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April 1, 2011
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. – Nobody expected more of himself as a college baseball player than Clemson’s Phil Pohl.
After all, with his Hall of Fame background … wait a minute, his what?
It turns out that from age 10 through high school, Pohl grew up in Cooperstown, N.Y. He made more trips than he can count to the Hall of Fame, sold concessions at induction ceremonies there and absorbed the town’s rich, abundant baseball history until it flowed through his veins.
So when you’re from the shrine of baseball, people naturally expect you to be a great player, right?
“I don’t know if there’s a whole lot of added pressure,” Pohl said, “but it’s definitely a great conversation piece.”
Pohl was an excellent high school catcher who drew attention from a Clemson recruiter when he played with an all-star team in a tournament in East Cobb, Ga., a hotbed of high school baseball. A visit to the Clemson campus convinced him that’s where he wanted to be.
But it was not an easy transition. Sharing the catcher’s role in his first two seasons, Pohl hit .194 as a freshman and .212 as a sophomore.
“It was an uphill battle for me,” he said. “I don’t want to say I had it all figured out (coming in), but I was definitely a little bit arrogant coming out of high school.
“It was a culture shock and the learning curve was a little longer than I wanted it to be. Division I baseball in the ACC is some of the best competition in the country and it was really an eye-opener. I think I was a little overwhelmed.”
Clemson coach Jack Leggett said it’s always an adjustment for freshmen. Facing good pitching all the time leaves less of a margin for error.
“The one thing that’s been a constant,” Leggett said of Pohl, “is that he’s got a great work ethic, great discipline and he’s very focused on what you’ve got to do.”
Pohl never wavered in his dedication and determination, working constantly with the coaches to make himself better. And in his junior season it has paid off. A career .203 hitter coming in, this year he is raking the ball at a .433 clip with eight doubles, two homers and 16 RBIs. He ranks second in batting in the ACC behind teammate Spencer Kieboom (hitting .458), is third with a .667 slugging percentage and third with a .514 on-base percentage.
While he has put in a lot of work on mechanical things, like weight shift and keeping his hands back, Pohl said there’s a simpler explanation for his improvement.
“I think this year what I’ve been trying to do is say ‘you know, I’m here for a reason, I just need to relax and let the game come to me,’” he said. “I’ve loved the game because it’s always been fun. The past two years I’ve been stressing too much, trying to do too much, too hard.
“This year I said I’m going to go back to my roots and have fun, have a good time, connect with my teammates and bring back – I don’t know if you want to call it the youthfulness of playing, but going out and having fun.”
Leggett watched Pohl get down on himself because he had such high expectations his first two years.
“The kid is as hard a worker as I’ve ever seen,” the coach said “He’s as blue collar and as tough as they get. Now I think he’s more relaxed and more confident. That’s leading to him enjoying it a little bit more and that’s enabled him to feel some success and he’s fed off that success so far.”
Another potential source of stress for Pohl last season was Leggett’s decision right before the ACC Tournament to make Kieboom the starting catcher because the team needed a spark. That sent Pohl to the bench.
“He reacted by working harder, being even more dedicated than he was before and being more relentless in his work ethic,” Leggett said.
His work ethic doesn’t just apply to baseball. Pohl, majoring in business management, has a 3.81 GPA. Well respected by his teammates, he was elected a co-captain for this season.
To go along with hard work, Pohl kept a positive attitude. And when this season started, he came out swinging the bat so well that the coaches had to find ways to get him in the lineup.
As a result, Pohl has served as the Tigers’ primary designated hitter while also filling in at catcher (he caught all three games against NC State when Kieboom was injured). In addition, he has practiced at first base and in right field, where he made his debut Tuesday night against Georgia.
“I had never played any game in the outfield in my life prior to that,” Pohl said. “But actually being out there in a game was a pretty neat experience. I’ve been catching so long I haven’t really had the opportunity to get out and play a lot of other positions.
“It’s definitely a very different perspective. I’m used to looking out from behind the plate, seeing the whole field, and out there I was looking in on things. It makes you mature as a player. It opens up a whole element of the game that you don’t think about when you’re at a different position.”
While Pohl loves Clemson’s team chemistry, the Tigers have been a little slow coming around on the field. They’re 14-9 overall against a very tough schedule and 4-5 in the ACC. And they’re heading into a series against one of the league’s hottest teams – UNC is 23-4 overall and 7-2 in the league.
“Our approach is to take the momentum we’ve had in these last two games and go in and play our game,” Pohl said. “There’s been a couple times we’ve kind of gotten out of our element, tried to do maybe a little too much at the plate. If we stay with what we know we can do within our strengths, I think it will help us out in the long run.
“We just need to get into a rhythm. We’ll put a string of five good games together and then we’ll drop three or four. I think if we can find that consistency where everybody is clicking on all cylinders, that’s going to be huge for us.”
Last season Clemson earned its way to the College World Series in Omaha, winning its first two games before bowing twice to South Carolina. That experience left a big impression on Pohl.
“I had a taste of going to Omaha last year,” he said. “I caught one inning when we were there and that was one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had, from a baseball standpoint. All I want to do is get back there and win a national championship.
“If that means I need to DH or play right field, be the second-string catcher or sit on the bench, whatever I can do to help my team win this year is what I’m going to do.”
Pohl loved the College World Series almost as much as his legendary home town. Born in Bakersfield, Calif., he started playing baseball at age 4 and was thrilled when his family moved to Cooperstown – except for one aspect.
“The biggest adjustment was the weather,” he said. “I thought I was going to be playing all year round and it wasn’t the case. We were shoveling snow two months after we moved up there.
“But the whole atmosphere of the town was awesome. Cooperstown is definitely a one-of-a-kind place. It fueled my love for the game, my passion for the game. Growing up there played a big role in where I am today and why I love the game of baseball so much.”
The town closes its streets to traffic during the induction ceremonies. Pohl went to them every year during high school, selling hot dogs and concessions and listening to induction speeches from the likes of Carlton Fisk, Ryne Sandberg, Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken.
“Those are some memories I’ll never forget,” Pohl said. “It’s really humbling to go in there and be able to see stuff from Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio and all the greats that have come before you. Being a Division I player now, I’m following in the footsteps of guys who are in the Hall of Fame. It’s an honor.”
Pohl doesn’t expect to ever see a bust of himself in Cooperstown, but Leggett wouldn’t put anything past him.
“He believes he can do anything,” the coach said. “Once you have that in your mind, nothing can hold you back, so nothing would surprise me about Phil Pohl. “
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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