Kevin Hall’s favorite spot in Eck Stadium is in center field. He loves shagging balls there during batting practice. He loves running down line drives during games. He loves being out there where it’s just him, his legs, his glove and the ball
“Just going out there and catching flyballs, that’s my passion,” he said. “It’s something I’ve been doing for so long, and it seems everybody else just drifts away and lets me have center field for myself. Not a care in the world, except catching flyballs.”
Hall, a senior, catches flyballs as well anybody to wear a Shocker uniform under coach Gene Stephenson. His speed and instincts saved WSU countless runs during his four seasons in the outfield. He is one of five seniors who will play in Eck Stadium for the final time this weekend against Bradley (25-19-1, 8-10 Missouri Valley Conference).
Hall is WSU’s last link to the 2008 NCAA super regional team, his freshman season. He sat out 2009 with stress fractures in his back before starting 33 games in 2010 and all 65 last season in center field.
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All that experience and a strong performance in the fall seemed to set up Hall for a standout senior season. Instead, he struggled to hit and lost his starting spot to freshman Taylor Doggett in late April. Hall, from Springfield, Ill., hasn’t started since April 24 against Kansas State. He is hitting .257 with 35 strikeouts and 10 walks in 144 at-bats.
“This year really hasn’t gone as good as I wanted it to, individually, or as a team,” Hall said. “It’s an interesting way to end my career, obviously not what you would dream of.”
That pains Stephenson, who is rooting for Hall to come up big in these final weeks of his career. Hall owns degrees in exercise science and chemistry and is a two-time member of the Academic All-District VII team. After baseball, Hall plans on graduate school and becoming a physical therapist, a career inspired by his own injuries.
Hall will be a success after baseball, but Stephenson hopes the game rewards him with one or two more big moments.
“He’s handled it better than most anybody ever would,” Stephenson said. “Kevin Hall represents the very best that America has to offer. This is a guy that is totally unselfish, works hard every day.”
Hall, after starting 37 games, is now a role player, coming in to bunt in the late innings, pinch hit or as a defensive replacement. The diminshed playing time hasn’t changed his team-first attitude. He remains one of the leaders, helping the freshmen who ate into his playing time get better. He is the guy who can tell them it can be hard to track balls bouncing through the Wu-Shock in center field, or that when batting gloves get too smelly to stand that a little work with scissors can convince the equipment manager to hand out a new pair. Don’t get the impression Hall is careless with his gear — he wears the same yellow-inset cap he received as a freshman and his black version is two seasons old.
“Kevin’s just a great mentor,” Doggett said. “School, baseball, everything.”
Hall helped Doggett, a freshman from Lincoln, Neb., learn how to adjust to the fast pace of college baseball. When Doggett slumped at the plate, Hall told him to to enjoy college baseball and have fun because a player only gets one shot.
Doggett is hitting .304, third on the team, with 16 stolen bases. He started WSU’s last seven games in center, and 10 of the past 13. Hall’s playing time never affected his willingness to help Doggett or freshman Mikel Mucha, who sometimes starts in left field.
“You couldn’t tell,” Doggett said. “I assume he’s frustrated, but you would never know. He’s always positive, cheering me on.”
The competitor in Hall wants to be on the field more. The leader in Hall won’t let that affect his attitude in practice or the locker room.
“As a teammate and somebody that guys are looking up to… you’ve got to swallow your pride and make sure everybody else is doing what they need to do,” he said. “Freshmen can’t look up and see a senior whining to the coaches because he’s not playing. Whatever your role is, embrace it.”
WSU (29-22, 7-8) enters the weekend tied for fifth in the Valley, yet can’t be counted out of the NCAA at-large picture. Its power rating (RPI) rank of No. 45, according to warrennolan.com, means the Shockers think a strong finish makes them a contender. After this weekend, WSU plays at Nebraska and finishes MVC play at Creighton next week before starting the MVC Tournament on May 22 in Springfield, Mo.
“We’re pretty inconsistent,” Hall said. “But we’re still in a pretty good position.”
To get to the NCAAs, it’s possible WSU will need a big moment from Hall — a pinch hit, a run-saving catch, a stolen base. Nothing would make Stephenson happier.
“I want him to be able to relax, and when his opportunities come the next few weeks, I want him to succeed,” Stephenson said. “He’s everything that you could ever want in a son, he’s everything you could ever want as a teammate, he’s everything you could ever want in a student.”