CARBONDALE — Connor Kopach has hit his stride.
A fifth-year senior, Kopach has been a solid contributor throughout his career. He batted .222 as a freshman, .287 as a sophomore and .272 as a junior. The SIU middle infielder is off to a torrid start this year, ripping the ball at a .393 pace with a .462 on-base percentage and leading the team with a .616 slugging percentage.
“I just tried to stay relaxed this year and not worry about anything,” Kopach said. “I don’t think I’m doing anything differently. I think I’m just relaxing more and seeing a pitch up and seeing something I can drive and putting a good swing on it and not trying to hit it out.”
A more relaxed attitude may be the key to Kopach’s success.
“I think he’s not trying to do as much,” said SIU coach Ken Henderson. “Last year he had a chance to get drafted and everybody talked about it. He tried to do too much. He tried to hit balls too hard. He felt like he had to crush balls. This year he’s much more disciplined. He’s hitting balls where they are pitched.
“It’s a remarkable year, but I’m not shocked or surprised by any means because he has that ability. He’s always had those kind of tools. He’s had a good career, but he’s really taken it to another level this year. It’s kind of interesting, he’s a fifth-year guy. That makes all the difference in the world. Or, just sometimes when you’re a senior the light bulb comes on or you get in a good rhythm early.”
Kopach played four games his sophomore year before suffering a season-ending hand injury.
The type of game the Salukis play gives Kopach every opportunity to succeed. SIU’s game is all about getting on base, putting pressure on the defense and creating runs. Kopach has 19 of the team’s 69 bases.
“I love it,” Kopach said. “Freshman year was more getting singles, hitting doubles and not really stealing bases. The last two years now, it’s more a team of fast guys trying to get to second base for our bigger hitters to bring us in and find ways to put runs on the board.
“I like to run a lot. I know a lot of other guys that like to run a lot of this team. We’re not a team that bunts or hit and run. We just find a way to get to second base or third base and our bigger hitters and contact hitters put the ball in play and find a way to score runs.”
“It’s perfect for him,” Henderson said. “It’s not only perfect for him, he’s perfect for it. He’s not the fastest guy on our team. He can really run obviously, he’s really quick. But, just in terms of running, he’s not the fastest guy on the team, but he is by far the best base runner. And, he’s the most aggressive base runner. He’s the one guy, if we could clone his make-up on the bases, he looks to steal every time. He loves to steal bases. He takes great pride in that.”
And, in the past couple weeks the Salukis have taken advantage of Kopach’s ability to drive the ball into the gap by dropping him from the lead-off slot to third in the order.
“He’s probably the strongest guy on the team pound-for-pound,” Henderson said. “He’s not a big guy (175 pounds), but he’s extremely strong. He’s always been that way, even before he got here. He’s a freak athlete. He’s just strong. He’s never been just a slap hitter.
“This park, I think, it’s hard to hit home runs, but it plays well for him because he hits a lot of balls in the gaps. He’s a guy too that can turn a lot of singles into doubles and doubles into triples.”
After a slow start, the Salukis have won six of their last 10. The quicker approach to the game has paid dividends.
“When the fast guys are on base they don’t want to throw curve balls because they are afraid we’re going to steal second or third base,” Kopach said. “It gives our bigger hitters a chance to get more fastballs and they are obviously hitting more of them.”
The Salukis are in action this afternoon, playing host to Austin Peay at 3 p.m.