CWS Star Calhoun Back In Eau Claire

For two weeks in mid-June baseball fans around the country found out what those in Eau Claire, Wisconsin have already known for two years; that Kole Calhoun is a special player. Calhoun, the 2007 Northwoods League co-MVP, went on a tear during the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska with his Arizona State Sun Devils in front of a national television audience on ESPN. Calhoun was the talk of the tournament prior to the Sun Devils elimination in a heart-breaking 4-3 loss to Texas in the bottom of the ninth inning. This came on the heels of being passed over in the Major League Draft a few days prior to the CWS and prompted the ESPN broadcasters to wonder aloud how he could be so over looked.

“I was pretty disappointed,” Calhoun said before the Express’ game Monday against Mankato. “But after the draft I told Dom (Eau Claire teammate and best friend Dominic Piazza), forget that, I’m just going to go out and be the MVP of the College World Series and prove people wrong.”

If not for two solo homeruns by Texas in the bottom of the ninth inning to erase the Sun Devil lead and put the Longhorns in the championship series with LSU, Calhoun very well may have been named MVP. He was the lone Sun Devil selected to the College World Series all-tournament team, hitting .563 (9 of 16) in four games with 11 RBIs and three home runs. Two of those home runs were off North Carolina relief ace Brian Moran, a 4th round draft choice in this years draft; the same draft that Calhoun was not selected in. The first home run was a 3-run shot in the 10th inning to give ASU a 5-2 victory and the other was a game-tying grand slam four days later to get the Sun Devils out of an early hole and propel them to a come-from-behind win to eliminate the Tar Heels.

“It was unbelievable,” Calhoun said about his CWS experience. “It happened so quick. But I understand now why everyone wants to be there so bad.”

Since the draft Calhoun is now more motivated than ever to prove sceptics wrong and will look to carry over his success with ASU to his third summer with the Express.

“I’ve always played with a chip on my shoulder and why stop now!” he said with a determined smile.

After taking a week off to reflect and rest Calhoun joined the Express Sunday in Green Bay; the same day they clinched the first half South Division title. Calhoun’s popularity in Eau Claire has gone to even new heights after Express fans were able to watch him succeed on the national stage.

“Hey Kole, I saw you on tv!” an avid Express fan excitedly said to him prior to his first game in Eau Claire Monday night. He received a loud ovation as he stepped to the plate for his first at-bat.

The look in field manager Dale Varsho’s eyes said a lot more than his quick, relieved answer of: “Yes,” when asked if he was happy to have Calhoun back. Varsho explained that Calhoun’s attitude and leadership is just as special as his physical ability.

“That is a great example right there,” he said as Calhoun began taking down the batting tunnel on the Carson Park field following Mankato’s batting practice by himself. “This is his third year here, he shouldn’t be doing that stuff. But in two weeks if nobody else is out here helping take care of that he’ll be getting after them to do so.”

Calhoun’s arrival comes at an important time for the Express, who have been hit hard recently with departures in the pitching staff. In 2007 and the first half of 2008 he served as the team’s closer, recording 22 saves over that time and striking out an incredible 65 batters in 37 innings pitched. “He has a big league curveball,” Varsho said to go along with a fastball that topped out at 93 mph Monday night in two hitless innings of relief against the MoonDogs.

After an outstanding 2007 Northwoods League season that saw Calhoun, then a freshman at Yavapai (AZ) Community College, lead the NWL in doubles (19) and runs scored (54) and finish fourth in the league in saves (14) to earn co-MVP honors, Calhoun was repeating his success through 43 games in 2008 before a poor decision cost him the rest of the summer in Eau Claire. He was suspended for the remainder of the season following the All-Star break by the Express for violating team rules. The Express were happy to welcome him back this season however. “I think it really made him better,’ Varsho explained. “I think it humbled him a little bit and he has become a better person for it.”

For Calhoun there was never a question on whether to come back to Eau Claire. “While I was disappointed to not get drafted I also really wanted to come back here and leave on a positive note,” the Buckeye, Arizona native said. “This has been my summer home. I have really enjoyed the league and the town, it has just been a fun place to be.”

Following his final summer in Eau Claire Calhoun will finish up his degree at ASU in Interdisciplinary Studies and look to lead the Sun Devils back to the College World Series in 2010. He will be sure to get his chance at professional baseball following his senior year at ASU.

“There really isn’t anything he can’t do,” Varsho said in reference to Calhoun’s tools that have been overlooked by professional scouts. “He just doesn’t have that projectability they look for. With Kole what you see is what you get.”

The 5’10” 200lb outfielder can take a lesson from his favorite major league player and former Arizona State Sun Devil Dustin Pedroia who has heard the same things from scouts but has gone all the way to being the 2008 American League MVP.

“It’s just motivation to work harder,” Calhoun said.

With the makeup and motivation that Calhoun has, and the tenacity he plays the game with, betting against Calhoun following in Pedroia’s footsteps may not be a smart thing to do.