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Next Level: Change agent

Stevenson is finding a new level of consistency with No. 10 UC Irvine

Posted: March 17, 2009 1:17 a.m.
Updated: March 17, 2009 4:55 a.m.

No. 10 UC Irvine infielder Casey Stevenson prepares for the pitch in this undated photo.

 
This season, University of California, Irvine junior infielder Casey Stevenson did something he had not done in years.

In five seasons, he played for five different coaches - three a Saugus, one at the College of the Canyons and another at the UC Irvine.

In his second season with the No. 10 Anteaters, Stevenson finally gets consecutive season with the same coach.

"It made me a little bit tougher mentally; made be better at dealing with change," Stevenson says.

Change is something certainly experienced.

His sophomore year at Saugus, he was pulled up to varsity to serve as a designated hitter for the postseason under then-head coach Casey Burrill.

The next season, George Lopata took over for Burrill.

The Centurions finished the season 23-4 and 14-1 in the Foothill League to win the league title. Stevenson hit .388 that season with 13 RBIs, 10 doubles and 25 runs scored, the most on the team. In the offseason, Lopata stepped down to spend more time with his family.

While Lopata remained with the team as an assistant, John Maggiora took the helm of the program.

Not only did Maggiora instill a new philosophy, but even had his senior shift from second base to the hot corner at third.

"I wish I had him for more than that," Maggiora says of his one year coaching Stevenson. "He was joy to coach. Probably one of the sweetest swings I have ever seen. He was a ball player. ... It would have been easy for him to say, ‘Hey you're my third coach in three or four years,' but he didn't. He showed tremendous maturity."

Stevenson graduated from Saugus in 2006 and turned his attention to the College of the Canyons.

Yet again, he was learning a new system.

In his first and only season with the Cougars, he hit .396 with 48 runs and 48 RBIs, 13 doubles, two home runs, a triple and six stolen bases.

COC finished 24-20 with a first round exit from the Southern California playoffs at the hands of Orange Coast College.

"He's a pretty disciplined hitter," says Cougars head coach Chris Cota. "We had no problems with the game on the line if he was coming up. He's the kind of guy that wants to be in that situation."

Stevenson found himself in that situation twice this year for UC Irvine.

Back on March 8, in the team's 6-5 win over South Alabama in the Baylor Classic, he came to the plate with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth inning as a pinch hitter.

Stevenson delivered, knocking in the game-winning run.

Then on Sunday against Tulane, he did it again, punching a walk-off single into right field to drive in the winning run.

Recruited by then-Anteaters head coach Dave Serrano, the COC transfer was surprised to find out that yet another coaching change was in store for him.

Serrano moved north to lead the Oregon Ducks' baseball team.

In his stead was the legendary Mike Gillespie.

"Out of the names being thrown around about who was going to be the head coach at UC Irvine, he was going to be the best," Stevenson says. "He has been the best for a long time. ... He's probably one of the greatest baseball minds in the game. To play for a guy like that is an honor."

Gillespie brought with him a national title, Coach of the Year honors and five Pacific-10 Conference titles while at USC, among a myriad of other achievements across Division I and junior college baseball.

But the by product of his journey is far greater than any accomplishment on the diamond.

"A mental toughness in coping with something that is not really comfortable," Stevenson says. "When you have a new coach, there is always a little bit of getting to know what they want to see out of you. Basically, learning how to play for a new leader."

It is no easy task reaching Division I baseball, let alone starting.

Currently, Stevenson is hitting .300 with seven runs scored, four RBIs and two doubles, starting 12 of the Anteaters' 15 games.

"I‘ve never been on a team like the one I'm on here," he says. "Everyone is pulling for each other here. ... I see great things ahead for this team this year."

But to overcome so much change through his career, it took far more than raw talent or coachability.

It took a team-first mentality.

"Over the years it has just been trying to win for the team," Stevenson says of his mentality. "Not necessarily trying to be the best player for myself, but trying to be the best teammate I can be. I can do that through hustling and playing the game the right way."

It has paid off thus far and one day, Stevenson may find himself forced to adapt to even more change.

"He'll be playing there one day," Maggiora says of Steveson's chances of playing professional baseball. "No doubt. He'll be playing for a living.


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