Ryan Stukel is a strong candidate for 2001 Big 12 Player of the Year.
April 4, 2001
Editor's Note: Articles such as this one by Carroll Fadal appear in each edition of the Baylor Bear Insider Report, available upon membership in the Baylor Bear Foundation. For information on joining the Bear Foundation, click here.
She's from a tiny community in southern Arizona, he's from Fort Worth. She's a 5-10 blonde, he's 6-0 with short, dark hair. She's been catching since she was eight years old, he's only been catching full-time since he arrived at Baylor.
But for all their differences, juniors Ryan Stukel and Kelly Shoppach are remarkably similar on the field. Both are having Player of the Year seasons, leading their teams in hitting, playing rock-solid defense and handling highly successful pitching staffs. From their positions behind the plate, Stukel and Shoppach are diamond quarterbacks and the kinds of leaders that coaches dream of.
"My personality fits my position perfectly," Stukel said. "As a catcher, you have to run the team, and my personality has never been passive. If something needs to be said, I'll say it."
She's not only saying it with her mouth, her bat also has done a lot of the talking this year. After hitting .216 with eight home runs and 19 RBI as a sophomore, Stukel has been on a tear since this season began. As of April 3, she's hitting .405 with eight home runs and 32 RBI, and she's a key reason the Bears are ranked No. 19 in the country.
"Ryan's having an All-American-type year," said first-year BU head coach Glenn Moore. "Ryan may be the best catcher I've ever coached. She's got a great arm and knowledge of the game. She's a gamer, she comes to play every game. She's really elevated her game, she works hard, and she's putting up numbers evident of that hard work."
WHILE STUKEL'S NUMBERS have taken a quantum leap from prior seasons, Shoppach's success continues a trend he started last year. After playing sparingly as a freshman, Shoppach came back from summer ball in Liberal, Kan., 50 pounds lighter and with a new attitude. He raised eyebrows when he beat out Bryan Loeb, who had spurned a professional baseball offer to return to Baylor for his senior season. By the time conference play rolled around, he was starting all three weekend games, endearing himself to fans with Pete Rose-type hustle, exemplified by his full-out sprints to first base on walks. He hit .296 with a team-high 10 homers and 39 RBI, earning second-team All Big 12 honors while leading the Bears to the conference championship.
"I made a commitment to myself, to my teammates, to Coach Smith that when I came back (from Kansas), I was going to be a totally different player," Shoppach said. "I just always say, in between the white lines, I'm going 100 percent all the time. When we're on defense, every player on the field is looking at me, I'm the only guy looking out there. I think that they'll feed off my energy, and if I can just play hard, then even if I go 0-for-4 or botch 30 balls back there, the guys will feed off me, even if I'm having a bad game. They'll say, 'Shoppach's having a bad game, but look at him, he's still hustling around, he's still running.' "
That hustle has led to phenomenal numbers this season. Through April 3, Shoppach was hitting .463 with seven homers and 42 RBI and boasted an unbelievable .744 slugging percentage.
"Kelly means a whole lot to our team," Smith said. "As well as he's doing, you'll still see him in here all the time, looking at tape, trying to improve."
So the common denominator for both Stukel and Shoppach is hard work, they're kind of the baseball equivalent of gym rats. And while proud of their personal accomplishments, both are even prouder of their teams.
The turnaround Stukel, Moore and the softball team are making is in many ways similar to the one made by Kim Mulkey-Robertson and the women's basketball team. No one really expected either to be among the best in the Big 12. No one, perhaps, except the players.
"We're so much older now," Stukel said. "My freshman year, we started four or five freshmen. My sophomore year, we started four or five sophomores and two or three freshmen. Being older, more mature, has helped our mental approach to the game.
"I think conference is going to be a battle. The team that wins is going to have at least three losses. Texas this past weekend beat the No. 2 team in the nation (Arizona). Tech is on fire right now, Nebraska is always tough, playing at A&M is tough. We have to go to OU this year, and playing there is tough. Last year, we finished seventh in the Big 12, just one game out of fourth. It's going to be even tighter this year. Our goal is to finish in the top three. Our whole team knows that we have to go out and compete. Now that we're winning and getting recognition, we're going to see every team's best pitcher."
Because of their success over the past several seasons -- last year's conference title, two consecutive years hosting an NCAA regional -- more is expected of the baseball team, both by the fans and by the players. But they're not backing away from the challenge.
"This team has so much talent," Shoppach said. "We've got guys on the bench who are ready to go. We've got guys in the pen who deserve to start and could start at most other schools. With the guys here, there's a lot of want-to. When we take two out of three in a conference series, we're disappointed, we're upset about that. We want to win every game, and that's the sign of a great team that just can't stand to lose. That's a part of being a good team, you've got to hate losing, and you've got to make sure you don't lose."
Perhaps the biggest key to winning in diamond sports is pitching. And while it's the pitchers who get the glory, the catchers are almost as important.
"Ryan's a pitcher's catcher," Moore said. "She's a catcher who makes pitchers look better. We call the game for her, and that takes the pressure off her, and she's benefited from that. She blocks well, she frames well, she does a great job of being our quarterback out there. She's an on-the-field leader, she keeps the team focused."
Stukel gives the credit to the women in the circle. "Joni Miller is going to be one of the best pitchers in the conference," Stukel said. "She just gets stronger every game. All we've got to do is do our job defensively. And Sarah Caudle is coming along. She's going to be a good one."
Shoppach, perhaps best known for his Gibraltar-like blocking of the plate, also enjoys calling the pitches.
"I take a lot of pride in the mental part of the game," Shoppach said. "I don't know what other catchers do, but I know before each game, I sit down with a scouting report and study it for 30 or 40 minutes, and I've got a good idea what's going to happen when we go out there and get into certain situations, what hitters have certain weaknesses, and I try to exploit those. But it's mostly the pitchers, I give them the idea, and they have to do the rest."
As you might expect, given the athletic demands of the position they play, Stukel and Shoppach were multi-sport stars in high school.
Stukel won four letters in both basketball and softball at Valley Union High School in Cochise, AZ, and earned three each in volleyball and track. In her senior year, she was all-region and regional player of the year in both basketball and softball. She says she chose Baylor primarily because of its academic reputation and "it just felt right on my recruiting visit. I love the girls on the team, and I love the coaching staff."
The classroom obviously is important to Stukel, last season, she was a member of the Big 12's Academic All-Conference first team. She's majoring in health science studies, concentrating in pre-physical therapy, hoping one day to own her own physical therapy center.
Shoppach was an outstanding football player at Fort Worth Brewer high school, earning district MVP honors his senior year after rushing for 1,100 yards, scoring 16 touchdowns and catching passes for 400 yards as a fullback. He says football is still his first love, but "I'm not quite quick enough to play running back and have a career there."
He does, however, have a strong shot at a career in major league baseball. He's already been contacted by at least 20 teams and stands to be a high draft choice. In all likelihood, this will be his last season in green and gold.
Few universities can boast that they have even one All-America candidate behind the plate. Baylor is blessed with two.
Editor's Note: Articles such as this one by Carroll Fadal appear in each edition of the Baylor Bear Insider Report, available upon membership in the Baylor Bear Foundation. For information on joining the Bear Foundation,