By Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
SPRINGFIELD, Mo. – The Iowa Hawkeyes are better with the game on the line and their backs against the wall.
In his freshman season with the squad, Austin Guzzo-Foliaro has seen his team do it before, and he knew they could do it again in their first matchup on Sunday, facing elimination against the Oregon Ducks at the Springfield Regional after losing to host Missouri State on Saturday, and coming out on top with a 2-1 victory in 11 innings.
“There are a lot of times we’ve been – I don’t want to say punched in the mouth – but we’ve been feeling like this, when you come in here and expect to win and then face a good team like Missouri State [and we have to] bounce back,” the 19-year-old catcher and infielder said. “There are guys who are going to go out and put everything on the line because the whole team is playing for the guys who are leaving this team.
“We have nine seniors who are going to be gone next year and a lot of these guys are doing it for them because they’ve worked so hard and they’ve led this whole team. Our best bet is our mental toughness, and how we can wipe things away and come out and start fresh to be able to succeed … No one wants to go home.”
After a second loss to the Bears, falling 3-2 to the host team on Sunday night, Iowa was eliminated and forced to watch Missouri State celebrate after a hard-fought battle on the field. MSU advances to the Super Regional round of the NCAA Division-I championships and after a long bus ride back, the Hawkeyes will look to next season.
But Guzzo-Foliaro wouldn’t even be where he is right now, having competed on the road to Omaha in his first year of college without the Ontario Blue Jays.
On the Blue Jays October tour across the States last year to match up against several Division-I university programs, one game against Iowa was all it took for the Hawkeyes to become interested in adding the young third baseman and catcher to their roster for the following season.
“On the fall trip we came down and ended up playing Iowa,” Guzzo-Foliaro said. “Dan [Bleiwas] has a decent relationship with head coach [Rick] Heller and I had a good day there. I hit well in [batting practice] and had a good day against some of their good pitchers and at the end of the game when we were eating they came up and said, ‘Hey, we were wondering if you wanted to play here.’
“They said they would talk to me after the fall trip when I got my offers together from other schools, and in November they gave me a call…In early March when we went down [for spring training] to Vero Beach I got the final call and we decided on a good deal that would be beneficial for me and my family and I signed at the signing deadline.”
Not only did the high-school aged program help Guzzo-Foliaro get to where he is now, but it also helped him to prepare for what to expect at the next level and get him ready for the collegiate ranks.
“The whole program, starting with Sean Travers and Pat Visca and the coaches there [got me ready],” he said. “Then playing for Dino [Roumel] and finally playing for Dan – if you work hard you’ll get rewarded. They build a good mental work ethic for players and it’s the guys who really want it that will be able to do something that they actually want to do with it and the guys who just show up don’t.”
Guzzo-Foliaro is grateful for the time and preparation he was afforded by the Ontario Blue Jays when he was a part of the program, but also for the ability to head back home and continue to use the facility now. The OBJ brotherhood is where he first met regional foe and Missouri State shortstop Joey Hawkins before playing against the Bears earlier this season and again at Hammons Field on Saturday.
“I’m thankful for all the coaches and I still have really good relationships with all the coaches there. It helps being able to go in there and work at what you can do every day and getting better,” Guzzo-Foliaro said. “It’s great. And then obviously you meet guys like Hawkins and you build relationships.”
Added Hawkins, Bears senior infielder: “It’s just exciting to have a bunch of Canadians down here … We played Iowa earlier this year with Guzzo, who is from Whitby, where I’m from, so just to kind of connect with them in the States is fun … I’ll pull for some of the Canadians in different regionals, but once I get out on the field it will be about Missouri State and getting the wins.”
In his first season with the Hawkeyes, Guzzo-Foliaro started 15 games on the road to the school’s first NCAA regional appearance in a decade-and-a-half, the majority of those games behind the plate. He collected hits in his first four career games and was named the Big Ten conference freshman of the week in mid-February. He hit .217 with a double and seven RBIs.
“It’s awesome,” he said. “I love Coach Heller, [hitting coach Marty] Sutherland, [pitching coach Scott] Brickman and it’s not every day you get to work with a big leaguer like [former Seattle Mariners backstop] Jeff Clement, [the team’s volunteer assistant coach].
“He’s an ex-pro player in the big leagues [with Seattle and the Pittsburgh Pirates], and I get to work with him as a new catcher. It’s not my top position but getting to work with him makes it a lot more fun because kids don’t get to work with big leaguers every day. He comes in and keeps everybody loose. Baseball-wise, it’s been a blast. There are some days you’re grinding but the guys make it fun to come to the park every day.”
Guzzo-Foliaro caught a little bit with the Ontario Blue Jays program, working with Kyle DeGrace indoors behind the dish as a 16-year-old before catching slightly more with the 17-and-under team the following year. In his final season as a high schooler, the native of Brooklin, Ont., moved permanently to third base and played 90 per cent of his games at the hot corner.
“When I came here I kind of had to start fresh again,” he said. “I had some catching experience, but it’s a lot different from doing nothing and then catching these college pitchers because you have plus arms on the team and you’re used to seeing a flat, 85-mile-an-hour fastball, then you come here and you see 90-plus with arm-side run. It’s been fun. I’m just kind of wearing pitches, taking the pain, and laughing it off with the coach.”
Adjusting to college-level pitching has taken the most getting used to for Guzzo-Foliaro, not just behind the plate but also when he steps up to it.
“Seeing the pitching and facing a lot of the arms [has been hardest],” the freshman said. “At first I thought it was going to be pretty easy. I had a hot start with them and then I had to get adjusted to it and I was seeing pitches in counts that I wasn’t used to. When you’re ahead in the count [at the high-school level] you’re probably going to see a fastball, and here you really don’t know what’s coming.
“Pitchers have a big advantage against guys like me coming in, but hitting is the biggest adjustment. That’s definitely something I can work on and can succeed at though, especially coming in finishing the season and next year for this team for sure.”