It was time to play ball Monday morning at Hancock College’s John Osborne Field.
Nearly 40 boys, ages seven to 15, were there to improve their baseball skills on the first day of the four-day Bulldogs Baseball Camp.
The camp is being run by three longtime, local baseball coaches – Santa Maria Valley Packers head coach Scott Nickason, Hancock head coach Chris Stevens and former Lompoc High head coach Jim Allen.
“We have some of the older local high school players and Hancock team members helping us out,” said Stevens, the chairman of Hancock’s Department of Kinesiology.
“We’re teaching the fundamentals of playing the infield and outfield, pitching and hitting,” said Nickason. “The kids will learn about the proper way to lay down a bunt, how to make a relay throw from the outfield, base running, sliding, how to turn the double play.”
“First we sort the kids out by age, then ability,” said Allen. “We eventually split them into six groups; two of them are usually the youngest kids.”
After warm-up exercises, the youngest players began their day learning the basics of how to field a ground ball.
The older players work on more advanced defensive skills with a lessons on how to hit the cutoff man, turn a double play, how to properly hold and throw a baseball.
“We also work on pitching, catching and will have each camper play at least two different positions each day,” said Nickason. “And then there’s hitting. Everyone wants to hit – that’s one of the main reasons they come out here, so at the end of day we have hitting instruction and batting practice.”
The coaches keep everything moving, spending about 10 minutes on each discipline before moving on to the next.
“We have a lot of campers who come back year after year,” said Stevens. “We love to see them grow, that’s what’s fun. We all love baseball and seeing the kids grow and improve is the most fun we have over the years.”
Over man, many years.
The three coaches have been holding this camp for 20 years.
Stevens got it all started when he was coaching at Righetti High School before moving to AHC 16 years ago.
Some of the former campers have gone on to great success.
“Many of the kids have come back to play for me at Hancock.
One of them is Zach Anderson.
After a stellar career at Righetti High School, Anderson moved on to Hancock College’s and Stevens’ team.
Santa Maria High School’s Trevor Garcia is also a camp graduate.
After being a major player for Santa Maria High’s CIF Southern Section Division 7 championship team, Garcia was named an All-CIF pitcher on Monday.
Baseball’s basic are the major focus of each day’s practice so they spend the first two hours of each day just teaching and practicing the fundamentals.
“If you can’t do the fundamentals properly, you’re not going to win many baseball games,” said Nickason.
“One of the things that happens is that the game becomes safer for these kids,” said Stevens. “Teaching the proper mechanics really does make it safer for them.”
“Typically, the kids who come out here are already playing on local teams,” said Allen. “Some are playing right now in the (Little League District 65) All-Star tournaments.”
The youngest players have just moved up from T-Ball and have been playing in the minor leagues of the local Little Leagues.
“With the younger kids, the first thing we want to do is make them feel as comfortable as we can,” said Nickason. “The bottom line is for them to have fun. We teach them the basics, have them learn a little bit every day and make sure they have a lot of fun. That really keeps them interested and motivated to learn and get better."
While the campers are separated into age groups, there is still plenty of interaction between the older and younger players.
“You’d be amazed at how the older kids take the younger kids under their wing. They’re like biog brothers," said Nickason. The younger ones look up to the older boys because they see how good the older boys are and how good they can be. Some of them come out to the high school and Packers games. We’ve even had some of them be our batboys for the Packers.”
The modern game is just inundated with technical terms like Sabermetrics and statistical analysis.
The coaches don’t discount the professionals putting every move under a computer driven microscope, but you can’t get there if you can’t throw, catch or hit a baseball.
“The youngest ones pick it up after a few lessons, after that the basics become second nature,” said Nickason. “Understanding the different parts of the game is the first step. After the kids get them down, we progress to steps two and three.”
And everything is age appropriate.
The pitching, bases and hitting distances are tailored to each group.
“With the youngest players, we use Little League distances like a 45-foot distance between pitcher and catcher and the 60 foot distance for the older kids,” said Nickason.”
At the end of each day, the real fun begins.
The boys get to apply what they've learned when they're split into teams and play an actual game.
“Many of these kids are serious players,” said Stevens. “They are serious players, serious about improving their skills. The things they learn here will help them in their Little League, Babe Ruth and high school careers.”