Graham Sikes.

Inside Irish Baseball With Graham Sikes

Sept. 17, 2009 will sit down with each member of the 2010 Notre Dame baseball coaching staff as well as a handful of returning players over the next few months to not only discuss fall preparation for the upcoming season, but also a handful of other topics outside the lines of college baseball.

Notre Dame volunteer baseball coach Graham Sikes recently sat down with for the first installment Q&A session, speaking specifically about his tenure with the Irish, his interesting path to Notre Dame and his pride and joy, catching. A full transcript of coach Sikes’ comments follows below.

2008-: Notre Dame volunteer assistant
2006-07: James Madison volunteer assistant
2005-06: Young Harris College assistant coach
2005 (summer): Florence RedWolves (CPL) assistant coach
2005: Nicholls State assistant coach
2004 (fall): Independence (Kan.) C.C. assistant coach
1998-2002: Catcher at Liberty University
Education: undergraduate degree from Liberty in Health & Physical Education (2002); graduate degree from Emporia State in Health & Physical Education (2006)
Hometown: Independence, Kan.

You have begun your third year at Notre Dame. What are your overall impressions of the University in general and the baseball program in particular?

The University is everything that I thought it would be and more. The campus is more beautiful, the history and tradition more rich and the environment more impressive than I imagined it would be, prior to arriving in South Bend. The University is about the people and the people here at Notre Dame continue to impress me. I love being around this campus in the fall and winter. There is just something about it! The baseball program is headed in the right direction. I feel like we’ve gotten better each year I’ve been here and are continuing to improve. I feel like this year will be the best one yet.

You previously have worked on the staffs at James Madison and Nicholls State as well as two different stops in the junior college ranks. What lessons did you take from those experiences and how do you feel they have prepared you for the position at Notre Dame?

I feel like I’ve been blessed to work for so many different head coaches and see their different coaching styles. Each one is unique in its experience and education to me as a coach. I’ve taken so many things from each place it is hard to narrow my answer. My previous jobs have prepared me for my position at Notre Dame by giving me a lot of responsibility. Along the way, I was required to be coach, academic advisor, strength and conditioning coach, marketing director, SID, head of grounds crew, etc., so I appreciate all the support we get here at Notre Dame.

You also have some Major League Baseball scouting experience on your resume. Tell us about that experience, getting the chance to evaluate players from across the country. How difficult is that process and how similar is the evaluation process in terms of possible recruits?

The Pittsburgh Pirates hired me while I was coaching at Young Harris (JC). The area scout knew that I recruited all over the state of Georgia so he asked for my help in identifying prospects from the state. I also coached summer baseball in the Coastal Plain League during that time, so I was able to identify other players from South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia. Recruiting and scouting are similar, yet different. In both cases you are looking for talent and tools, but in recruiting (in general) you are much more interested in academic history and performance. Also, in recruiting you spend much more time on the phone with the player. It is usually a little easier to predict if a player is ready to be successful at the college level than at the professional level. At the professional level, you are really looking three years down the road.

You were a member of some pretty darn good teams and had the opportunity to play against a slew of future MLB players. Tell us about your college career at Liberty?

The teams I was on at Liberty were very unique. We were built totally different than most other teams I’ve coached, because we couldn’t recruit top-notch quality pitching, so we were built on athleticism and speed. After we got to school, the coaches made speed and power a priority so we spent the majority of our practice time stealing bases, running and hitting. We tried to score 10 runs a game. I believe my freshman year we hit .326, hit 86 home runs and stole 168 bases. My junior year, we hit .337, 87 home runs and stole 211 bases. We won the Big South Conference two of my four years and got to play in a couple NCAA Regionals, which were very exciting for me.

Yes, I had the opportunity to play against quite a few big leaguers. Some I knew right away would be big leaguers, guys like Justin Verlander, Carlos Pena, Mark Teixeira, Khalil Green and David Bush, but others I never would have guessed. Guys like Brandon Inge, Brendan Harris, Joe Saunders, Gabe Gross, Matt Diaz and Wyatt Toregas. David Bush’s slider in college was the single best pitch I’d ever seen. He was much more of a power pitcher back then and he was at a different level, along with all of those other guys.

After earning your bachelor’s degree from Liberty, you went on to get your master’s degree. You have plenty of experience with balancing quality academics and athletics in your life. How does that transfer to your role as an assistant coach at Notre Dame? You must be very impressed with the high marks achieved by this team in the classroom.

I’ve been in the player’s shoes and know what it is like to get home at 1 am Monday morning from a road trip and have things due at 8 am, so I know how to help coach the players into time management. Some of the players blow me away with how smart they are. My job is to educate them on time management, self-discipline and follow-through. The grades our team has made have been impressive, but we aren’t done yet. We’ve got a new team GPA challenge within the team and I look forward to seeing (and hearing) the competition between the guys!

Consistency on offense and clutch hitting likely will be a big key to the 2010 season. Walk us through the preseason approach with the Irish hitters and what do you think will be the crucial areas to offensive success in 2010?

Obviously, we have productivity to replace with the departure of Jeremy Barnes and A.J. Pollock, but I am very confident that a number of guys can do that. We are really teaching this fall on a complete offensive approach. Not just hitting, but a complete offense. We are trying to develop complete offensive players, not a guy who can just hit but can’t run the bases or lay down a bunt. Coach Lawler is doing a great job of implementing an overall offensive approach. We will have team speed and that (coupled with base running) doesn’t slump, so we will be consistent with that. Consistency in our approach, the things we can control, will be a big part of our success in 2010.

Focusing in on the current team, your primary area is working with the catchers – junior Cameron McConnell, junior Mike Scioscia, junior Matt Katich and freshman Joe Hudson. What are your early impressions of this group and how have the preseason workouts been progressing?

I feel really good about the catching corps this year. I’ve been with three of the guys for two solid years now and I know them and they know me. Obviously, McConnell got the majority of the time last season behind the plate and did a very good job. Matt Scioscia did a good job too. The entire group will continue to work this fall to develop as complete catchers, making their weaknesses their strengths and their strengths their exceptions. Joe Hudson is a guy who comes from a great high school program that had a lot of success. Right now, in preseason workouts, Joe is learning the terminology and philosophies, and we look for some good things from Joe.

The catcher position is so critical to the overall defense of a ball club. What aspects of the position are most important to you as a coach?

Great question! That is a two-part answer. Physically, I think you have to have a guy with good hands. 90% of the catcher’s game is going to depend on him receiving the ball. A guy with slow reflexes or bad hands is going to not only cost you pitches (potential strikes), but he is going to cost extra bases and potential runs with some passed balls. The other 10% of the time is going to be spent blocking and throwing, so I think it is important for a guy to be agile and flexible and finally, be able to throw well. Mentally, leadership is very important. The catcher’s ability to lead a pitching staff is something I don’t think gets enough attention. The pitcher-catcher relationship is important because the pitchers need to trust the catcher and I think it starts with leadership.

You’ve also had the chance to work alongside Scott Lawler with the hitters. While the team did lose two quality hitters, including first round draft pick A.J. Pollock from last year’s club, there is still plenty of experience returning to the lineup. How would you assess the returning players?

The returning players know that there are holes to fill and I know they are excited to try and do that. I have no doubt that guys will step up and fill them. David Mills, Mick Doyle, Cameron McConnell, Golden Tate, Greg Sherry and Brayden Ashdown all have over 200 career at bats. Ryan Connolly, David Casey, Casey Martin and Matt Scioscia all have 100 plus career at bats. There is a bunch of experience on this team. David Casey and Casey Martin both had good summers. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if any one of those guys I’ve mentioned have a really big year.

“Graham comes from such a diverse coaching background and it is a big asset that he has catching experience, as both a player and coach. He was a great fit for our program, due to his outgoing personality, his communication and teaching skills, and a great work ethic. He does so many things for us behind the scenes and is a very important part of our baseball program.” – Notre Dame head coach Dave Schrage

“Working with Coach Sikes during my last year was awesome. His intensity and passion showed in everything he did and it was obvious from day one that his ultimate goal for us was to be the best catchers and baseball players we could be.” – Former Notre Dame co-captain catcher Sean Gaston (2004-08)

“Coach Sikes has a true passion for the game, and brings it to the field every day. He not only has a tremendous understanding for the position of catcher, but he also has a simple and easy approach when it comes to relaying that knowledge down to the players.” – Current Notre Dame junior catcher Cameron McConnell

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