Griffin, Witzel, Suarez have made lasting impression on program
HARTSVILLE, S.C. – Brinley Griffin knew he wanted to play baseball in college. The problem, however, was that he wasn't on anybody's radar. So he did the only thing he could – marketed himself with a highlight video. It led him to Coker College and began a trickle effect that continues for the baseball team today.
"I found Coker, really," said Griffin, now a fifth-year senior for the Cobras. "Coach saw my video, called me and gave me a tryout. I never had a coach who felt like he really wanted me. He gave me that chance I wanted. As soon as he offered, I was in."
Head baseball coach Dave Schmotzer didn't realize it at the time, but he was beginning an annual pilfering of Florida talent. Griffin's commitment sparked the addition of Tyler Witzel, a fellow senior from the same county in Florida (Brevard) as Griffin, the year after Brinley arrived. The trend has continued. Frank Suarez, a junior college transfer from Miami, joined as part of the 'Miami movement' two years ago.
These three aren't the only ones on the list of Florida players on the Coker roster, either. The Cobras have 11 players from the Sunshine State, the most ever in program history. Many players can be attributed to former assistant coach Ray Marrero and his Miami ties, but this recent influx began with Griffin and Witzel.
"This thing started with Brinley," said Schmotzer, now in his 20th season at Coker. "These kids become good recruiters for you. And they're even better representatives of this program."
"I'll always talk with kids back home – and anywhere – about Coker," Griffin added. "This school has been amazing for me."
While 45 currently don the Cobra uniform, Griffin, Witzel and Suarez – all Floridians – have emerged as the team's major leaders this season. Fico Kondla, another Miami-area native, is also among this group, but he is a junior and next year it will be his team. The three seniors, according to Schmotzer, have become the steady horses on a team that's currently 23-11 overall and 11-7 in conference play.
"We have so many seniors who lead, plus Fico," Witzel said, referring to the 14 seniors on this year's roster. "Everybody plays their part. Brinley and I lead by going about our business. Frank's the one doing all the talking – he's the best leading us."
It's been a rollercoaster ride for the trio since arriving in Hartsville. Griffin has been here the longest, thanks in part to a hip injury that cost him nearly a year-and-a-half. Witzel's anchored the pitching staff since day one, and Suarez came in last season and has been the field general behind the plate ever since. Each has had an impact on the program in a different way.
Griffin, the one who started it all, came to Coker as a sweet-swinging lefty with good defense and above-average speed. He started from day one – something few freshmen do under Schmotzer. A nagging hip injury during his junior year, which turned out to be a torn labrum that required surgery, cost him valuable time on the field. However, he says it worked out perfectly, on and off the field.
"I'm not glad that I got hurt, but I am glad about how everything has worked out," he said. "This is the most talent we've had together in one place. It's a good group to go out with."
He's made the most of his opportunity since returning late in 2012. Earlier this season, Griffin became the school's all-time leader in RBIs. Not bad for a kid who had to recruit for himself coming out of high school.
Outside of baseball things have changed a bit for Griffin, too. While away due to injury, he became a father to now six-month-old Brinley Griffin IV.
"My life perspective has altered a bit," Griffin said. "Everyone has been so supportive – coach, the team and professors here at school. And my parents, Peter and Donna, have been great. I couldn't have done things without their help."
Witzel has carved out a nice career in the Coker books. He joined Griffin as a rare freshman who saw playing time right away and has played a major part each season, winning a total of 20 games to date as both a starter and reliever. No moment has been bigger in his career, though, than the one that came Feb. 19, 2011, when Witzel was still a two-way player.
In game two of a non-conference tilt with Bluefield College, Witzel blasted a walk-off home run in the bottom of the eighth to give the Cobras a 3-2 victory. It came on the heels of a complete-game performance from Witzel, but it meant more than that. This was coaching win number 600 for Schmotzer.
"That was pretty cool," Witzel said. "It's probably my greatest accomplishment as a player here."
As for Suarez, who found his way to Coker after stops at St. Thomas University (FL) and Lawson State Community College (AL), he has made himself known throughout the conference and campus. Since arriving, Suarez has hit .300 and been a strong presence behind the plate leading the pitching staff. Schmotzer affectionately calls him a "Godsend" from the land of junior colleges.
"He's a rare find," the coach said. "Great player, even better person."
All three have developed a special connection with Schmotzer. Griffin has been here long enough he can tell jokes about Schmotzer's old-school ways of banning cell phones on road trips. These days an iPhone is glued to the coach's hip, so that rule has since been removed. But he and Witzel have gotten close to the coach due to their tenure and unusually outgoing personalities; Suarez broke through quickly, thanks to his impeccable character and leadership skills.
"There's a relationship there with all three guys – and all the guys, really – that isn't just player to coach; it's person-to-person," Schmotzer said. "My whole team is that way, and always has been. It takes time to get to know each side. You have to get to know a player, and they have to get to know coach.
"Once that happens, that's when they buy in to what you're trying to do as a program. Then they lead. If they buy in, they're going to lead. These three have done that from the moment each got here."
With the established leadership and an abundance of talent, this could be the year the Cobras make noise in the postseason. None of the current seniors have experienced the playoffs – Coker has been one game shy of qualifying the past few years – so they're heading to uncharted territory. Griffin, Witzel and Suarez are in agreement, though, when it comes to the conference tournament.
"We just want a shot," they said. "That's all we need."
As of Friday, the squad is second in the conference. Their opportunity knocks beginning April 25 at the conference tournament in Burlington, N.C.
"I know we can do it," Suarez said. "We can make that tournament, and win it. The chemistry is good, the leadership is good. We have the tools. We just have to perform."
Off the field, all three are set to graduate in May. Griffin will earn two degrees, in psychology and sociology; Witzel's is in physical education and sport studies with a concentration in physical fitness; Suarez in physical education and sport studies with a concentration in sport management.
Griffin, who runs a summer camp with 3-to-5-year-olds back home, hopes to work with kids in some capacity. Witzel aspires to become a nutritionist. Suarez is weighing many options. His first desire is to extend his playing career by signing as a free agent with a major league team. Other options are graduate school or coaching.
Regardless of where they end up, all three will have left a great impression on the Coker campus. Baseball aside, these are three special individuals to come through the ranks of the college program. The trio says the best things they've experienced at Coker are the connections made in and out of the game but, most importantly, they said the lessons learned from Schmotzer will carry the most weight when they leave.
"Coach is the man," said Suarez. "He's lived up to his word on everything he said when I visited. He's been the best thing for me in coming to Coker, no question about it."
"The most important things I've learned have come from Schmotzer," Witzel said. "He's taught me so many things about life – how to deal with things that don't go my way, how to prepare for things, my work ethic, etc. He's just been there for me, and the whole team."
Knowing Dave's style, it's more or less tradition for him to keep in touch with all the players that come through the system. Not just Griffin, Witzel and Suarez; all 14 graduating this year will still come across the radar for the veteran coach.
"At the end of the day it's all about being a better person when you leave here," Schmotzer said. "We're just using baseball as the tool, and that's the bottom line. All three of these guys are great human beings. The same can be said for the entire senior class. It's going to be a tough day when they walk out of here. We're not done yet, though, because we have one final ride. It's going to be great."
The Coker baseball team has its final regular-season home series April 12-13 against conference opponent Belmont Abbey College. On Saturday, prior to the first game, all seniors will be recognized.