conference schedule and how it's set, it was a tough run. To lose five out of six in that stage was not unexpected but it was still hard to swallow.
At the same time my players as a group finished their finals and did what was required of them and finished with a GPA of 3.0 or better again. We have a tendency to look at a lot of different games and we lost five out of six in that stretch but maybe the most important fact is that my kids did what I asked them to do and what I've consistently asked them to do for 15 or 16 years and that's to make sure they take care of school. Do your best in that area. I'll accept if you have to give up a little bit athletically in order to do what you have to do in college because college is a long-term deal, it's a life thing. Sport is too. Had we won five out of six in that period and walked into San Jose having already clinched the conference championship that would have been something these kids would have remembered for a long time. But they did what I asked them to do. They ponied up, took care of their academics. Whether that impacted the way we played, I don't know. I know it was a big stressed but at the same time once we got done with school we went on the road on kind of a crazy road trip. We went to UNM and played on Tuesday against a very hot UNM club in a game in which we won three times but lost in the last inning. Obviously a very emotional loss. Then get on a plane and go to Bakersfield and pay a good game, one where we won 5-3. Casey Collins really pitched a good game. One of those games where we just played good baseball. It really was an important win because it sent us on into San Jose with some confidence and we pitched out tails off and played good defense and scored enough to win the first two games and then the last game ended up being a 15-2 rout which wound up being the conference clincher. Those four games I was really proud of the club.
They didn't have to win those. If they'd lost one we would have been a two or three seed, we were still going to be in the tournament and we still would have had a shot. To be honest had we lost one of the ones in San Jose and been a three or four seed we may very well have gone further in the conference tournament. But we spent so much energy, emotional and physical energy, in winning the regular season title, which will serve us well over the years with future teams. When you talk about Fresno State, their national championship in 08, they'll be talking about that 20 years from now. It's something you never give up. When you win a conference title or you win a national title it's something nobody can ever take away from you and our guys spent their energy making sure that happened. When we got into the conference tournament we were pretty flat and had used a lot of energy.
bc.net: Going into the regional you had come off a couple tough losses in Mesa where the pitching and defense wasn't there but you get to Tucson and have two outstanding pitching and defensive performances. My feeling was that even though you lost the two games that the teams you played and some of the people around the country came away from the two games with a little more respect for the ball club.
RW: No question about that. The performance against those people and throughout the season, the performance against Rice, against Arizona, against people that have 20 or 30 times better resources than we do, that's one thing we have done is we've gained respect of people that know our job with the resources we have at New Mexico State is pretty extraordinary. I wish more people understood that but absolutely the people we're playing against understand that. It's a prideful thing. Moral victories don't end the year with trophies or rings and that's what a lot of the people in this world think of. In the long run a lot of things we do in life, when we don't win or we don't completely meet our goals, moral victories become what we are, they define us and you'll find a lot of cases in the history of sport where a moral victory at one point in somebody's career led to an outstanding accomplishment.
bc.net: This team had some outstanding seniors on the ball club and each of them provided solid play for you this year. A couple of them in particular, Scott Coffman who had a great four year career and Zach Voight who was a leader on and off the field.
RW: You always feel like if you have a ball club full of Scott Coffmans and Zach Voights that you're going to do something special. Rarely is that actually the case and realistically to have one of them in each of the disciplines of baseball, one on the pitching side and one on the hitting/defense side made a huge difference with this ball club.
Zach Voight and his 20th round draft with the White Sox, there's so many things in the course of life that you don't really feel like you get your due but this is one of them. A kid that nobody really wanted to give a chance to, we were smart enough or willing enough to give him an opportunity and he took that chance and turned it into something really special for him and his family. People love or hate Facebook but when I can go and look on my Facebook page and I can see pictures of Zach Voight with his family in a White Sox hat and the joy that everybody gained by that accomplishment. I got a wonderful email from his father thanking me for the opportunity. All I thought of is what I wrote back, "Thanks but I'm the one who owes you because you and your son decided to trust me and together we did something pretty special."
Those guys, Scott Coffman. I think back and it's a weird deal with me. I truly love my players and they get confused by that because they think it's a weird thing when they're younger but I tell my players that I love them and again a lot of people would look at that as a weird thing but I truly do. My players are very very important to me and I think back to when I went to the mound after Scott had given up the three runs and likely the nail in the coffin runs against Missouri. I walked to the mound and all I could think about was how much respect I had for the player, how much compassion I had for the fact that he failed on the national stage and some people, a lot of people may look at that as a weakness but I really don't. I think of it as a strength for me. All I could do when I went to the mound and took the ball from his hand was to tell him that I love him. It's weird, I get it but my player immediately responded with the same thing. I love you too coach. That to me is what coaching is about. Again, there are times you have to be careful how close you get with guys but Scott Coffman spent five years with me. He came to me as a walk-on that nobody else really wanted. I love the kid. He worked his butt off every day and he exceed any possible expectations that anybody had for him. He was the first New Mexico State All-Conference First Team pitcher. He ponied up again at the beginning of this season with another First Team All-Conference. That's cool stuff. That's something that in the days where my ball club's not playing well or I feel like I'm failing or not doing as good a job as I should have for my kids, I remember back to those times and it's a big deal.
Both of those players were guys that were not only extraordinarily important to their teams and guys that I will never forget.
Dad told me a long time ago and when I say dad I always say it with the understanding that some people don't understand but he's still is my dad even though he is a Hall of Fame baseball coach and highly respected in the business and he's impacted so many people in his life, not just to become better baseball players but to become better people. One thing he told me and this was within the week of me taking the job at New Mexico State. He said, "Rock, just understand something," he was just trying to be a father to his son, "Just understand that the number of games that you win when it's all said and done will be the least important thing that you do. The product is your people and the quality of kids that you produce will become more important than their statistics and their numbers." That was 16 years ago. I took it to heart at the time and as a typical son I took it with a grain of salt, "Okay pops, I understand, you're an old guy and I'm an young guy and this is what's important to you but all I really care about is winning." Well 16 years later he's right and that'll never change. Now the combination of having great, quality kids that you know they're going to go take on the world and impact other people in a positive manner, change other people's lives. That's meaningful. To be able to do that and win games at the same time which is what the general public wants you to do, it's what your bosses want you to do. That's pretty cool too.
bc.net: On a personal level for you, you picked up your 400th career victory late in the year and to have the season culminate with an NCAA Regional bid makes it a little bit more special.
RW: The other thing that you missed is that I haven't finished a season above .500 in my career. It's kind of a silly thing and somewhat meaningless in the whole scheme of things but it's kind of an important thing. A year ago in my career record I surpassed the .500 mark for the first time. Some people might thinking, "Why is he talking about this, it's a negative." No it's not. The first four or five years I ran this program we had nothing. Every time we won a game it was a celebration. We shouldn't have won any. For our resources and the history and tradition and quality of players top to bottom, every time we won it was a celebration. It's taken me 16 years to build the program to a point where i can finish a season for the first time with an overall record over .500. That's pretty neat on a personal basis. The 400 wins is cool but the most important thing to me was to finish a year above .500 in my overall record. It represented a true come-from-behind victory in my career because at one point after about three or four years I was a good 60 games under .500. It was pretty ugly. We had to put together quite a few quality seasons to get that right. To me it was very satisfying. In the overall scheme of things the head coach's overall record is insignificant. It's really only significant in his own career and if all you care about is you own career then you're in the wrong business.
It's nice to be in a position where you feel like you can stand on what you've done for 16 years as a head coach and be proud of it and as silly as the difference between being 403-399 and 399-403 which is really insignificant, it matters. To be a winning coach, all of us start this business with the idea that not only are we going to be a winning coach but that we're going to win a larger percentage of our games but the game's not that easy because the other guy on the other side is trying to beat you and he has his goals and hopes and dreams at the same time. Athletic competition can be extraordinarily unfair at times and sometimes it can be right. This is the season that set everything right for me.