THOUSAND OAKS, Calif.- Injuries often times end careers, but for Cal Lutheran senior shortstop Austin Kay, his time on the sidelines fueled a fire, introduced a new perspective and ultimately helped him improve his entire game for the baseball program as it has achieved its most productive season in his time as a student-athlete.
Appearing in 39 games as a freshman, in which he earned 23 starts, Kay emerged as one of the top defensive players in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SCIAC). He was involved in 11 double plays and recorded 45 putouts and 72 assists in the middle of the infield. At the plate, he struggled, hitting just .200 with 15 hits, including one triple, in 75 at-bats. He drove in eight and scored nine runs during the spring, but was instrumental in an NCAA Division III West Regional victory over LeTourneau with a game-tying RBI before scoring the ultimate winning run on May 14, 2014. Additionally, he added nine sacrifices for the Kingsmen throughout the season.
While the momentum that he enjoyed at the end of his inaugural campaign should have propelled the Encinitas, Calif. native even more onto the baseball scene as a sophomore, he played just 13 games before a shoulder injury ended his season.
"In a game against Drew (N.J.) early in the year, I slid headfirst into home plate and separated my left shoulder, detaching a ligament and slightly tearing my labrum," he shared.
At the time, Kay had contributed with 23 putouts, 42 assists and was part of five double plays defensively, while notching a .341 batting average with seven RBIs and 11 runs scored as he was riding a five-game hit streak and enjoying a breakout series. He had collected three hits with a pair of walks before scoring seven runs for the Violet and Gold in two games. Unfortunately, the seventh run he scored that weekend would be the last one of his 2015 season. Though Kay tried to grit it out and play through the injury, three games later his season ended and rehabilitation began in the hopes that he could avoid having surgery.
Following a lot of time in the training room and work on his own to strengthen his shoulder and stay in baseball shape, he returned to the diamond in 2016 as a junior. Kay took the field in 18 games, making 16 starts at short, before he reinjured the shoulder and was forced into surgery that he so diligently tried to evade. Again, he had struggled at the plate, hitting at a .200 clip with two homeruns, 13 RBIs and 11 runs scored, while having a hand in 11 double plays with 23 putouts and 62 assists.
Surgery was successful and extensive physical therapy ensued. In the longest stint away from the field in his life, Kay was motivation by being involved in all facets of the team and program despite not being able to play.
"My main goal was to come back stronger physically and mentally after surgery," he said, "I was able to be in the dugout and at practice afterwards, which helped me stay in a baseball mindset."
What Kay did not realize at the time was that his injury opened a new door that ultimately helped him more than it hurt to be sidelined.
"Being in the dugout allowed me to study the game at a deeper level while not on the field, which was something I had never really done before," he went on, "This also kept me around my teammates, who were some of my biggest motivators to come back as they were always there with words of encouragement and helped keep me a part of the team."
That brings Kay to his final campaign. A senior leader for the Kingsmen, he has worked tirelessly to get back to the place he loves and not only has he done that, but he is enjoying the most productive season of his career. He has been instrumental in turning 27 double plays and has provided 141 assists and 63 putouts in 42 games at shortstop.
Kay is batting .336 with 48 hits, including seven doubles and a triple, with 19 RBIs and 22 runs for the Violet and Gold, while stealing 11 bases and providing 10 sacrifices.
He has gone full circle, experiencing all the ups and downs of collegiate athletics, but his run is not quite over yet.
During each year, he has learned and grown as a baseball player, leader and person. The years in which he has been part of the baseball program at CLU, the Kingsmen have earned four straight SCIAC titles, three SCIAC Postseason Tournament championships and three trips to the NCAA Division III Regionals. No season has been more successful than the one that is still going. The team traveled back to California from Texas with a Regional Champion trophy for the first time of his career and the squad is headed to Appleton, Wis., the place every Division III baseball player dreams of ending his season.
There is a difference between the current crew and the teams of the past, which have come up short of that vision and objective.
"This 2017 team is something special because we have true camaraderie," Kay added, "All of our guys have really bought into what we are trying to do and we really are a group of brothers, a goal our senior class was trying to achieve."
The brotherhood that has formed includes every guy from the top of the order to the last player off the bench and it has made all the difference in the world.
"We all hang out together and include everyone in everything we do, because we know we need every one of us to step up when our time is called. We have found a team identity of ragging on our own guys to keep loose when we play," Kay noted.
That is not the only factor in the success that Cal Lutheran has enjoyed this spring.
"Our team motto for the year is 'Win the Inches' and I believe we have done that on and off the field," he continued, "We have won the inches, on the field by hustling, grinding, and doing our individual jobs with the team in mind and off the field with the brotherhood we have created to include everyone - senior to freshman to transfer. This is why our team has been so successful through the season and has advanced to the College World Series."
The checklist for the Kingsmen has one more box to fill and the opportunity to complete that list is at their fingertips.
Cal Lutheran (35-10) won the NCAA Division III West Region championship last weekend in Tyler, Texas and the Kingsmen open play at the 2017 College World Series in Appleton, Wis. on Friday, May 26 at 5:45 p.m. (PST) against Wheaton (Mass.). The National Championship Tournament is an eight-team, double-elimination format.
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